My daughter died more than 2 years ago. She was 24 years old. She died by “passive” or “soft” hanging. My daughter, Kelly, tied one end of her bathrobe belt to the clothing rod located on the inside of the closet and the other end to her neck. I found her sitting on the floor, leaning against the closet doors. Her body was cold, but not very cold, she was not breathing, but she didn’t seem dead to me. My husband, her stepfather, and I began CPR until the EMTs got there, which seemed to be no longer than a minute or two. Kelly could not be revived and she was pronounced dead in her bedroom on the third floor of our house.
This article is not about the reasons for suicide, it is not about mental illness that leads to self-destruction, and it is not about the pathetic state of the mental health industry in the US. This article is about survival following a suicide of a child. How does a mother or a father go on living? How do we get up in the morning and function as parents to our remaining children (my baby was 5 years old at the time) and partners to our spouses, or significant others? How do we get up in the morning, take a shower, fix our faces, and go to work? How do we look at other people without feeling self conscious? How do we find meaning in life, and how do we hold on to our faith or philosophy of life?
Since Kelly died, I met a bunch of parents whose child also died by suicide. I found out that there are thousands and thousands of us all over the country, and many more all over the world. I know that we continue to live even though our children are no longer living. It seems inconceivable for me to go on living when my beautiful Kelly is dead and buried.
It’s been more than two years and I am still alive. I returned to work and to a productive life. I do housework, cook, and do laundry. I take care of my youngest; go to sports events, to recitals, on play dates, to the park, to the mall, and I celebrate holidays and birthdays. When Kelly died I told myself that I will try not to damage her younger sister’s life because of my great sadness. I am holding myself to this promise, but I am not completely sure that it is working. I guess that time will tell.
So why am I here when one of my children isn’t? It could be because: 1) I have a sense of obligation to my living children and to my family, 2) I am innately resilient and have lived through hardships before, which might have helped me a little bit to deal with this, 3) I do work that is rewarding for me and I feel valued in my work, 4) outside of my family, I feel like what I do helps others and this keeps me focused on work, 5) I went back to my church and attend weekly; I pray and talk to God and to my Kelly as often as I am moved to do so, 6) I am a professional psychologist and I know about mental illness; I rationally understand that mental illness is sometimes terminal and that my kid had a terminal disease, 7) I have a few new friends who have also lost their child to suicide and they support me and help me to feel as normal as possible, and they also make me feel safe (a strange thing to say, isn’t it), 8) I have a psychotherapist and I go regularly, and 9) I don’t feel guilty or angry because I know that Kelly and I, that we both, gave it our best and tried really hard so that she would not die, and that we kept her living for 24 years.
All of those things help me to survive, but I honestly think that the real reason that I am able to function is because I am able to disassociate from my loss. I am able to think about Kelly without thinking about her death. I imagine that she still exists and that I will see her again. You can call this religion if you like to, but I don’t think that it is a matter of religion. I know that I don’t know very much about the nature of life or the universe. Regardless if all we have is this life and if death is death of body and all that goes with it, or if God exists and there is an afterlife, we seem to be obligated to live as well as we can and what we do each day matters. So, I guess I truly live one day at a time.
Every day feels like Kelly died yesterday and like tomorrow will never come. I said that I don’t feel guilty or angry, which is true, but I do have regrets. I regret that I didn’t help her better so that she could live another day; I regret that my help was inadequate and that I didn’t find more people who knew how to help her better; I regret that I am here and that she isn’t. Somehow, each day I manage to put these regrets aside and to put my great sadness aside so that I can function. All of you who are reading this article and who lost a loved one to suicide, please do all that you can to manage your loss and sadness, to function, and to continue to be a productive and valuable person (because yes it really matters). The nine things that I mentioned above are really good and they help. Good luck on your journey and I am very, very sorry for your loss.