Death of a son by suicide: A mother's ongoing journey through the loss.
**Trigger Warning** This piece discusses a mother’s extraordinarily tough journey regarding the death of her child by suicide. While it describes her grieving experience, some people might find it too overwhelming or triggering. If you or someone you know is suicidal, please contact your physician, go to your local ER, or call the suicide prevention hotline 1-800-784-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE).
Every day, someone in our community experiences the death of a child. It matters not the age of the parent or the age of the child. It matters not the cause of the death. It matters not if you cared for your child through their illness, knowing that ultimately death would be the outcome, nor if it was the police knocking at your door delivering horrendously shocking news. It is a devastating loss. It is gut wrenching. It overwhelms the mind. And yes, it is heartbreaking. It is said that losing a child is the worst tragedy anyone should have to face. I agree. Thirty one years ago when my son David was 5 days past his 19th birthday, I had a knock at my door.
When I discovered David had not come home from work, I phoned friends, acquaintances, and his manager but no one had an answer for me or shared any concerns about his mental health. The RCMP accepted my request for a Missing Persons file and then we waited. I walked the streets, I put up fliers, and I tried to connect with the bus drivers whose buses he would have taken home, all to no avail. Then came that knock at my door. The police believed they had found David below Lions Gate Bridge, an apparent suicide. I would have to go to the hospital to confirm identification. On the long drive to the hospital I could only hope that it was not David. But, it was him and my world as I knew it, came suddenly crashing down.
There were no comforting words in the morgue, no offers of support, just paperwork to sign. I now had to tell my girls that their big brother would never be coming home. They were the 3 musketeers -David, the eldest, followed 12 months later by Kate and then 22 months later by Sam. They were very close and we were a tight and loving unit. I now had to make the calls to my parents, my in-laws, my ex-husband, my friends, David’s friends, and my coworkers. Every call I made was increasingly painful; all the while trying to comfort Kate and Sam. I don’t know how I got through the next week, and the weeks, and months that followed. There were times that I did not want to live but I knew I had to. There were times that I just wanted to let myself fall apart. I got counseling for my girls. I recommended pastoral support and a bereavement group at our church for my parents. But what about me?
There are said to be 5 stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In addition to these stages, survivors of a loved one who has died by suicide can also experience shame, guilt, and blame. I experienced all of these stages and feelings, jumping back and forth. At times the feelings were overwhelming, sudden, and seemingly out of nowhere. There were also feelings of confusion, despair, helplessness, loneliness and abandonment. There were no answers as to why he would do this. No one could identify any stressors or mood changes.
My identity was challenged, both personally and professionally. I am a Registered Nurse. I worked in mental health on the North Shore, on Inpatient Psychiatry, in Emergency as a Psychiatric Emergency Nurse and then as a Community Mental Health Nurse from 1984 until my retirement. All of my beliefs about my professional life and my abilities were shattered. If I had not been able to see that my son was struggling, how could I possibly continue in my work?
My children were my world, and as a single parent since they were young, I was focused on being both a mother and father: loving, guiding, being involved in their academic life, social life, extracurricular activities, and generally being their best support. My dreams of the future of our family suddenly changed forever. I was lost and empty. There were many days I did have support from family, friends, coworkers, and from unexpected sources, from people that I didn’t know or know well. This lifted me up and boosted my belief in the kindness and compassion of others. I know that it can be difficult to find the words to express sympathy and support, but unfortunately, there were also unkind (I believe unthinking) comments, sometimes cruel, and some even callous and ruthless.
PLEASE HELP ME MEND MY BROKEN HEART AND LET ME LIVE AGAIN
Eventually, I realized I needed more than emotional support from my inner circle. I needed professional help. I connected with SAFER (Suicide Attempt Follow-up, Education and Research) in Vancouver where I received individual counselling for a number of months and then attended 2 group sessions with other people who had lost someone to suicide . This was both powerful and beneficial. I found my feelings and experiences were not just mine, but shared by many members of the group. I did not feel so alone. I then joined Compassionate Friends, a peer group for parents who have experienced the loss of a child, no matter the cause. This too was a safe place to share what I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with friends and family.
In addition to addressing one's emotional health, I know it’s equally important to pay attention to physical health. Grief causes physical changes and risks - bodily aches and pains, decreases in immunity and therefore increases the susceptibility to illness, decreased quality of sleep, increased blood pressure, irregular heart rate, changes in weight, brain fog and memory loss. I had poor quality of sleep - vivid dreams, frequent wakeful periods during the night. My brain did not function normally. I had lapses in time and memory loss. I also experienced panic attacks-one time leaving a buggy full of groceries and exiting the store while struggling with shortness of breath and my heart beating out of my chest. I knew it was important to have a daily routine of self care, exercise-even a short walk, eating regularly, choosing healthy foods, and using relaxation techniques to help improve sleep. It is also helpful to avoid the use of substances that can give temporary relief, but prolong the grief process and increase the risk of physical complications.
I found that going for a daily walk to be most helpful, picking either seaside or forested areas
to be soothing, and focusing on my surroundings rather than on my thoughts. These walks were the focus of my guided imagery relaxation at night or when anxiety was building. The five senses mindfulness technique of noticing what I saw, what I heard, what I smelled, what I tasted, and what I physically felt in a moment helped to keep me grounded-one moment at a time.
I have learned that grief can last a lifetime. It comes and goes, varying in intensity and length of time. From angry, crashing waves, pounding on the shore, to gentle lapping waves. Anniversary and birthday dates, holidays, and special occasions can still have a quiet painful sadness for those who are missing a loved one. Although it has been 31 years, and David would be 50 years old, I find December and January to be still challenging. There is an empty stocking, an empty chair at Christmas, and January seems to loom over all the festivities. January is the month of David’s birthday and the anniversary of his death. At this time of year it's typical to reflect on one’s past life. It is easy for me to fall into what is missing in my life, feel the hole in my heart, and revisit my questions about David’s choice and why I didn’t see his struggle. I try, with varying success, to stop these thoughts. I try to focus on what blessings I have in my life and making the most of them. Most significantly, I focus on what wonderful memories I have of the short time I had with my wonderful son.
The following suicide and grief support resources are available. I encourage people to connect with which resources are best for them and allow the healing to continue:
1) BC Bereavement Helpline - can access updated contact information for organizations who provide support for those coping with grief and loss. They also offer compassionate listening for anyone in distress.
604-738-9950 or firstname.lastname@example.org
2) Crisis Centre of BC - offers suicide grief support groups.
604- 872-3311 or email@example.com
3) Peace Arch Hospice-counselling, support groups, youth support, walking groups, relaxation sessions, vigil support, and workshops.
4) Compassionate Friends - peer support group which offers understanding, friendship and support. ‘You need not walk alone'
Burnaby Group -
778-222-0446 or VancouverbbyTCF@hotmail.com
604-807-8266 or Abbotsford@tcfcanada.net
5) Valleyview Funeral Home - offers an 8 week peer support group for survivors of those impacted by a loved one’s suicide (also homicide and substance related deaths) . These groups are offered approximately 2X/year, facilitated by a therapist at no cost. Contact: Tricia @ 604-312-0484