Finding Comfort and Meaning After a Child’s Suicide

Feb. 16, 2023 – Janet Shedd lost her youngest son to suicide 7 years ago.

“Tom had suffered from depression for about 9 months. We had gotten counseling for him, and he had been taking medication. We thought things were starting to turn around,” says Shedd, who lives in Kentucky. 

But as soon as he turned 18 and was legally allowed to buy a gun, he died by suicide. Shedd’s life was shattered. “After his death, I became the walking wounded. It was hard to function,” she says. “I spent days crying and not getting out of bed.”

She calls the loss “devastating because, as a parent, one of your major functions is to keep your child safe. When you’re not able to do that – usually through no fault of your own – you go through a lot of guilt.” 

Shedd is far from alone. In 2020, suicide was the second leading cause of death in youngsters and young adults (ages 10 to 34) and the 12th leading cause of death in the U.S..

And more young people are apparently considering taking their own lives. 

Just this week, the CDC released a study showing a crisis in mental health among teen girls. The report found girls are experiencing record high levels of sexual violence, and nearly 3 in 5 girls report feeling persistently sad or hopeless.

Nearly one-third of girls (30%) reported seriously considering suicide, up from 19% in 2011. In teenage boys, serious thoughts of suicide increased from 13% to 14% from 2011 to 2021. The percentage of teenage girls who had attempted suicide in 2021 was 13%, nearly twice that of teenage boys (7%).

All these hurting children, and all those lost lives, have left a significant number of bereaved parents.

No Universal Pattern

William Feigelman, PhD, a professor emeritus of sociology at Nassau Community College in Garden City, NY, lost a son to suicide 20 years ago. 

“He had a lot of winning characteristics, was engaged to be married, and was getting ahead in the film industry,” Feigelman says. “We were shocked and stunned, and it was the worst experience of our lives.”

It turned out that their son had been “coming off a drug high in an industry where drugs are commonplace and was depressed and self-punishing at the time.” 

The decision to die by suicide is complex and shouldn’t be reduced to single issues, Feigelman says. 

“Drugs are common and played a role in my son’s suicide. But people take their lives for a variety of reasons. Maybe something went wrong. They were jilted by a girlfriend or boyfriend or lost their job. They feel dishonored and humiliated and can’t face other people. Maybe they feel they’ve let their families down. They’re in deep psychic pain and see suicide as the only way out.”

Traditional bullying and cyberbullying have played a role in suicides of youngsters. Last week, a 14-year-old girl in New Jersey died by suicide. She had been beaten up in school, with a video of the assault posted online afterward. Unfortunately, many parents aren’t aware if their child is being bullied. The girl’s father says the school and the school district have not done enough to respond. 

Just being aware of a child’s mental health problems doesn’t guarantee they’ll be resolved, Feigelman says. Many parents have struggled, “going from one clinic to another, one medication to another, and never successfully getting the right kind of help for their child who was in pain.” 

On the other hand, some parents have seemingly successful, high-functioning children “who suddenly have one mishap – such as a bad math test – which pushes them over the edge into suicide, and they feel they can’t go home and tell their parents about it.”

The point, according to Feigelman, is that “the reasons for suicide vary from case to case, with no universal pattern.” 

A Combination of Events

Erin Hawley and Angela Wiese agree. They are sisters in Lexington, KY, who lost children to suicide. 

Wiese’s oldest son, Mason, died by suicide when he was 19 years old. She describes him as a “quiet kid, but also fun, outgoing and athletic, with lots of friends.” 

“He had just graduated from high school and was going through a transitional time,” she says. “He wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college, so he enlisted in the Navy Reserves on a delayed entry.”

She wonders if he was overwhelmed or stressed by his schooling or perhaps didn’t want to open up to his family out of fear of upsetting them.  “We don’t know why he chose to kill himself. It’s hard to pinpoint one thing.”

Then, 23 months later, Wiese’s 18-year-old son, Ethan, also took his life. “We didn’t realize at the time how much at risk Ethan was after Mason’s suicide. We now believe he was struggling and just didn’t know how to cope with that loss,” she says.

