In the weeks before he took his own life this September (National Suicide Prevention Month), 22-year-old “Dylan,” a Christian college student at a school in the Southeast, wrote of his love for the mountains. The mountains, he said in a blog post, were where he heard God speak to him “the clearest and the loudest.” But in just over a month’s time, this young man with a promising future would become yet another tragic casualty to the second-leading cause of death in his age group (10 to 24 years), and the 10th-leading cause of death among all Americans. In the months leading up to his suicide, Dylan had spent time overseas, working with underprivileged youths there. I remember him as a talented athlete (much like my own son at 8 years of age) and a wholesome, good-natured kid. He came from a family that loved him and had parents who were also loved and respected pillars in the community.
Depression, Suicide and Their Powerful, Enduring Stigma — My Own Experience
And it turns out they and Dylan — like so many, including myself — have carried a dark family secret, one we know today by the term “depression,” a genetically inherited brain disease that regardless of ongoing new research underlining depression’s biological underpinnings, remains largely stigmatized. It’s a secret that I have not known how to talk publicly about, even as an ordained minister and a writer now working for a company that specializes in treating addiction and mental illness. The same painful secret claimed the life of a cousin of mine, who in the months following her graduation from Stanford University, after a painful breakup with a boyfriend, jumped to her death from a bridge in San Diego, California. She had the face of a Cover Girl model, was intellectually brilliant, and, like Dylan, had a bright future in front of her. When I last saw her father at a family event years after her death, he was a different man. There was an unshakeable pall of sadness about him. I can appreciate why: I find it hard to imagine ever being able to laugh again after losing one of my two children to suicide. Family secrets of this kind are especially hard to talk about publicly for those most personally affected by the chronic disease of depression, namely, those who live with the diagnosis and their immediate family members — maybe most especially their parents. I speak with firsthand knowledge here. I, too, have suffered from major depression and today regularly see a therapist and take a doctor-prescribed antidepressant. I will do these things for the rest of my life. But the devastating news of Dylan’s death has me breaking my public silence about my own intermittent struggles — for the sake of the many parents who have lost a young adult child or teen to suicide.
7 Things Bereaved Parents of Children Lost to Suicide Should Know
For parents left to face a gaping wound the size of the Grand Canyon when a child they once held, cooed lullabies to and packed school lunches for, commits suicide, the long road to healing is desolate and seems overwhelming. On that note, here are seven things every bereaved parent of a child lost to suicide can benefit from knowing:
- You are not alone. Someone dies by suicide about every 13 minutes in this country, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 105 Americans die by suicide every day. That adds up to approximately 38,000 suicides every year. For every death by suicide, another 12 people harm themselves. This startling reality means that every year, an estimated quarter-million people become suicide survivors.It also means that many others have been in your shoes. You do not need to grieve alone. There are support groups for parents who, like you, are walking the same path. (This list provided by AFSP is a helpful resource to consult for a support group in your area.)
- You are not to blame. It’s easy and natural to blame yourself for your child’s suicide. Most of us parents feel responsible for our children’s livelihoods. Why then would your first impulse not be to feel responsible when a major depressive episode claims your child’s life?But the reality is that while a host of life circumstances can feed a bout of major depression and accompanying suicidal tendencies, with a traumatic and/or very stressful experience being highest on that list, major depression is a serious medical illness. And, while in most cases depression is medically treatable, there are those instances when it becomes a very tough nut to crack. Treatment-resistant depression can quickly seem like an unendurable life sentence to those of us who have suffered from this affliction. Moreover, studies have revealed how the brains of those prone to suicidal tendencies are actually wired differently from the brains of those suffering from depression not prone to suicide. Too much over-moralizing or spiritualizing of a person’s struggle with depression and suicidal tendencies can quickly lose sight of this very biological reality.The takeaway here? You wouldn’t really blame yourself (at least for long) if your child died from cancer. Don’t blame yourself for a death from depression then, either. Let yourself off the hook.
- You do not have to feel ashamed. For those who suffer from major depression and for their immediate family members, a powerful and still-reigning public stigma surrounding the affliction makes shame easy to internalize. But in the same way that shame can impede the recovery process for those who live with this chronic disease, shame is an unwanted intruder in the grieving process for parents who have lost their loved ones to depression. Shame-based family systems tend to exacerbate anger issues, only feeding generational addiction and mental illness and perpetuating the public stigma of the disease.Would you feel shame if your child died from a medical condition like diabetes? The answer is most likely “no.” Don’t hold a double standard when the illness is depression.
