When our first child, John Michael, was born Oct. 2, 1984, my husband, Bob, and I were determined to get this parenting thing right. On Sept. 12, 2007, we doubted we had gotten anything right. Grieving the death of a child to suicide makes you question yourself and everything you thought you knew about life and God.
My journey of doubt began while I was attending the American Association of Christian Counselors’ world conference in Nashville, Tennessee. With only a few minutes before the opening session, I phoned Bob. I was relating the highlights of my trip so far, when he interrupted me, stumbling for words. Sensing something was not right, I became frantic.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“What’s wrong?” I demanded, raising my voice.
“John … he went to a shooting range … ummm … he … shot himself … he’s on life support.”
“So, he’s going to be OK?” I asked.
“Unfortunately, the doctor said there isn’t any hope.”
I crumbled to the floor in the midst of a sea of more than 7,000 Christian counselors who were scurrying to the main auditorium. My 22-year-old son had done what we never imagined possible — he exchanged his driver’s license for a gun at a shooting range, and instead of aiming at the paper target, he held the gun to his head. And he didn’t miss.
Beginning the grief journey after the death of a child
Shortly after I learned of John’s death, the conference staff rallied around me in support. In contrast, Bob had been alone when two stern-faced policemen knocked at our front door, shocking him with the words no parent wants to hear. The officers then chauffeured Bob to the shooting range to retrieve the John’s car. Next, Bob took a lonely drive to the hospital where he saw John lying motionless.
John’s suicide was the culmination of a troubled life marked with mental illness — extreme lows and occasional highs. Toward the end, there were only lows. Bob is a local pastor with a doctorate, and I’m a professional counselor with a master’s; yet our advanced degrees couldn’t stop John from snuffing out his young life.
The week after John’s suicide was a flurry of activity with friends and family flying into Philadelphia to comfort us as we buried our oldest of four children. More than 700 people attended John’s funeral, as a result, our family felt loved and supported. But then life returned to normal for others, while our family plunged into this uncharted journey called grief.
Most everyone knows a family who has been affected by the death of a child to suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the last decade suicide has reached pandemic proportions, with no signs of slowing. A 2017 LifeWay Research survey revealed that more than half of churchgoers polled had heard of a suicide in their community during the past year and a third had a family member or someone they knew die from suicide. That’s a lot of parents who have been unwillingly ushered into the grief club.
Along the decade-long healing journey, we’ve learned from both the things we feel we did well and the things we wish we would have known or had done differently after the death of our child to suicide.
Deciding not to blame each other or God for the death of a child
Part of the grieving process is anger. In our situation there were many things that caused anger — doctors who didn’t diagnose John properly, a hospital that released John when he was still suicidal, and Christians who didn’t reach out to encourage him. We came to the conclusion that staying in anger would have only prolonged our suffering
It is common when suicide occurs to want to know the reasons. Why did John feel the need to take his life? Why did God allow John to be plagued with mental illness? Why couldn’t the doctors find a medication that would have helped? I think we both knew the “why” questions would be a never-ending loop that would keep us from moving forward. And we would never fully know the answer. We were OK with accepting that we would never know.
One of the things I believe we did well was to guard our marriage because we were aware of the strain on a marriage after a losing a child. It’s easy when you’re in that much pain to blame the person nearest you. Bob and I were both filled with more sadness than we could have imagined, and we needed the support and comfort of each other.
Those who have lost a child to suicide may often feel they are to blame for the death. At first, we both struggled with guilt. But as we talked, we became convinced that nothing we could have done would have prevented John from carrying out his plan to kill himself.
Bob remembers some of his first thoughts at the hospital that brought him comfort — that God is our Creator and He is good. It was through the effects of sin that death entered the world. Death was never God’s original intention.
Early on in the grief process, Bob shared with me the verse written by Job (a man who lost nine more children than I did), “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10 NIV). We had certainly welcomed blessings from the Lord, and now we were reminded that we also needed to accept (not like) the difficult things.
Accepting that grieving the loss of a child affects everything
We wish we had been more patient with ourselves, now knowing that grief is harder than we could imagine. As a couple we didn’t allow enough downtime to mourn, and we expected ourselves to carry on with normal responsibilities.
We didn’t realize grief was going to take everything we had and more. The pain in those early hours, days and months was beyond our normal ability to cope. We wanted the pain to stop, but it didn’t. We wanted life to go back to normal, but it never would.
My husband and I didn’t have sleep issues before John died. In those early days followed by weeks, restful sleep eluded us. I remember feeling exhausted, yet unable to sleep. And when I finally did sleep, I woke up to a wet pillow. Grief didn’t let up even in the night — it was our constant companion for several years.
Allowing each other the space to grieve the death of a child differently
Bob and I processed John’s suicide both as a couple and as individuals. We both lost the same child we loved with all our heart. But we each had to grieve our unique relationship with our son. In the beginning, it was easy to judge each other’s grief if it didn’t look like we thought it should. For example, I was baffled that Bob could watch any movie or TV show involving guns. The sight or mention of a gun was a trigger for me, but not for my husband.
