A young person’s suicide: Four possible myths
If you have a friend or family member whose child committed suicide, please….
Don’t judge the child or the parent. Just listen and be present.
Don’t assume you understand even one of the dynamics at play.
Don’t try to determine or dismiss “fault”. Sidestep the word completely.
Create a safe listening environment for your loved one to explore any feeling, say anything, or know that they need never speak of the details of the death again – you will follow their lead and be supportive. Express this to them clearly.
Expect anger, guilt, depression, and a very long and complex grieving cycle.
Feel and really understand that they deserve the same compassion you would offer if the child had been murdered by a stranger.
Suggest professional support if you sense their grief is beyond their ability to cope.
If you are the parent of a “child” (any age) who committed suicide…. consider these possible myths.
Myth #1: A close family member must have seen it coming.
A sober young man, 19, swallows a handful of his father’s prescription drugs, retreats to his bedroom with a video camera, and locks the door. He sets the video camera on a stand and aims it at the bed, turns it on. He sits on the edge of the bed in his undershorts and t-shirt and waves once, almost offhandedly, while looking into the camera. He then turns off the light and lies down. The room now is illuminated only by the light of a half moon.
Later, no perceptible moment of death is discernable on tape. Instead, police officers are left watching a four-hour recording of a shadow in the gloomy room. It’s a recording that will haunt some of them forever, though this particular suicide “note” is neither poignant nor bizarre; it is anti-climatic, really.
This was one of many scenes I was called to when I served a police department as a crisis interventionist, since I did death notifications for all three shifts. While the methods varied – shotgun blasts, hangings, drugs, and even a dramatic lakeside death-by-cop scenario once – one thing remained constant: 99.5% of the time the deceased left behind baffled family members who really did not see it coming, and therefore could not explain it to law enforcement, let alone to themselves or the community.
In such cases, police departments always attempt to reconstruct the immediate past, and more precisely, the preceding 24 hours. I had a chance (with investigating detectives) to analyze information not usually available to grief or death counselors. After the facts all were assimilated — the past 24 hours reconstructed as closely and factually as possible — the “why” of suicide almost always remained a mystery to us. And that’s the real truth of most CSI units; a suicide “how they did it” might be explained readily, but seldom why they did it.
The exception (the only one I recall) happened one night after my police partner tried to talk down a potential suicide with a loaded shotgun on the other side of a locked door. The girlfriend explained that he had been depressed and was drinking. She’d had a recent affair, he’d lost his job, they were broke, they’d had a terrible fight, and their baby wouldn’t stop crying. There were a lot of stressors in place that night when he pulled the trigger, but we at least had some idea why.
That was the only case that I remember that ever offered such a clear-cut explanation, and even that explanation was fell short of why the ultimate cat-and-mouse game went so badly.
Most young people who commit suicide don’t have such clear-cut pressures. It’s a Tuesday in March or a Sunday in September, not usually Christmas or a birthday or the anniversary of anything significant. However, the parent doesn’t return to anything resembling normal. The child seemingly escapes a hell that the parents failed to fully recognize (perhaps a hell that only began a few minutes before in their head, or a few days earlier, or a year or two prior). And in the process of freeing themselves of that burden, the child condemns the parents to a different future too – a living hell that will last for the rest of their lives.
That’s the nature and reality of a suicide. There is no "Because" left behind.
Myth #2: A family member or best friend could possibly have prevented it.
Here’s what I know from interviewing young people who made serious suicide attempts that failed: no one could have prevented them from doing it. They’ve told me that straight up. Usually no one saw it coming and no one could have stopped them. Many had tried at least once before and were interrupted (by someone who had no idea what they interrupted) and so they simply waited for the next opportunity.
A police chaplain told me of a situation he faced with a bereaved parent that I think best illustrates my point. This mother’s 11-year old daughter had killed herself by ingesting Drano. “It’s my fault for buying it,” the mother sobbed. “I never should have brought it into the house. Then she’d still be alive.”
The chaplain had the difficult task of convincing the guilt-ridden (and, he believed, now suicidal) mother that if the Drano had not been in the house, the daughter likely would have stabbed herself or jumped off the roof. Pills, not so likely. It was his experience that it was unlikely the child stumbled across the Drano in the cabinet under the sink where it had always been in the house and thought, “Here’s Drano – why don’t I drink it to kill myself?”
Rather, it was his belief that his child most likely intended to hurt herself and likely went looking for a method. Did she fully realize she could die? We don’t know. Did she intend to die? Only the child knew the answer to that, and she took it with her.