- Instead, remember with honor and gratitude the person your child was apart from their diagnosis.Instead, remember the person your child was apart from their diagnosis; and honor that person by doing your best to release your shame around their final life choice. Major depression does not define me. It is one facet of my experience. To be sure, it affects my lifestyle choices, insofar as I must accept it is a chronic illness that I am prone to, and therefore a condition I must monitor. As I would with any chronic illness, I seek to take care of myself by taking an antidepressant, seeing a therapist, exercising regularly, eating right and staying in relationship with close friends and with God.And there are ways that depression has changed how I view others and the world around me. I’d like to think that my own experience with this chronic illness has deepened my compassion for others in various forms of need and has given me an appreciation for how God can meet us in our darkest moments. Truly, I can say that the times I have felt closest to God were during these darkest moments.But I also am who I am apart from depression, with a storyline and personality that are their own and should not be pigeonholed by a diagnosis. The same is true for all those who struggle with depression — just as it is for all those who live with any chronic illness of any kind. So seek to remember your child in a way that elicits gratitude for them as the unique and lovely person they were, and as a gift from God. Don’t let shame or judgment get in the way of that enterprise.
- Don’t try to understand why — you will fail. It’s easy to get stuck asking “why.” The shock of your child’s sudden death and the way they died can spark a host of unending questions that could ultimately be summed up with one word: “Why?” “Why did this have to happen?” “Why did they feel suicide was their only option?” “Why didn’t they call us?” “Why … why … why?”Friends and family who have not personally experienced major depression find it easy to ask why anyone in their right mind would want to take their own life. But that’s just it. That loved one is not in their “right” mind, and if you’ve never experienced major depression, you cannot understand why. (For that matter, even those who have the diagnosis cannot explain why.)By definition, major depression is an affliction that causes suicidal ideations and such mental anguish that suicide can quickly begin to seem like a looming inevitability. That definition of depression is enough of an answer to a need to know “why.” Don’t follow the “why” trail. It leads nowhere in the grieving process and is only a source of further torment.
- Entrust your child into God’s loving arms. As a Christian, I am a biblical literalist when it comes to the apostle Paul’s words in Romans: “Nothing,” Paul writes, “can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” And he goes on to list all of the things that cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That’s a long list!This belief can be a great consolation to people of faith. The other is the biblical promise that anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. God is on the side of those who know their need and who cry out to God for help. And Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” I believe this same peculiar, cross-shaped “blessedness” pertains to anyone who because of depression finds themselves afflicted and in mourning.If you can, do your best to visualize God’s perfect and unfailing love holding your child now. They are in good hands — even if their separation from you is now wrought with the most unspeakable grief. Can you let that be a source of consolation?
- Do not be afraid to ask for help. Depression can accompany other disorders, such as substance abuse issues, that run deep in the genetic makeup of families across generations. And because depression is so genetically hard-wired (like substance use disorders and other forms of mental illness), in the wake of this traumatic loss you, too, may be especially prone to major depression and/or to another mental disorder like drug or alcohol addiction. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from the right treatment professionals. Asking for help is never a sign of weakness. It is, on the contrary, a sign of courage: the courage to find hope, healing and recovery in the wake of a terrible, earth-shattering loss. And treatment can help.
While I didn’t know Dylan well, his death has affected me because it hits close to home and in a church I was once intimately part of. I can only begin to imagine (and yet not fathom) the stricken grief of his parents and the hell they are living right now. And those mountains Dylan loved to scale remain a haunting image. Maybe that’s because the climb ahead for parents who lose a child to suicide can seem as breathtakingly insurmountable as the peak of the world’s highest mountain. It may also be because, for those of us who have been taken by surprise by an episode of major depression, just “hanging in there” during that time can seem as impossible as making it to the top of that tallest peak. When a journalist asked the British mountaineer George Mallory to explain why he was making the first recorded attempt to scale Mt. Everest, Mallory answered, “Because it’s there.” Mallory didn’t make it, but the inspiration of his words live on. For families on intimate and sometimes tragic terms with today’s depression epidemic and the world’s leading cause of disability, that mountain is there. And because it’s there, we must climb it. We may not make it on our own, but together we will. We will make it to the top. By Kristina Robb-Dover, M.Div. Follow Kristina at her Beliefnet blog “Fellowship of Saints and Sinners,” or on Twitter at @saintplussinner.