The worst news a parent can hear
A mental health professional who lost his son to suicide describes his secular experience of grief, survival, and unending love
This entire column, not just this entry, merits a content warning. I will be writing about suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other serious topics. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone you trust, establish care with a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), or go to your nearest emergency room. Please stick around. We need you.
September 12, 2021 is the day my world split in two, a day that will ever after divide my existence into a “before” and “after.” As I slept early that Sunday morning, my son Josh quietly left our home, walked three miles to a hidden place, and ended his life.
The awful news, the worst a parent can hear, took several hours to reach me. At 9 that morning, I knocked on my son’s door and got no reply. I wasn’t immensely worried when I discovered his bedroom was empty. Concerned, but not alarmed. Josh, one month short of 21, struggled with depression and social anxiety, and would sometimes go on lengthy walkabouts.
Only after an hour of driving around our neighborhood and surrounding streets, with texts and phone calls unanswered, did my wife Jessica and I decide it was time to call the police. At 11:30, a police sergeant—empathic but frank—broke the news at my dining room table that they were quite certain they had found my son’s body.
Following my thorough study of a post-mortem photograph an hour later—thorough, because Josh in death only bore a modest resemblance to my dear child in life)—I confirmed that my son was dead.
Need I say my life will never be the same again? Since that longest and most terrible day, I carry a sadness that might fade for a few hours, but seldom dissipates completely. I have rediscovered the multiple forms that tears of grief can take: paroxysms of sobbing, tears welling in my eyes as I walk my dogs, hot tears rolling down my cheeks like I’m a kid in an anime.
More often than not, I sense a hollow below my rib cage that wasn’t there before. I guess that’s where my love for my once-living child resided. (Funny how that works. I love him just as fiercely in death as I did in life.)
Let’s move on to the other feelings and thoughts that have arisen since Josh suicided. Guilt? Of course, though less intense now: previous therapy and quality time with Stoic philosophers have taught me how little I control in this life. And though hardly a perfect parent, I did the best I could for my child. But yeah, the woulda coulda shouldas are devious bastards who haunt me regularly.
Am I more anxious? Hell, yes. I have a simmering case of post-traumatic stress. My fuse is shorter, my concentration comes and goes, and my environment is stuffed with triggers for intrusive memories.
Besides anxiety and sadness, I suffer periods of numbness. Grief at such a loss feels like a post-concussion state. But there are also happier times. I love reminiscing with my wife and Josh’s two siblings about his delightful sense of humor, how he could wreck a well-planned Dungeons & Dragons adventure with an out-of-left-field strategy that broke the game. I delight in drawing from my own memory bank, how he belted out the choruses at a Nightwish concert, his political activism, his giddy smile as we talked over his cat Martha’s latest shenanigans, conquering his fear of heights to reach the pinnacle of St. Paul’s Cathedral on a magical London afternoon.
So, if I’m still (let’s be candid) an emotional wreck, why am I writing about suicide and surviving its aftermath? I can count four reasons, maybe more.
First, I love to write. Actually, I fucking need to write. Organizing and composing my thoughts has always been a clarifying and therapeutic endeavor.
Second, I want to remember my beautiful boy. As the band Death Cab for Cutie sings in What Sarah Said, “it stung like a violent wind/that our memories depend/on a faulty camera in our minds.” I need to type these remembrances of Josh’s profound goodness, his silliness, his secretiveness, and his pain, before that violent wind blows them away. My columns will regularly contain a photo of Josh, sometimes serious, sometimes playful. (I’ll also include photos I’ve snapped of my beloved Pacific Northwest, as its nature and wildlife have been a reliable balm for my wounded psyche.)
Third, losing someone to suicide can be a toxically isolating experience. Grief can shorten its survivors’ lifespans. Suicide contagion is real. And it ain’t right, but external stigma and internal shame accompany violent loss. In writing about my own thoughts, struggles, and successes, I hope readers will find comfort and companionship in this journey they never wanted to take. I’ve found very little—in bookstores or online—that addresses suicidal survival from a secular humanist point-of-view, so I hope this column can help remedy that deficiency.
Misery needs company.
I plan to cover a wide spectrum of topics in this column: depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation, guilt and shame, imposter syndrome, the “damaged goods” myth, religious micro- and macro-aggressions, self-care, finding support, good help versus harmful “help,” memorializing the dead, the magical thinking and weird rituals of grief, finding comfort in nature and the arts, humor and fun, and so much more.
If you’re so inclined, please add suggestions for topics in the comments section, and I hope in the future to facilitate video discussions and “ask me anything” get-togethers.
In writing these columns, I’ll be drawing upon my 28 years (and counting) as a mental health professional, as well as the insights I’ve gained from my own therapy, participation in support groups, and omnivorous reading. But just to be clear, these entries are no substitute for your own participation in therapy and support groups. In this column, I will be writing as a fellow traveler, not a personal therapist.
I also don’t want to come across as a suicide survival know-it-all. What has worked for me may not work for you. Since losing Josh is still extremely fresh and raw, I will no doubt take some wrong turns as I find my way. If I ever come across as prescriptive, please accept my apology in advance.
Lastly, I hope my jottings will contribute, however modestly, towards suicide prevention. Though the data is far from conclusive, some studies suggest the nonreligious are more likely to kill themselves. Despite his mother’s and his siblings’ religiosity, Josh had stopped attending Christian services in junior high and had been open about his atheism since 2016.
Regardless of belief or non-belief, it breaks my heart that 700,000 people worldwide die by their own hands yearly. Suicide is the second leading cause of death from ages 10-34. That’s too many families losing their children, spouses, and siblings. That’s too many friends ripped from our lives. That’s too many Joshes feeling bereft and hopeless on a Sunday morning. So, this column is for Josh, those fighting battles like his, and those who love the Joshes in their lives.