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Losing a Parent to Suicide: 30 Years Later
Life is so f*cking weird
Today is the 30th Anniversary of my mother’s suicide, a pivotal event that changed the trajectory of my life forever. Coincidentally, after 30 years apart, this past weekend, I visited the woman who took my mom and I in, then raised me from 0-5 years old
Before I dive into this piece, I want to recognize the family I met after three decades to immortalize their presence not just in my life but also in my writing:
George (RIP), Grandma Betty, my long-lost sister Kelsey, Doodle, Kathy, Jack, Mary, Vicky, Chuck, The Preacher, Duke, Kevin, Kristen, and to those I’m missing, please forgive me as it was a whirlwind of a weekend.
It will not be 30 years before we meet again…
WARNING: This is not the most comfortable subject and certainly not the most entertaining, but this is my life, and it’s the only way I know how to create content; raw, real, and lessons learned through pain and experience, not theory.
Life goes on…
I’m 36 years old, my mother took her life when I was six, and that set me up for a lifetime of weird complexes and issues:
Insecurity while growing up
Depression|Rage|Anxiety|Impatience|Issues Dating|Weird Shit
With all that I went through in my youth, you’d think it would be the last thing I’d want to put onto the page, especially as an adult who’s focused on connected families.
I write about her suicide, even when I’ve reached the point where it doesn’t have as much space in my mind because others out there are currently working through this, and they need to know they aren’t alone. Also, people want to know how I’ve gotten to the point I’m at with my self-confidence, marriage, sobriety, and parenting; this is a big part of all that.
As someone who loves life and has lost someone who ended their own - I’m left in this weird purgatory where I think she must have had issues so heavy she needed to escape; yet, I think there’s no weight so heavy that I’d ever leave my children. I’m disgusted, angry, and annoyed at her choice while reflecting on the fact that it’s a decision we could make at any time, yet most of us do not.
After 30 years, and having just met those from my past, adding to my family and the love in my life, I can say with all of me I forgive you, Rebecca.
I’m sitting here with my two beautiful children asleep, my dogs and cats sleeping around me, my beautiful wife lying next to me, and friends from across the world a phone call away. I’m happy and surrounded by love; after my meetup this weekend, I have answers and a better understanding of how everything happened. She made her choice for her reasons, and those reasons were enough for her, so it doesn’t matter if I understand or not, because it made sense to her, and I, like every other child who has been through this, was left to pick up the pieces.
Well, I picked them up and did all of the hard things I didn’t want to do:
I faced addiction.
I faced my internal anger.
I faced self-loathing and pity.
I forgave myself for the mistakes I’d made.
I met with people I knew would stir old emotions.
I did the heavy work mentally, physically, and spiritually.
I did the hard things, so I was strong enough to pick all those pieces up and put them back together because my mother’s life was shattered, but my picture doesn’t have to be, and because of that, I’m not going to allow it to be anything less than everything I want it to be. That’s enough about me; here’s some advice for those still in this cycle of anger, confusion, resentment, and wonder…
Suicide - Removing the Taboo
The death of a parent is always a tragic experience (the death of anyone sucks), but the pain and grief of losing a parent to suicide can be profound and long-lasting for those left behind, especially the children. As a kid, the experience can be especially traumatic, as it disrupts one’s sense of safety and security in the world. There’s no pill or one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with the aftermath of a parent’s suicide, and the healing process can be a long and difficult journey. I’ve been open about what happened in my youth, but I’m the exception as most people are struggling with these issues internally, screaming in silence…
When a child loses a parent to suicide, the shock and confusion can be overwhelming, but the after-shock of recognizing, “I wasn’t enough for them to make it another day”, that’s a gut punch that hits you over and over and over again…
It can be difficult to comprehend that someone you love has chosen to take their own life, and a child will feel a range of emotions, from guilt and anger to sadness and despair, then cycle through; sometimes it amplifies with age as death is permanent, but so too is the anger and it can last the rest of a person’s days.
As a son or daughter, you’re supposed to have parents who are always there for you through thick and thin. You are supposed to be able to run towards your parent, knowing that it is a place of safety, and when it isn’t, trauma thrives. In the case of suicidal parents and children left behind, the trauma thrives as the safe harbor has been nuked. Imagine going through the Pearl Harbor bombing day after day, for years…
That’s the reality for many children whose parents chose to leave this world.
The problem with suicide is the problem with alcoholism, you aren’t supposed to talk about them as they’re “taboo” and “off limits” subjects.
It can be difficult for a child to make sense of the death of a parent to suicide, and they may have many questions. It’s important, to be honest with children about the circumstances of the death and to answer their questions as honestly and openly as possible. It’s also important to remember that a child’s understanding of death can be different from that of an adult and to be sensitive to this. If you’re like me and you’re an adult who does not have a parent due to suicide, don’t be ashamed, it’s a unique club we’re in, and we didn’t do anything to get here; we knew someone who did.
The beauty in this is like the beauty in addiction recovery; nobody understands an addict like an addict; thus, those who were addicted are the exact ones who can help those who still are. Like addicts, nobody can speak to losing a parent to suicide except someone who has lost a parent to suicide. So, your parent’s decision thrust you into a role where you may be the only person others can relate to on this subject. Few will understand what I’ve written here in its entirety, but those children “Left behind” like me understand not just the words but the gaps in between them as well.
The truth is, the healing process after the death of a parent to suicide can be a long and difficult journey, and it’s one you have to walk. Technically, you can sit and remain invisible and yet, in the way, but that’s a shitty choice I don’t recommend. It’s important to take things one day at a time and to allow yourself time to grieve and process the loss. It’s also important to find ways to honor the parent's memory by creating rituals or memorials. If you’re angry, don’t worry about thinking of them until you’re ready. I’ve been on both sides of that coin; forgiveness is key, as is talking about it.
Finally, remember to take care of yourself.
This might mean reaching out to friends and family for support, talking to a counselor or therapist, or finding ways to express yourself through art or writing. It’s also important to find moments of joy and to remember that life can still be filled with beauty and love.
Losing a parent to suicide can be an incredibly painful experience, but it is possible to heal and find ways to honor the parent's memory. With the right support and understanding, a child can learn to cope, and if you’re an adult reading this, know that it’s never too late to start this process.
I will close with this, I’m not going to sit here and say that my mother’s suicide was a good thing because it was bad and set me up for a lot of shit, but I look at my life now and can’t but think of the things I have and wonder, would I have them if she were alive? The answer is, “Of course not”, and so, I love what I have with everything that I am, and it’s because of that I’m willing to go out there and say my mother’s suicide is the fuel that propels me forward every day. I understand how precious life is and am hyper-aware that it can be over at a moment’s notice.
Because of this, I live my life to the fullest and am as integrated into my children’s lives as possible. So in a way, what was the most chaotic event in my timeline, empowered me to create the greatest order within. I know pain and carnage; its presence drove my decision to create a life of peace and integrity.
- Zachary Small
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