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Why I Don't Say My Son 'Commited' Suicide

The news spread quickly. Two youth from the local high school had died over the weekend. “They committed suicide” were the words I heard to explain the tragic loss of two young people, who had their entire lives ahead of them.

 It is common to hear those two words together — commit and suicide. I cringe when I hear it. They didn’t commit a crime. They died by suicide.

 I am a survivor of suicide loss. After my son’s death, I was helpless to respond to the painful words that were spoken in hushed tones around me. “It was a selfish act.” “Didn’t you see the signs?” “Are they in heaven?” “I wonder what went wrong in the family?”  I was unable to formulate responses to these false beliefs. I didn’t even know they were false. I just knew they held me hostage under a grief so powerful I could hardly breathe.

 In short bursts of time when I could focus, I read. Books like “I’m Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help,” “The Burden of Sympathy – how families cope with mental illness,” or “Man’s Search for Meaning,” helped me understand the suffering my son endured was so deep that he would take his own life. 

“Schizophrenia with delusional behaviors,” the doctor had said. Ryan was diagnosed with mental illness nine months before he died. In hindsight, I had seen signs, but I didn’t know they were signs of mental illness. I never even considered mental illness was real.  I just hoped he’d outgrow the anxiety, fear and worry that had insinuated themselves into his psyche. Sleeping too much, not wanting to go to school, avoiding social situations, becoming more isolated and failing grades were what I had dismissed as “normal” adolescence. 

I am not alone. Sadly, I hear stories of other parents who thought their child would outgrow these behaviors, too. When behaviors such as these change someone’s personality, it could signal a growing mental illness. 

I stopped really seeing my son because I thought I knew him by heart. I dismissed his complaints and his tears. I didn’t reach out to help him find his way because I was lost too. 

Parents cannot look inside a child’s head to see what dark thoughts may be present, thoughts of worthlessness, of being a burden or thoughts of death. These are thoughts they can’t shake. Too ashamed to speak them aloud, our children suffer. To share these with another person they fear judgment, advice giving and not being taken seriously, or worse, feeling weak and powerless. 

Without knowledge of mental illness as an actual brain illness, they languish. Without treatment, the illness can worsen over time and become a full blown chronic illness that is more difficult to treat or results in suicide. 90 percent of people who die by suicide had a diagnosable mental illness. 

All too often the “s-word” strikes fear in our hearts — fear of the act itself, fear of the unknown or fear of getting too close because suicide might be contagious.

We must remove the shame and stigma from mental illness and suicide, as well as the judgment youth often fear from talking about their feelings and seeking help. We must do a better job to help them share the darkness in their emotions so that parents, teachers and others can support the 1 in 5 who will be diagnosed with mental illness at some point in their lives. We must listen with our hearts even if we quake with inadequacy when we hear the pain of our child or student. We need to know of their suffering in order to move toward evaluation and treatment, if need be. Talking is only the first step. 

We have to remove the shame if we want to reduce and eventually prevent suicide in our time. We need to practice using the words suicide and mental illness so they roll off our tongues as easily as bubble gum and dish soap. We need to face our fear that asking questions about suicide will give our loved ones the idea this could be an option. 

With understanding comes a responsibility to educate others to effect change in the words we use when referring to someone with depression, anxiety or any other mental illness. We can increase our understanding of mental illness, suicide and open the dialogue. We can stop blaming the families or blaming the ones who took their lives. There is no blame in suicide. 

Those students did not commit a crime. My son did not commit a crime. They believed the only way to end the pain was to end their lives. They died because they didn’t have the words to express the deep psychological/biological pain, which was not a sign of weakness but of brain illness. 

I didn’t understand then, but I do now.  

These truths eluded me for a long time. Sometimes truth has to hold the darkness before it can shine the light.

 Previously published on The Mighty, June 2016

 

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About the Author

I am a retired teacher and the survivor of the suicide of my son. After Ryan's suicide I wasn't sure if I believed in God anymore. Writing became a tool that helped me heal. I explored books about mental illness and suicide, and the existence of God. The result was a book called I Still Believe. I live in Albuquerque, NM and am a facilitator for the Survivors of Suicide support group and recently began a support group for mothers whose children died by suicide. It is healing when mothers gather and share their pain, their wisdom and their friendship. I also work at the Grief Resource Center in Albuquerque, NM.

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