Monday, June 29, 2020

Surviving A Parent’s Death by Suicide

[Reviewed and updated March 26, 2024]

We cannot tear out a single page of our life, but we can throw the whole book in the fire.  
~ George Sand

A reader writes: My dad died by suicide early yesterday morning. He was pained not only with losing my mom, but with so many other losses in our family too. I don’t know if anger is supposed to be the first feeling but I’m angry. Since my wife's miscarriages and our struggles with infertility, we've had to cope with our losses too, and we're seeing a counselor for that together. I don’t know. I just don’t know what to make of this. I’m just trying to wrap my head around it. I can’t escape what I witnessed. I can’t believe this has happened. I can’t believe I found my dad like I did. I will never forget that image.
It is horrifying. One has no idea unless they’ve experienced it. I’m his son. He could have come to me. I would have helped him. Now it’s all gone. And there are no words. Nothing is left.

My response: When death happens this way I think it's completely understandable that the first feeling you have is anger. It's that "how could he do this to us?" feeling, along with all the other unanswered questions. As you say, your dad was not alone in his grief: both you and your wife have had to cope with your losses too ~ so I hope you will give yourselves permission to feel whatever you are feeling. Being angry with your dad doesn't mean that you've stopped loving him. Feelings are neither right or wrong; they just are. And suicide is one of the most difficult, most complex deaths to understand. I hope and pray that you will avail yourselves of all the information and support you can find to help you through this. I am here for you and I can point you to those resources, but it will be up to you to find them and use them. See for example Grief Support for Survivors of Suicide Loss.

You are absolutely right that you cannot escape what you have witnessed, but that does not mean that you will never come to terms with it or that nothing can be done to help you. I know you’ve indicated that you and your wife have been seeing a counselor, and I hope with all my heart that you are receiving the support you need, not only as a couple mourning the deaths of your babies, but also as individuals coping with the tragic and traumatic suicide of your father. As I’ve stated elsewhere, a suicide death is one of the most challenging for survivors because of the troubling questions raised: not only about your dad’s state of mind and your own inability to prevent his death, but also about the forces that would permit so much unspeakable pain and sorrow to happen to your family. The level of grief you and your wife are experiencing seems beyond our understanding, and surely too much for you to bear.

While we all can certainly understand your dad’s desperate need to escape his pain, and at that moment death may have seemed to him the only way to end it, his decision has left all of you who knew and loved him with overwhelming pain of your own. For that, I am so sorry.

I don’t know if you’ve considered participating in a support group apecifically aimed at survivors of suicide loss, but I sincerely hope that you will do so. Such a group can help you and your family members come to terms with this horrific loss.

In addition, as you have clearly noted, you’re finding it difficult if not impossible to erase the horrible images of having found your dad the way you did. Such an experience calls for more than traditional counseling or grief therapy. As you’ve discovered already, seeing your dad’s body at the scene of his suicide can have enormous staying power, as those terrifying images linger and intrude into your daytime thoughts and may be causing nightmares as you sleep. Expert clinicians have developed a number of specialized procedures for working with such troubling imagery in grief therapy, including EMDR (see In Grief: Using Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprossessing (EMDR). Such “prolonged exposure” therapy involves specific, trauma-focused processing of your horrific experience. That is, with therapeutic support from and careful management by a therapist who specializes in trauma treatment, you would be led to recall and confront the hardest details of your dad’s suicide and what you saw, in a sort of slow-motion review of the imagery and feelings associated with it. I hope you will discuss this kind of specific, trauma-focused therapy with the counselor you are seeing now, and if he or she does not offer it, enlist his or her help in finding it.

I am reminded of a statement by Dr. Robert Neimeyer, one of the foremost experts in the field of grief and loss. He writes,
When the losses keep going and going, with no end in sight, survivors often experience a kind of ‘chronic sorrow’ that defies the usual expectations for grief ‘recovery’ (if indeed one can ever truly use that word when losses are profound).  Different from both major depression and angry resignation, chronic sorrow can entail a sense of disillusionment in life, a recognition of our collective vulnerability, and an impatience with the petty preoccupations of many in the social world.  Integrated in an adaptive way, it can in time become a source of depth and wisdom–though the price paid for this, with no prospect of a refund, continues to feel disproportionate.
I wish only the best for you and your family, my friend. I keep you in my thoughts and prayers, and I hope you know how very much you are loved.

I thought of you when I read this piece earlier, and I hope  you will take this man's message to heart: Strength in Weakness  ♥

Afterword: Thank you for the resources Marty. I’ve started reading them. The one about how to tell a child involves telling a nine year old boy as well. We told our son about his grandpa. We were very honest with him. 

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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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