Sometimes, one spouse is more tearful than the other. Women typically will cry more than their husbands. That doesn’t necessarily mean the one who cries more, loved more. But we’ve learned that outwardly you can’t always tell what is going on in a person’s heart. Grief is played out individually.
In the early months, Bob would sometimes visit the cemetery alone while I was at work. At first, I felt upset. Why couldn’t he wait for me to go with him? But I reminded myself that Bob needed the space to grieve the death of our child privately.
I also needed to process my pain in private. Journaling allowed me to be raw without censoring my emotions. My journal never judged me, was always there for me and tracked my journey. Death by suicide leaves many questions, but few answers. I found processing my jumbled emotions through writing to be invaluable. With my Bible, pen and journal I healed one page at a time.
Finding support after the loss of a child
When the loss of a child is because of suicide, couples face additional hurdles while grieving. One of them is lack of understanding and support. The Lifeway study mentioned earlier discovered that over half of church attenders are more likely to gossip about a suicide rather than assist the family. The day before we buried John, I overheard someone gossiping about him. Those judgmental comments only added to my pain.
Because our family had moved to Philadelphia three years earlier, we didn’t have extended family or friends to rely on. Death by suicide makes others uncomfortable, so otherwise friendly acquaintances and friends often avoid the grieving parents. This makes it all the more critical to find safe friends with whom you can process the loss. I was able to process my grief not only with Bob but also a close friend and my sister. However, Bob shared his pain only with me.
I have counseled couples when one spouse isn’t comfortable talking about the suicide. In general, men have more difficulty expressing feelings, especially with other men. This can cause some additional hurdles for husbands in their healing journey.
Consider grief counseling after the death of a child
Sometimes assistance from a professional counselor or a grief support group is a helpful option. It was in our case. A couple of years after John’s passing, Bob traveled to California for a week-long leadership counseling intensive conducted by Drs. John Townsend and Henry Cloud. At the conference, the participants were put in a small group led by a professional counselor. In the group Bob was able to tell his story, cry and receive comfort from others. He came back refreshed and renewed.
Looking back, I think we would have benefited from a faith-based support group like GriefShare. In the beginning, we had no extra energy to even attend a group. We were both working full time, and the church where Bob pastored was experiencing conflict. However, we still could have been helped by a grief support group even a year or two after our loss. Be sure to take advantage of groups in your area or at church.
Recognize that grieving the loss of a child takes years
The first three years were difficult for us — thoughts of John were never far from our minds. We both continued to journey through the process for several years. I would agree with grief and trauma expert Dr. H. Norman Wright, who believes that grieving the loss of a child can take up to 10 years.*
In our marriage, mourning the loss of our son has been a long and difficult journey. We’ve both moved forward at our unique pace. It’s hard to say which of us suffered more or longer — I grieved as only a mom can, and Bob grieved as only a dad can. Some things we grieved as a couple, and some things we grieved in private. And as life marches on, each of us can still be ambushed occasionally by grief. Like this past Mother’s Day — I didn’t get a call from one of my four children, another reminder of my loss.
Find a way to honor your loved one
John’s gravesite was less than 2 miles from our home. Bob and I would go there to cry and honor the son who had captured our hearts for the last 22 years. Sometimes we would walk and talk, and sometimes we were both quiet as we strolled. Bob would carry a grocery bag filled with a spray bottle of cleaner, a cloth and gardening shears to tidy up the gravesite. Keeping John’s gravesite looking well kept was all he had left to do to care for our son.
Years later Bob brought an additional grocery bag to the cemetery. The second bag held John’s tennis shoes that Bob had been wearing after John died. He carefully placed the sneakers on each side of the brass footer. That’s something Bob wanted to do, and I embraced this act of remembrance. John was an extremely active and athletic person, and his shoes symbolized his zest for life.
Allowing the tears to flow after the death of a child
I remember seeing my husband cry only once before John’s death. That first Christmas season Bob was preaching from the Gospel of Luke. He stammered as he attempted several times to choke out the words of the angel Gabriel, “and you shall call his name John” (Luke 1:13). After a few unsuccessful attempts, he broke down crying from the pulpit. Bob couldn’t say the name John.
Tears are designed by God to heal. They need to be released. In our culture, men aren’t encouraged to cry. As a result, crying had not been part of my life or Bob’s — until we lost John. Eventually I discovered the healing power of tears. My tears flowed freely, often and without warning. I learned not to apologize — I had lost my son and I was allowed to cry.
Moving forward after the loss of a child
After losing a child for whatever reason, parents have a tendency to stay stuck in life — for life to stand still and the former passion for living to be extinguished. We’ve also experienced this temptation, and I’ve witnessed parents who don’t recover after a loss of this magnitude.
Our hope and prayer from our loss of a child is that suicide would not take other causalities — one life cut short is enough. We are both convinced it is possible to heal from the loss of a child to suicide. Yet in that healing, we will be left with a scar — a symbol of the intense pain experienced. But as you journey through grief, know that God desires to walk with you in the midst of your profound suffering. In the book of Isaiah, God encourages us in the journey, “Fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you” (Isaiah 41:10, RSV).
* H. Norman Wright, Grieving the Loss of a Loved One (Raleigh, NC: Regal, 2013), 70-71.