Publisher’s Note: The Author of this beautiful piece lost his son to suicide just over two years ago. I am inspired by he and his wife. They are healing, albeit slowly. They remain strong…they are supportive of one another…and they have always been, and remain, amazing parents. The most healing part of his story is his understanding that he is not at fault in his son’s death.
A man whose brother lost his teenage son to suicide asked me 6 months ago for advice on how to help his brother. I have changed names to protect his privacy.
Perhaps I can help you by letting you understand a little bit of what your brother is going through. I will only preface this by saying that I did not have a great relationship with my son for quite a few years. I am lucky that in the last few years before his suicide we had a much better relationship.
I think the first thing you have to understand is how physically brutal this is. At times, it physically hurts more than I can describe. It is also exhausting to get through the day because you have to make a mental effort not to let the loss overtake everything. I will tell you that I have not slept more than 3 hours in the past year and a half (yes, I have seen a doctor, and no, pills don’t help). I am sure everyone who goes through this has their issue(s), I tell you mine as an example.
As a dad, I think we tend to take overall responsibility. Here is the way I thought about this (and sometimes still do): “Ben is dead and it is my fault. For what I did or what I failed to do. No matter what, I failed to catch this and I was paying attention. I just failed.” I don’t know that there is anything you can do except to try to help the person remember all the good things they did as a father and encourage them to forgive themselves. After 18 months, I know now in my heart that Ben killed himself, not me, not God. Ben had free will and, on a very bad night, he made a very bad decision. I also believe that he was sick with some kind of physical depression.
There is the difference between understanding why and accepting that this happened. We can only help ourselves by accepting this. It is much harder than it sounds. For a while after Ben died I was still trying to bargain with God for his life back. Next, I tried to bargain with my wife (who has always been the spiritual leader of our family). It went something like this “If God needed someone, why couldn’t he take me in Ben’s place, I have had a life, a chance, but Ben hasn’t. I would be fine with that deal.” I am sure this greatly upset my wife. I went from “this cannot be true” to “why do others get to have a life and not Ben” to “I cannot believe this is how it turned out” (every time I see a little boy with his family I think this). I guess that is some sort of progress.
In the early days, my wife was almost inconsolable at times; especially when we were going somewhere (out of the house) or late at night. I will tell you that the only thing I could tell her that helped were these two things: “We are the luckiest people in the room tonight. For over 17 years we were Ben’s parents. We got more time with him than anyone else. We knew him better than anyone else. We were blessed” and “If God had come to me on the day Ben was born and said that I could have this baby boy but he was not going to survive past 18 or you can pass; I would take Ben and that deal any day of the week.” I am sure your nephew’s mom and dad feel the same way. I was so lucky to have been his dad, I still wish I had done a better job with it.
Lastly, I would say that things are slowly getting better. We talk about Ben, often like he was still around, and sometimes it’s funny (like the day that my wife, my daughter and I all realized at the same time how little laundry there was each week without Ben; gallows humor but at least we could joke about it!) He was not perfect and we try to remember the good and the bad. In our house, it is okay to say you’re missing Ben, it is okay to make a joke about Ben (even at his expense) or just talk about something he would have liked or would be proud of.
I read somewhere that the mourning period for parents who have lost a child is 10-12 years. I used to think “I hope not” but now I think “probably true”.
I wish I could help more. This seems like so little.