Parental suicide is a life changing traumatic loss
The grief that accompanies loss
by suicide is intense and amplified by complicated feelings of confusion,
anger, and abandonment. The “why’s” and “how could they” when the person who
gave you life takes their own can last for a very long time.
Yet, when your parent chooses suicide, those questions cut deeply into your most cherished and deeply secure relationships. These are relationships we count on. Generally, we are assured we can rely on our parents for guidance and support as long as their health holds out. When a parent appears to snatch away their care of you, it’s extremely difficult to grasp the full import of their decision.
- How are you to interpret the finality of their choice?
- What is the impact on your mental health and emotional development?
- How can you reconcile your parent’s choice to leave you behind and cope productively?
When Pain Supersedes Their Ability to Parent: Navigating Stigma and Complicated Grief
We know that many parents experience deep internal pain and despair for reasons their children may never know. And though their children are not the cause of such distress or at fault, sometimes those burdens make parenting feel impossible. Or perhaps, a depressed mother or father simply succumbs to the idea that their family is better off without them.
Whatever the reason, when suicide became your parent’s vehicle for relief, you were left behind. As a result, you may be wrestling with your loss as well as the following two, unwanted legacies:
In the wake of your parent’s suicide, you may be experiencing some level of disenfranchised grief, shame, and social rejection. In truth, the people in your life may not be able to deal with your parent’s decision and struggle to be there for you the way you hope.
Society frowns on parental suicide and this may come through as they talk about your parent to you or others. Thus, your ability to grieve authentically may be compromised or stifled.
Assumptions about your parent’s character hurt. Insensitive interactions may anger you. Unsympathetic opinions or withdrawal by people in your circle may lead you to suffer in silence or stuff your grief for fear of other’s reactions.
Moreover, you may feel unfairly burdened, as though you must either defend your parent’s actions, explain their past or choices, or hide the truth of your parent’s death.
The guidance of a grief counselor and the empathetic support of a bereavement group can help validate your grief and remind you that your parent is more than the circumstances of their death. Having such healing relationships can help recover your sense of being understood and heard without judgment.
Grief is profoundly intensified after parental suicide too because surviving children (of any age) suffer greatly the loss of relational opportunities for milestones, wisdom, guidance, and even reconciliation.
Perhaps you feel cheated out of a walk down the wedding aisle. Maybe the generational gap in knowledge and comfort lost to your own children hurts deeply. Or you may resent a lost chance to mend a rift in your relationship.
When parents take their lives they take the time you thought they wanted to give you. Grieving that rescinded future makes coping with the suicide all the more difficult. The emotions are compounded and shifting. It’s vital to acknowledge and accept your whole relationship to move forward, though this isn’t easy without help.
And for those who mourn mothers who have taken their lives, the loss seems to cut even deeper. Why?
Mom’s Don’t Leave: What to Make of “Unforgivable” Abandonment
Culturally, we struggle even more with a mother’s suicide. The idea that a mother would willingly abandon her children is confusing, even offensive or unforgivable to some. The stigma and judgment tend to be harsher.
“Good moms” don’t go away or give up. Choosing to leave their families in any way seems wrong and at odds with our ideas of a mother’s hardwired love and willingness to make sacrifices for her children.
Therefore, if you’re suffering such a loss, you may be trying hard to reconcile your mother as you knew her, her choice to die, societal expectations, and a very deep sense of abandonment.
Having a safe, accepting environment to process the after effects of suicide can help provide perspective. To grieve productively, you may need to spend some time working through tough questions and emotions about your mother’s flaws and the bond you shared.
Depending on your relationship with your mother, that loss can engender feelings of sorrow, rage, or even relief. Regardless, it may be immensely comforting or cathartic to share your feelings, history, and thoughts with a professional.
When Surviving Their Suicide Makes You Question Your Worth
Whether your parent’s depression was something you witnessed routinely or realized later, it can help to talk about how their emotional life and choices make you feel now.
A mother’s suicide, in particular, is shown to have a deeply negative impact on her children’s self- image, ability to trust themselves, and how well they manage stress and anxiety.
If you are suffering this way, it’s important to recognize that this strain on your mental and emotional health is not unusual. However, it is equally important to challenge persistent self-blame and feelings of powerlessness.
Many offspring of suicide survivors need help separating their parent’s choice from their roles as their child. Much like a child of divorce blames themselves for not being good enough to hold the family together, you may feel tempted to ruminate on the idea that you weren’t special enough, loved enough, or important enough to live for.
Reaching out to trusted loved ones, a support group, and a therapist is a key act of self-care and can help you gain some clarity and reaffirm your own worth beyond your parent. It is important to identify and address unhelpful thinking and beliefs connected to your parent and the suicide so that, eventually, you are able to accept the loss without taking responsibility for it.
Haunted by Happier Times: Dealing with Doubts About the Past
A particularly hurtful factor of parental suicide is that your relationship history is given a confusing, and uncertain spin.
In addition to questioning yourself, you may question your happy memories with your mom or dad. Special moments, letters, pictures, videos all become suspect. You wonder what really lay beneath the behavior and interactions of the past.
It’s as though your
parent’s suicide somehow invalidates your connection.
Your perception of ever being securely loved is altered. What may be comforting thoughts for the children of other lost parents, can torment you. You may feel overwhelmed when you reminisce, compelled to bury the past you shared with your parent.
Here again, it’s vital to seek support for the sake of your own health.
Reconciling your parent’s choice, your emotions, and the implications of the past can’t be rushed or hidden. Take time to process your emotions. Most of all, take time to grieve fully and take care of yourself. If you’re ready to take steps to recover, please refer to my specialty page on suicide grief or contact me soon. I’m here to help.