I lost my father to suicide just one month after my tenth birthday.
I was young. Really young.
Even now, as a 26-year old, I can still barely comprehend quite how young I was to have to experience and process such a loss.
When people find out this part of my history, they ask me things like: How did it feel to be a kid and lose your parent in this way? What was it like? How much did you realize was going on? How perceptive were you at that age? How much were you told about what happened? How much do you think you should have been told?
My answer to all of these, is basically just: I don’t know.
In a way, losing someone when you’re a kid really isn’t that much different than being an adolescent or adult, I imagine: the whole world as you knew it has ended. It’s like everything you knew, planned, imagined, and depended upon has unalterably changed forever; but then you look around and the world somehow keeps spinning like nothing has changed at all. You try to meld the feeling that nothing will ever be the same again, while realizing that everything is still the same way it was seconds, moments, days, and weeks before you were told – but with one obvious change. It’s like the whole world has shifted 10 degrees, and no one else seems to notice but you. Everything is suddenly alien and foreign and strange. It’s an inconsistency that sits in your chest like a lump; a pill you can’t swallow no matter how hard you try to push it down.
People tell you things like, “Your father had a mental health condition. It’s a thing called depression. It has to do with brain chemistry. Something was wrong with him inside. He needed to go away to get help, and that’s the reason he won’t be coming back.”
What should someone tell a child who has just lost a loved one to suicide? What can a kid do to cope with this loss? What can be said?
Here’s my truth: I don’t know. There is no one easy “key” that unlocks the secret. There is no exact, specific answer.
But what you should do is reassure them that they’re not alone. That’s something I realize, now, is true: that even in the darkest of times, no one is ever alone, whether they realize it or not. Don’t kick yourself for not knowing what to do, and don’t let them kick themselves for anything, either. The answer is, you will figure out a way to get through it. That’s the only option: one step at a time.
The young person will have questions. “Where’s daddy?” and “How do I move on from here?” These questions are not easy. But there will be people to help figure it out, one question at a time.
There will be days and weeks, maybe even months, where they feel completely alone and lost. Do what you can to help guide them along, or just sit next to them through the storm, one day at a time.
Take it one day, one question, one step, and even one second at a time. Get through the next breath, get through the next meal, and then get through the next day. Just get through it, because that’s what you have to do.
There are countless people this has happened to, and there is a wealth of information and support available. So many people have gotten through this, and so will you. Don’t ever think you are alone, whether you’re someone who’s suffered a loss, or the person helping them get through the grief. When push comes to shove, you have the power to get through this, and there are support groups, therapists, activities and hobbies that can help you heal, as well as wonderful organizations like AFSP that can help facilitate the healing process by providing information that can inform your understanding of what has happened.
My own grieving process has been a long and winding road. I’ve tried just about everything along the way trying to figure it out. It wasn’t until I was asked to take part in the AFSP documentary The Journey that I found true comfort by finding myself in the company of others who have lost someone as well. That’s another thing that can help those grieving a suicide loss: connecting with others who have gone through what you have. Once a year for International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, hundreds of Survivor Day events take place across the country. But you don’t have to wait for once a year. Connect with your local AFSP chapter to help get connected to people in your community.
If I had to say one thing from one young suicide loss survivor to another, I would tell them the following: that there will come a day that you will stop and realize just how far you’ve come. All the accomplishments that have passed, the laughs you’ve had, the love you’ve found, the heartbreak you’ve felt, the places and things you’ve seen and done. All the things you have gotten through. You’ll look back, and you’ll be amazed by the support you’ve found, and the strength, determination, and hope you’ve found that lay inside yourself the whole time. And that will give you the courage to keep going: to take that next breath, that next step, and tackle the next day. I promise you, as someone who has been there before, I know now there is nothing that I can’t get through.
The same goes for you. Just take it one day at a time.
For more information on how to support children and teens following a suicide loss, see AFSP’s Children, Teens, and Suicide Loss booklet, written in partnership with the Dougy Center, The National Center for Grieving Children & Families.
Schools seeking best practices for healing after a suicide loss in their community can look to AFSP’s After a Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools, produced in collaboration with the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.