Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My 17 year old son took his own life not even a month ago. I find I can’t even type the details. He used a shotgun in our basement. Our whole family found him shortly afterwards.
I recently read about “atypical depression” which very well described Edward’s condition. He was doing well. He was brilliant, funny, caring, compassionate and had good friends. He had the support and respect of his college aged gaming community. He was seeing a therapist. He had plans for the future. He knew he was well loved. He was successful in school and in the activities he loved best. He certainly had moments of great joy.
However, he also was occasionally moody, and had bouts of depression from which he seemed to bounce back. In his final note he said he didn’t believe he could change, that it wasn’t in his DNA or character. He reiterated how vehemently he was opposed to medication because it would change who he was. That he hoped we understood that he was going to be honest and true to himself to the very end.
He and I were very, very close. We talked about everything. I gave him all the time he needed and unconditional love beyond measure. He promised me he would always talk to me when he was down. And he did. Many times.
I’m now inconsolable. Did I miss a clue? Why didn’t he talk to me? I’ve spent my entire life devoted to being the best Mom to all of my sons. How could I have been so blind to Edward’s last despair? I’ve been so in tune with him for so long. His therapist told me she didn’t see ANYTHING to be concerned about. She called him “the great pretender.”
The very night before his suicide, I asked him how he was doing. He said, “I’m fine, Mom,” and hugged me. It was kind of a joke between us; and I asked, “No, really, how are you doing son?” He looked me right in the eye and said, “Really, Mom. I’m fine.” We hugged again and I told him I loved him.
I’m a wreck. We all are. We started individual and family therapy. I journal. I draw. I’ve written his friends to share memories and many have.
Even though he wrote to me in his note that he knew how much I loved him, thanked me for my support and always standing up for him, he also said he imagined my face when I saw him dead and it made him sad. Then said he loved me and that he would continue to love me even after his heart stopped beating, I’m not feeling comforted.
I cry and cry and cry and cry. I’m not sleeping or eating and am deeply depressed. (Started an antidepressant a week ago). I cannot imagine a life without Edward. He was my heart. I have frequent panic attacks and have to take an anti-anxiety medication because I am hysterical.
My main question is: Is it common with atypical depression to miss signs?
What else can I do to help my family now? I’m so useless. I’m not functioning. I can’t cook. I can’t do much of anything except cry, write and draw. Not much of that either because I can’t focus.
Tragically, many survivors of suicide would no doubt identify with your sense of shock, horror and self-reproach in the aftermath of a family member’s suicide, which evidence suggests hits mothers especially hard. Especially when one has strived for a lifetime to “be in tune” with a deeply loved child, through triumphs and tribulations of all kinds, it can seem impossible that one “missed the signs” of imminent self-destruction. And yet, especially when our loved one masked an underlying hopelessness, sense of alienation or perceived burdensomeness with a sense of equanimity and reassurance–especially, as is often the case, once a highly lethal suicide plan has already been decided on, the cues are often few and faint, and hard to distinguish from other troubled times from which he or she had “bounced back” before. Ironically, the same brilliance and compassion that Edward evidently displayed in abundance could also be drawn upon to conceal his fatalism and “protect” you from his growing depression or despair. As a result, you, like far too many suicide survivors, are left replaying the tragedy without answers to your anguished questions, and blaming yourself for failing to discern his secret intents and avert the trauma of his dying.
What then can you do to help yourself and your family now? One answer would be to be compassionate to yourself. You are unlikely to be cruelly accusing other family members of inattention to Edward’s pain, so try to treat yourself with the same understanding. Recognize that the terrible isolation of suicide loss might call not only for the professional therapy that you have sought, but also for the community of others who have known some version of the same pain. Mutual support groups for suicide survivors online Alliance of Hope [Click Here] or optimally in person through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Support Groups [Click Here] can help restore a sense of connection in the face of stigmatizing loss, just as internet resources like the thoughtful Grief After Suicide blog [Click Here] can help provide provisional answers to the many questions that arise in the wake of such loss.
And finally, recognize that finding one’s footing in the world again after suicide bereavement is a longer term proposition, not something that can be measured in a few weeks or months. My advice in this regard is to start small, and stay connected. Collaborate with your family to prepare a meal together. Go for a walk with your husband daily. Make an effort to stay involved in the lives of your other sons, and open to their grief about your common loss. Share your art and journaling with responsive others, both professional and in your world of family and friends when it feels appropriate to do so. It is clear that, despite his pain, Edward loved you greatly, and adopting a loving attitude toward yourself even in your grief can meaningfully extend a positive legacy of his life, and help recapture it from the overshadowing circumstance of his tragic death.