Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My son took his life several months ago. He was in his thirties, and had three children in their teens from a previous marriage. He was totally devastated over finding his wife of a few months was trading sex for drugs. He talked to a few friends the evening he found out, when one of the men sent him pictures of them having sex. He found out she was married, and thought he was doing the right thing letting my son know.
My son didn’t try to talk to any of his family. I guess he didn’t want us to talk him out of it. It was a complete shock as he was a silly, fun loving, happy guy. He was a very sweet man and we all miss him horribly. I feel like I’m sleepwalking and I wish I was dead. How can I help his children when I can’t deal with it?
A suicide death raises many troubling questions for survivors, questions about the deceased person’s state of mind behind the fatal decision, about our inability to intervene, and about the nature of the universe that permits such tragic outcomes and its impact on those left behind. Afterward, the stigma and avoidance that typically surround this form of loss further complicate adapting to life after loss for survivors, who can feel utterly alone and isolated in their grief. For all those who love your son, this must be an excruciating period.
Your description of your son as “silly, fun loving and happy” conjures a sense of innocence that contrasts with his wife’s dark secret, whose discovery must have been devastating for him. Tragically, death may have seemed like the one sure way to “turn off” the pain, shame and hurt of her betrayal, although his seemingly spur-of-the-moment decision to suicide, perhaps by violent means, left all of you with overwhelming pain of your own.
You ask how you can help his children when you can’t deal with this traumatic reality yourself. Ironically, acknowledging your own struggle and letting them see some of your own distress may actually be one way to help them, as it could give them permission to acknowledge and display their own feelings of hurt, abandonment and anger–directed, perhaps, at both of their parents. Of course, such feelings can be greatly complicated if they remain in their mother’s care, given the role that drug use and random sexual encounters seem to have played in leading to your son’s despair, and which suggest a very poor environment for continuing to raise the children and support them in their grief. Given this, your own involvement in their lives as a more stable figure ultimately can be crucial in helping them process this trauma, rebuild a sense of secure attachment to a stable and loving adult, and continue to move into a young adulthood marked by hope and possibility. For each of you, participation in a suicide bereavement support group can provide a healing context for sharing with others who have suffered this terrible form of loss, and overcoming the silence and stigma that can surround it. Moreover, especially in view of the absence of a functional parent to help the children cope with the loss and rebuild their lives, I would recommend professional therapy for the family with a therapist accustomed to working with family systems and bereavement. One of the clearest ways you can help is by securing the professional guidance and support that both you and the children need to come to terms with this heartbreaking loss and to reaffirm the value of your own lives as individuals and as a family.