Complicated grief

November 1, 2019 -- Living City

Complicated grief
How a father coped with his son’s death by suicide

By Tim Schum

I live in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was raised in the Catholic faith and have been religious throughout my life, especially developing a deep relationship with Mary. This helped me through a period of life that challenged me existentially.

My wife and I have five children, with the youngest one named Matthew (name changed). Matthew was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was in his early teens. This illness had a profound impact on him and on our family.

He had rapid cycling of his mood from very depressed to very manic over a very short time period, and this occurred frequently. At times you could see him change before your eyes. My wife and I could see his mood change frequently, but felt hopeless in trying to help him.

Matthew started having suicidal thoughts, was hospitalized several times, and subsequently had two life-threatening suicide attempts, when he was 14 and 15 years old. He managed to get through these. However, I realized that I could not prevent him from taking his own life if he was determined to follow through. What a hopeless and painful feeling!

Then in March 2005, our world came crashing down when he died by suicide at the age of 17. One night he was here on earth and the next he wasn’t.

No words can describe what it was like for our family. Grief over the death of a child is probably the most profound grief that anyone can experience. It isn’t the natural order for children to die before their parents, and it lasts for so very long. I suppose it was at least six months before I wasn’t crying every day. I still think about him every day, but almost all of my days are good days now.

Immediately after Matthew’s death I had many different feelings. The passage in the Bible that best describes my feeling was when Jesus was on the cross and he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). I wondered why God had abandoned me, and I felt desolate, just like Mary after Jesus died on the cross. We both had lost a son that we loved so much.

I was also angry at Matthew. How could he take his own life, when he was surrounded by love? But then I felt guilty over being angry at my own son. I did believe in God’s love and trusted that he had a plan for Matthew and us, but this belief was not as firm as it had been before Matthew died.

Mary had trusted in God’s plan throughout her life. She had heard that a sword would pierce her heart, and then she saw Jesus persecuted and crucified.

I had always tried to live in the present moment, and after Matthew died, I only had enough energy to live that moment only, not being able to think at all about the future. People tried to be helpful, by saying things like, “You’ll get over it,” but a grieving parent once told me: “You never get over it. You only get through it.”

I suggest that you not use the phrase that someone will “get over it.”

The only way that I can make sense of it is from two quotes, which I read in a book after Matthew died. First, “Suicide is the worst possible decision in a mind that can no longer function in a rational manner.” That helped me to realize that the suicidal person is no longer thinking rationally. Secondly, for those contemplating and attempting suicide, “The pain of living is worse than the pain of dying.”

That my wife and I shared a strong Catholic faith helped us cope. My relationship with my wife and kids grew deeper. We no longer took each other for granted. We didn’t talk about superficial stuff. When we asked, “How was your day?” we meant, “Did you get through the day without falling apart?”

Friends and relatives wanted to help but really didn’t know how. What do you say to the parents and siblings of a child who died by suicide? This is a situation that makes people too uncomfortable!

Initially I only had the energy to put one foot in front of the other in trying to do everyday activities. I had a very difficult time.

 


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