Feb. 16, 2023 – Janet Shedd lost her youngest son to suicide 7 years ago.
“Tom had suffered from depression for about 9 months. We had gotten counseling for him, and he had been taking medication. We thought things were starting to turn around,” says Shedd, who lives in Kentucky.
But as soon as he turned 18 and was legally allowed to buy a gun, he died by suicide. Shedd’s life was shattered. “After his death, I became the walking wounded. It was hard to function,” she says. “I spent days crying and not getting out of bed.”
She calls the loss “devastating because, as a parent, one of your major functions is to keep your child safe. When you’re not able to do that – usually through no fault of your own – you go through a lot of guilt.”
Shedd is far from alone. In 2020, suicide was the second leading cause of death in youngsters and young adults (ages 10 to 34) and the 12th leading cause of death in the U.S..
And more young people are apparently considering taking their own lives.
Just this week, the CDC released a study showing a crisis in mental health among teen girls. The report found girls are experiencing record high levels of sexual violence, and nearly 3 in 5 girls report feeling persistently sad or hopeless.
Nearly one-third of girls (30%) reported seriously considering suicide, up from 19% in 2011. In teenage boys, serious thoughts of suicide increased from 13% to 14% from 2011 to 2021. The percentage of teenage girls who had attempted suicide in 2021 was 13%, nearly twice that of teenage boys (7%).
All these hurting children, and all those lost lives, have left a significant number of bereaved parents.
No Universal Pattern
William Feigelman, PhD, a professor emeritus of sociology at Nassau Community College in Garden City, NY, lost a son to suicide 20 years ago.
“He had a lot of winning characteristics, was engaged to be married, and was getting ahead in the film industry,” Feigelman says. “We were shocked and stunned, and it was the worst experience of our lives.”
It turned out that their son had been “coming off a drug high in an industry where drugs are commonplace and was depressed and self-punishing at the time.”
The decision to die by suicide is complex and shouldn’t be reduced to single issues, Feigelman says.
“Drugs are common and played a role in my son’s suicide. But people take their lives for a variety of reasons. Maybe something went wrong. They were jilted by a girlfriend or boyfriend or lost their job. They feel dishonored and humiliated and can’t face other people. Maybe they feel they’ve let their families down. They’re in deep psychic pain and see suicide as the only way out.”
Traditional bullying and cyberbullying have played a role in suicides of youngsters. Last week, a 14-year-old girl in New Jersey died by suicide. She had been beaten up in school, with a video of the assault posted online afterward. Unfortunately, many parents aren’t aware if their child is being bullied. The girl’s father says the school and the school district have not done enough to respond.
Just being aware of a child’s mental health problems doesn’t guarantee they’ll be resolved, Feigelman says. Many parents have struggled, “going from one clinic to another, one medication to another, and never successfully getting the right kind of help for their child who was in pain.”
On the other hand, some parents have seemingly successful, high-functioning children “who suddenly have one mishap – such as a bad math test – which pushes them over the edge into suicide, and they feel they can’t go home and tell their parents about it.”
The point, according to Feigelman, is that “the reasons for suicide vary from case to case, with no universal pattern.”
A Combination of Events
Erin Hawley and Angela Wiese agree. They are sisters in Lexington, KY, who lost children to suicide.
Wiese’s oldest son, Mason, died by suicide when he was 19 years old.
“He had just graduated from high school and was going through a transitional time,” she says.
Her son wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college. He enlisted in the Navy Reserves instead. “Maybe the stress of his schooling was getting to him, or maybe he was feeling overwhelmed,” Wiese says. “Maybe he just didn’t want to share things with us because he thought we’d be upset. He was a quiet kid but also fun and outgoing and athletic, with a lot of friends. We don’t know why he chose to kill himself.”
Then, 23 months later, Wiese’s 18-year-old son, Ethan, also took his life. “We didn’t realize at the time how much at risk Ethan was after Mason’s suicide. We now believe he was struggling and just didn’t know how to cope with that loss,” she says.