Hawley, whose 13-year-old daughter, Myra, also died by suicide, says her daughter’s death was particularly shocking and “came out of the blue” because she “came from a family who already had two children – her first cousins – die by suicide, and we talked about it all the time in our house.”

For Hawley, the “hardest part was her choosing not to tell us that she was struggling or having these thoughts and that she wanted to kill herself. I never imagined we would lose another child to suicide in our family.”

Some research suggests that the risk of suicide is higher in those who have been bereaved by another family member or close friend’s suicide. But Feigelman says that multiple suicides in the same family are “relatively rare.”

And Hawley has learned that the motives for suicide are “unique to every situation, and it’s usually a ‘perfect storm’ of several events, some of which may be common, everyday things that parents may think they understand and can connect to.” 

At the end of the day, “our children were the only people who knew the reasons, and we don’t want to speculate,” Hawley says.

Get the Best Support

After her older son’s death, Wiese “reached out to resources and grief therapists, but they didn’t have experience with suicide grief and the understanding how complicated a suicide grief is to the bereaved, especially to a sibling. Ethan was mourning the loss of his brother, as we all were, but he did not have the coping skills to handle his grief.” 

Wiese recommends that parents seeking help after a child’s suicide – for themselves or their other children – should “find professionals and support systems that deal specifically with suicide bereavement.”

Shedd agrees. “My advice to other parents is to know you’re not alone. One of the best things I did was to hook up with someone else who had gone through the experience of losing a child to suicide, which was a touchstone during the early days,” she says. “Having someone to talk to who had been through it and was standing upright and functioning in the world was incredibly helpful to me.”

Feigelman and his wife, Beverly Feigelman, a licensed social worker, joined support groups for people who lost loved ones to suicide. Eventually, they founded a support group of their own – Long Island Survivors of Suicide.

“The group is still flourishing, and we’ve been running it for the last 15 years,” Feigelman says. “It’s important to be with people who have sustained a similar loss because we have unique issues that don’t affect people bereaved by other losses – we’re racked by guilt, shame, and anger toward the loved one who died by suicide, and we’re shaken and mystified that our children, whom we loved and even thought we knew well, could take their own life.” 

Turning Pain Into Purpose

“I’m definitely in a better place than I was immediately after Tom’s death,” Shedd says. “Time helps, and you move slowly forward. But even 7 years later, it’s still very fresh, and little things can tick off the memories – if I see someone who looks like him walking down the street, for example. And of course, you miss your child forever.”

Nevertheless, “Helping other people who have gone through this type of loss and working to change things has been very helpful.”

Shedd became involved in advocating for changes in gun laws. “If I can save someone else from going through a similar tragedy, this honors Tom, and that’s a comfort,” she says.

After the death of her second son, Wiese founded Brothers’ Run, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising money for suicide prevention efforts within schools and communities. The money also supports critical services and mental health professionals who care for suicide-bereaved families. 

“Since losing my sweet boys, I’ve found that pain can be turned into purpose,” says Wiese.

Beyond running the support group, Feigelman and his wife joined forces with two psychologists to conduct a large study of people bereaved by suicide, including 462 parents. And together, they also wrote Devastating Losses, a book for health care professionals working with suicide-bereaved family members.

Some parents may not be drawn to involvement in volunteer work, advocacy, or similar activities. But there are still many healing approaches, including spiritual practice, yoga, mindfulness, art, and physical exercise. 

“But I think the most helpful thing is working with a good, trained clinician and getting the support of other parents,” Feigelman says. “Engaging with other bereaved parents contributes to posttraumatic growth.”

Shedd says her posttraumatic growth led to a deepening of empathy and compassion. 

“I hesitate to say this because some people might regard it as a punch in the face, but a mentor told me, ‘You’re going to get gifts from this experience.’ I didn’t want any ‘gifts.’ I just wanted my child back. But I have to admit that – although I would never have chosen to pay the price for these ‘gifts’ – what happened has indeed changed me into a better person.”

