I lost my 22-year-old son, Charlie, to suicide in 2018. The grief and guilt were overwhelmingly devastating and isolating.
A few friends gently suggested a support group. I was hesitant to attend a support group for those who had lost loved ones to suicide.
Why was I hesitant?
This was my loss.
Charlie was magnetic. He was blessed with good looks and a charming personality. He was well-spoken and captivating with scores of friends. I did not want to have to share my grief with anyone and feign interest in theirs.
How could anyone who did not know Charlie possibly understand my loss and help me with the grief? The enormity of losing my son was unbearable.
This was my grief that was at the forefront of my life, and I would not allow it to fall in line behind anyone else.
I already had to endure well-intentioned friends or acquaintances who perceived they were comforting me when declaring, “I know how you feel, I lost my mother…”
Really? Presumably, your mother lived a long and productive life – enjoyed marriage and a family. My son was 22 years old. He was on the verge of adulthood, a college student who was not yet grown and flown.
My son would never have the chance to enjoy marriage, family, or a career. I would never witness him to achieve those milestones.
The loss of an elderly parent is the end of an era. The loss of a young, vibrant 22-year-old college student is a tragedy.
Please don’t equate my loss to yours. I just did not know how to respond to some of these comments that usually left me screaming inside.
After months of rejecting participation in a support group, I signed up. I realized that I needed a connection to others who had suffered the loss of a young adult child to suicide.
I needed someone to talk with who truly felt suicide loss. Many friends and family who had been overwhelmingly supportive in the early days and weeks after Charlie’s death, no longer regularly reached out.
The invitations for coffee, lunch, or a glass of wine had dried up. They had moved on as this was not their grief.
It was mine, and I needed to talk and keep talking about Charlie.
I signed for a local 8-week suicide survivors support group. Ten or so participants were seated at the table in a conference room of a local church on the first night. Two moderators led the group.
All were allowed to tell their stories. Some shared in greater detail than others.
No one was shocked by a participant’s story. There were a few who had stories that I perceived to be worse than mine.
Some suicides were particularly violent. Some left very young children. Others did not leave a note as my son did.
I ached for them just as they ached for me, and their grief was as palpable as mine. There was comfort and kinship among the group that I had not yet found since Charlie’s death. Everyone listened in solidarity, especially as the thread of alcohol abuse, drug use, and mental illness was woven into the stories.
No one looked away or appeared uneasy when I spoke Charlie’s name. Folks were eager to listen when I reminisced about my son’s life. I could have talked for hours.
No one had any answers to the “why’s” or “what if’s,” but there was healing in shared grief. They had all experienced guilt and continued to search for answers as I did. I interpreted my son’s suicide as an epic failure as a parent.
I was now in the company of parents who could relate to those feelings. No one told me not to feel guilty about Charlie’s death.
The “I know how you feel” was unmistakably genuine and went unspoken. We all knew.
We talked of stress on family and other relationships. Like me, many in the group felt extreme disappointment in friends who had stopped reaching out – friendships that crumbled over one’s inability to provide support or reach out in the most fundamental way with a “how are you doing?”
The 10th month anniversary of my son’s death passed without a single text or phone call from a friend or family member. My husband and I cried together that evening. I attended session 6 of the support group and was able to verbalize my disappointment.
These compassionate folks felt the emptiness right alongside me.
Many of us had the awkward experience of running into an acquaintance or neighbor around town, with the individual nervously chatting away about everything except our child. This was yet another experience that left me screaming inside, and now I sat among others who felt the same emotions in such chance meetings.
We were able to express our sadness with those encounters.
We met every Wednesday, and as the weeks passed, the group bonded with ease and familiarity. Among the tears, there were moments of laughter as we shared stories. I wish I could have known each survivor’s lost loved one.
All of the departed seemed like extraordinary people who impacted an infinite amount of lives. Those who left us too soon included a mother of two very young children; a kind-hearted middle-aged adult son who had been bullied throughout his school life; a young musician who was working and living independently despite a devastating diagnosis of schizophrenia; a 20 year old college student who cheered his mom on via text messages as she hiked the Appalachian Trail.
It was his mom with whom I felt the greatest connection as we discovered that our sons’ similarities and shared interests.
I wish I did not have to meet these parents and spouses among such tragedy, but I needed to know how they coped (or didn’t.) I learned that it’s ok not to be ok. It’s ok to take two steps forward, followed by three backward.
No one ever spoke of “closure” – a frequently overused word that many routinely apply to a tragedy. Collectively, we knew there would never be closure, and I don’t think any of us were looking for that.
The group provided hope for the future. The two moderators were models for reconstructing one’s life and finding joy again. They had each lost a young adult son a dozen years earlier. I found hope in their stories.
The only movement was forward, and we talked of ways to honor and memorialize our loved ones. I had to learn to say goodbye to Charlie’s physical presence and find a way to carry the sorrow.
I was sorry to see the group end at eight weeks.
Those three elements were ever-present, but I no longer felt so isolated. I now had a few that I could reach out to and share my grief with.