Hawley, whose 13-year-old daughter, Myra, also died by suicide, says her daughter’s death was particularly shocking and “came out of the blue” because she “came from a family who already had two children – her first cousins – die by suicide, and we talked about it all the time in our house.”
For Hawley, the “hardest part was her choosing not to tell us that she was struggling or having these thoughts and that she wanted to kill herself. I never imagined we would lose another child to suicide in our family.”
Some research suggests that the risk of suicide is higher in those who have been bereaved by another family member or close friend’s suicide. But Feigelman says that multiple suicides in the same family are “relatively rare.”
And Hawley has learned that the motives for suicide are “unique to every situation, and it’s usually a ‘perfect storm’ of several events, some of which may be common, everyday things that parents may think they understand and can connect to.”
At the end of the day, “our children were the only people who knew the reasons, and we don’t want to speculate,” Hawley says.
Get the Best Support
After her older son’s death, Wiese and her husband “reached out to resources and therapists and whatnot, but they didn’t have experience with suicide grief and the understanding that Ethan felt the stigma and was mourning the loss of his brother,” she says.
Wiese recommends that parents seeking help after a child’s suicide – for themselves or their other children – should “find professionals and support systems that deal specifically with suicide bereavement.”
Shedd agrees. “My advice to other parents is to know you’re not alone. One of the best things I did was to hook up with someone else who had gone through the experience of losing a child to suicide, which was a touchstone during the early days,” she says. “Having someone to talk to who had been through it and was standing upright and functioning in the world was incredibly helpful to me.”
Feigelman and his wife, Beverly Feigelman, a licensed social worker, joined support groups for people who lost loved ones to suicide. Eventually, they founded a support group of their own – Long Island Survivors of Suicide.
“The group is still flourishing, and we’ve been running it for the last 15 years,” Feigelman says. “It’s important to be with people who have sustained a similar loss because we have unique issues that don’t affect people bereaved by other losses – we’re racked by guilt, shame, and anger toward the loved one who died by suicide, and we’re shaken and mystified that our children, whom we loved and even thought we knew well, could take their own life.”
Turning Pain Into Purpose
“I’m definitely in a better place than I was immediately after Tom’s death,” Shedd says. “Time helps, and you move slowly forward. But even 7 years later, it’s still very fresh, and little things can tick off the memories – if I see someone who looks like him walking down the street, for example. And of course, you miss your child forever.”
Nevertheless, “Helping other people who have gone through this type of loss and working to change things has been very helpful.”
Shedd became involved in advocating for changes in gun laws. “If I can save someone else from going through a similar tragedy, this honors Tom, and that’s a comfort,” she says.
After the death of her second son, Wiese founded Brothers’ Run, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising money for suicide prevention efforts within schools and communities. The money also supports critical services and mental health professionals who care for suicide-bereaved families.
“Since losing my sweet boys, I’ve found that pain can be turned into purpose,” says Wiese.
Beyond running the support group, Feigelman and his wife joined forces with two psychologists to conduct a large study of people bereaved by suicide, including 462 parents. And together, they also wrote Devastating Losses, a book for health care professionals working with suicide-bereaved family members.
Some parents may not be drawn to involvement in volunteer work, advocacy, or similar activities. But there are still many healing approaches, including spiritual practice, yoga, mindfulness, art, and physical exercise.
“But I think the most helpful thing is working with a good, trained clinician and getting the support of other parents,” Feigelman says. “Engaging with other bereaved parents contributes to posttraumatic growth.”
Shedd says her posttraumatic growth led to a deepening of empathy and compassion.
“I hesitate to say this because some people might regard it as a punch in the face, but a mentor told me, ‘You’re going to get gifts from this experience.’ I didn’t want any ‘gifts.’ I just wanted my child back. But I have to admit that – although I would never have chosen to pay the price for these ‘gifts’ – what happened has indeed changed me into a better person.”