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Healing and Rebuilding Your Life After a Spouse’s Suicide

Jan. 24, 2023 — Betsy Gall, a real estate agent, seemed to have everything: three children, a comfortable home, a handsome, “life-of-the-party” oncologist husband whom she loved. But her world shattered on Thanksgiving Day 2019, when her husband, Matthew, took his life.

The couple had just moved from Minneapolis to Charlotte, where Matt took a new position in a private practice. “He felt the move had been a mistake and referred to it as ‘career suicide’” Gall says. “I wanted him to get help and take antidepressants, but he was afraid of losing his medical license if he took medication.” 

A few months after moving, he ended his life.

Lynette Eddy, a Reno, NV-based social worker, lost her husband to suicide in 2010. 

“I watched Bob depart from his own value system over the years, giving up on his true self,” she says. “Unfortunately, he was swayed by money and greed, got involved with gambling, and got in over his head. I had no idea of the life he was leading, but I know he was suffering greatly.”

Both Gall and Eddy had to find ways to heal and rebuild their lives in the wake of the self-inflicted death of a husband.

Haunting Questions

Losing a loved one to suicide is a loss like no other, says Julie Cerel, PhD, professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work and director of the Suicide Prevention and Exposure Lab.

Unlike other causes of death (like illnesses or accidents), which happen to the person, suicide is an act performed by the person who has chosen death, leaving bereaved survivors with guilt and haunting questions, says Cerel, who is the co-author of Seeking Hope: Stories of the Suicide Bereaved.

“When you lose someone to suicide, you instantaneously become an investigator,” Gall says. “Why did it happen? What did I miss? What could I have done differently? Everyone who knew my husband was asking themselves the same questions. We all blamed ourselves in some way, feeling that we should have been able to anticipate or stop it,” says Gall.

Eddy agrees. “Survivor’s guilt is super common. I look back and asked myself the same questions a million times.”

Sometimes, according to Cerel, “we really don’t know what motivated the person.”

Gall now realizes “there was nothing else we could have done. Mental health issues are excruciatingly difficult. People have to be willing to help themselves, and we can’t force them. Matt refused to go on antidepressants and there was no way I could ‘make’ him do so.”

Eddy has reached a similar conclusion. “I feel he had some serious things going on and it didn’t matter what we did or didn’t do. I got him to go to counseling, but that didn’t work. I tried to get him to open up, but never got the truth out of him. I know he was suffering and can only imagine how tortured he was. Obviously, I would have done anything I could have done to alleviate that, but he wouldn’t let me in.”

Stigma, Secrecy, Shame

Research comparing suicide-bereaved people to people who have sustained other losses has found higher levels of shame, stigma, and feeling the need to hide the loved one’s cause of death. Secrecy often develops, both within the family and toward people outside the family, and can lead to family dysfunction. Withdrawing from social networks and friends can make mourning and recovery more difficult.

“Many people bereaved by suicide are reluctant to tell others about the cause of death or to talk about it,” Cerel says. “But our research has found that being able to talk openly about the death and the loved one is actually very helpful.”

Gall and Eddy have spoken openly about their losses. And both have written books describing their experience. Gall is the author of The Illusion of the Perfect Profession and Eddy is the author of The Fight Inside. Both hope that their books will pave the way for deeper understanding of why people might end their lives and how families can cope with such a major loss.

Family members don’t have to reveal personal details, but memorializing the deceased and allowing people to offer love and support helps with feeling less alone and reduces stigma. 

‘Complicated Grief’

Grief researcher Katherine Shear, MD, writes: “Mourning is the process by which bereaved people seek and find ways to turn the light on in the world again.” Mourning is normal and healthy following loss. But suicide can lead to “complicated grief” (also called prolonged grief), which can “prevent the natural healing process from progressing.”

Some people feel anger, rejection, or betrayal when their loved one dies by suicide, which can compound their sense of guilt and place them at greater risk for complicated grief. 

But not everyone reacts that way. “People say to me, ‘you must be so angry at your husband, he betrayed, you, he lied,’ but I never did get angry and I’m not angry today,” Eddy says. 