Why did she do it? That’s what the mother was now dying (the chaplain feared) to know.
Maybe it was because of a cruel remark made by a classmate. Maybe it was because she was having a hard time with a school subject. Maybe it was because she heard voices that told her to do it. Maybe there was absolutely no reason at all; it was a one-second decision of the most inexplicable kind. No one will ever know. But the child was pretty determined to do something drastic that she could not easily “take back” if she changed her mind, and no mother would ever have a reason to predict that her daughter would swallow a can of Drano.
This chaplain also had dealt with the family of a six year old who hung himself with a necktie tied to a doorknob, and the wife of a 30-year old who drove a truck into a tree. Same message: no one can predict suicide unless a person states that they intend to do it, and way too few ever really announce such plans. On television, yes. But in reality, no.
Myth #3: A young adult has no reason to kill himself or herself.
Young adults, especially teens, have reasons we can’t comprehend. Just as many women don’t remember every second of childbirth, adults oftentimes forget or minimize the real anguish of a puppy love going south; the self hatred that flares as easily as a blemish, and the deeper wonder of “why should I live?” that teenagers routinely struggle with.
Eyes have to acclimate to the dark to see clearly in a night environment. A teenager enters the confusing shaded world of adulthood. While adults see shades of gray in everyday hypocrisies, adolescents still have one foot in the black-and-white world they’ve lived in for most of their lives. They see best when interpretations are either black or white, not shades of gray. If they can’t trust a significant person the same way they always have – a girlfriend, a best friend, a teacher, a parent – then who or what can they trust? “Why should I live?” expands to “why should I live in such a flawed world?” Everything is dramatic and urgent and being judged as to true or false, right or wrong.
We are of different places in time and we are far more different than alike developmentally. But we forget that when looking into a face or at a body that seems more adult than child-like. Adolescents live in the netherworld between two realities.
The urge to die for some adolescents is no more logically thought out than an adult’s impulse to take a different street when they realize they are lost in a strange neighborhood suddenly perceived to have hidden dangers. They see an intersection – an exit sign — and how can it be worse than where they are? It’s just a different neighborhood, perhaps. They’ll see when they get there.
I swear to you, I am not trying to make you feel better about anything, but only relaying what I know. Many young people do not consider much beyond a “change of scenery” logic when they pull the trigger of a gun or jump off a beam with a rope around their neck. I’ve interviewed enough young people who have failed at suicide attempts to make that statement with confidence.
Myth #4: I am a failure as a parent (or) my child failed me. Someone is to “blame” here.
This is a form of adult black-and-white thinking. The truth more likely is a shade of gray. I’m coming back around to the childbirth analogy, which I ask you to forgive in advance, but it’s the best way I know to explain this concept.
I entered the hospital ready to do whatever it meant to transition into motherhood again with the pending birth of my third child. However, I didn’t and couldn’t have anticipated the intensity or the duration of the pain. Hours into it, even my husband began to regard me with a sort of fake empathy. Neither he nor the medical staff realized my tailbone was broken or that I really was over my pain-bearing tolerance with the child’s head lodged against the broken bone and contractions beating both of us down. I actually became deaf with pain; and thought I would die a horrible death if I couldn’t make it stop. So I turned my head and bit my upper right arm hard enough to break the skin – just to feel a different pain and to divert my own attention away from the more constant and untenable pain elsewhere.
I did not fail anyone in that irrational moment, nor did I want to horrify or hurt someone else or even myself. I just wanted to move the pain. I needed a more immediate and fresh pain to divert my own attention from the constant agony I felt elsewhere.
It’s a sad analogy to make, even a pathetic one, I realize, if you are reading this while grieving your child’s suicide. Your child’s reflex or decision had much greater impact than my bite on my arm, but I ask you to consider that your child perhaps had reached the end of their pain tolerance for a mental or emotional injury no one else could comprehend or recognize. Perhaps they wanted to move a pain – one you had no reason to suspect, anticipate or understand the depths of, and one you may never fully comprehend.
Consider that they did it without thoughts of what it would do to you, without wanting to condemn you to hell, and without feeling your finger on the trigger or your push from behind on the beam. I don’t know your circumstance, but I’m familiar with the urge to die and the pain and capriciousness of youth — the actions without thought or regard to consequences, or the disparity between an adult and adolescent viewpoint.
Thank you for considering my views and for visiting The Bereaved Parent’s Watering Hole. I hope you find some reason to come back or to add to our collective pool of experience and honest empathy.