She attributes her reaction to her spiritual practice, which has enabled her to “see through the heart” into her husband’s pain. “I know he was suffering greatly and trying to fill a void with quick-fix pleasure.”

Getting Help

Cerel encourages suicide-bereaved people to seek professional help if necessary. “They often have symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder or even full-blown PTSD, even if they weren’t there to see the actual event happen.” 

There are effective treatments for PTSD and complicated grief, as well as other aspects of suicide-related grief, like anger and guilt. Support groups are also helpful, particularly consisting of people bereaved by suicide. Resources can be found at the end of the article.

“It’s taken thousands of hours on my therapist’s couch to realize that my husband had no more control over his mental illness than his cancer patients had over their cancer,” Gall says. “I’ve accepted that and no longer wake up every morning with that thud in my heart and that searing, searing pain that goes along with the kind of grief I had.”

Not only family but also friends, classmates, community members, and co-workers can be devastated by a suicide, Cerel points out. Getting professional help or joining a support group can be valuable for them too.

Spiritual Practice as a Resource

Gall and Eddy draw upon their spiritual practice for comfort and strength.

“Faith in a higher power is where I turned first,” says Gall. “I’ve always been a Christian but didn’t go to church every Sunday and wasn’t extremely religious.” In the months before her husband’s death and since then, she’s turned to the Bible and to devotional readings “for some sort of road map as to how to get through the most tumultuous, confusing, awful, torturous, chaotic time of my life.”

Eddy also draws on her spiritual practice — A Course in Miracles — and mindfulness-based approaches. “The spiritual path I took started years before this even happened and played a huge role in giving me strength.”

The phrase from A Course in Miracles that had a profound impact on her was: “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Therein lies the peace of God.” In other words, “I feel that there’s an outside drama happening. I can be one of the ‘actors’ in the play or I can ‘watch’ the play and be the observer.” 

Eddy developed Open-Heart Mindfulness, an approach that involves “observing and witnessing feelings, thoughts, and reactions without becoming judgmental.” She says, “everyone has an ego voice that can drive them to despair, as happened to my husband. But everyone also has another voice — the spirit voice — and we can tune in to that and release our suffering.”

She advises others: “Grieve, of course, but don’t be identified with the grief. Stay in the witness seat. Understand and be gentle with yourself, and recognize that healing will take time.”

Spirituality and mindfulness-based approaches don’t resonate with everyone, Cerel points out.

“Spiritual practices are very individual. Faith or mindfulness may be exactly what some people need, but not others. There are many paths.” And mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean meditation. Any activity demanding close attention — for example, exercise, art, music, even horseback riding — can bring that quality to the fore. 

Moving Forward

As horrific as the experience is of losing a loved one to suicide, some people emerge changed for the better, which is often called “posttraumatic growth,” says Cerel.

“I think anyone who’s had a traumatic experience that brought them to their knees and stripped them down to the core has a decision to make,” says Eddy.

“I had identified as Bob’s wife and he was my rock, and everything was about him. Then all of a sudden, that was gone, and I knew I had to reinvent myself, rebuild my life, and do something positive.”

Eddy, who completed her MSW after the death of her husband, was working with homeless teenagers and decided to open up a facility, Eddy’s House, for this vulnerable population. “It was a deep feeling I had in my spirit as a way of helping young people. It’s been a big healer for me.” She teaches Open-Heart Mindfulness to the teens and feels it’s made a difference in their lives.

Writing her book contributed to healing. Eddy wanted to shed light on the inner conflicts that had led her husband to die by suicide and to “get the reader to see how, collectively, we have to move toward our authentic selves.”

Gall wrote her book not only as a way of processing her loss, but also to highlight forces that might drive a doctor to suicide. “I’m sharing my story and Matt’s experience to open up a conversation because our [medical] system is broken.”

Gall has been able to start feeling joy again. “Life is so precious, and I feel blessed that I had such a beautiful life with Matthew, and I still have a beautiful life, even without him. Difficult some days, but we must move forward. You never ‘move on’ — you only move forward.”

If you are having suicidal thoughts, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or text HOME to 741741.


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