The night Charles died, we had to call our loved ones and share the tragic news. The last one we called was Richard, our oldest son. We knew he stayed up later than both of our parents (Charles’ grandparents) whom we started calling at 9:30pm.
Prior to that, we just couldn’t even talk, walk straight or comprehend. We found out about 8pm and I had to tell his girlfriend first which was a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching call as yet another person felt the stab of that loss and the guilt that often follows a suicide.
It took a while to recover from that call. (We don’t blame her at all.)
So I call Richard about 11:30pm and I told him his brother had died by suicide. His first reaction was, “Oh, no.”
Then he said the most amazing thing
Without missing a beat, Richard said, “You guys are great parents. I love you both. You did everything you could and I tried, too. Charles and I were raised in the same house by the same parents and I don’t see anything you did wrong. You helped him as much as he could be helped. You couldn’t know he’d kill himself.”
I know he said more but that’s what I remember. I was just amazed that all of a sudden, all this wisdom came tumbling out of my 22-year-old son’s mouth. He was so calm and collected like something took over him at that moment. And for the second time that day, I was shocked. But this time I was amazed, too and stunned into silence.
The thing about the suicide of a child is that you feel like you have failed at the one thing that is most important to any parent and that is seeing your child to adulthood. I had hoped that the wilderness, therapeutic boarding school, rehab etc. would help Charles build a toolbox to manage his depression and successfully bridge the gap from adolescence to thriving adulthood.
That was obviously not the outcome
On the worst day of my life, someone told me I was a good parent and it happened to be the most important person in the world to me. It also happened to be the one that experienced and lived with me as a parent.
Others told me that but Richard never talked me out of my tears, my hurt, or my pain when he said it. He wasn’t trying to quiet my tears. He said what he said one time when it meant the most– and he knew it resonated.
I can’t say I didn’t torture myself after that because I did. It’s part of the complex grief process following a suicide in particular. But I would also replay what Richard said in my head at those times I hurt the most and it did help me pull it together and face the day. Sometimes it was the only thing I could grab onto.
After Charles’ death, I called Richard often when I was at my lowest, in racking sobs. (I still do) I didn’t hide my ugly, naked pain. He never once tried to talk me out of my tears, scold me for my grief or try to escape. He was unusually patient and comfortable with it.
I haven’t needed but about a minute or so to talk about Charles and then I want him to tell me all about what he is doing. And that’s what he has done, telling me about his short film and his latest work project. I just listen and let his conversation sweep me away to somewhere else.
A lot of adults I ran into after it happened didn’t give me that minute but talked all around the subject. I know it’s out of fear of saying the wrong thing. Some even tried talking me out of my grief because they were uncomfortable. But not Richard. How did he know to do that?
One time when I started to tear up around Richard and his roommate, the roommate said, “Oh no, don’t cry.” Richard jumped in and smiled, hugged me and looked at his roommate and said, “It’s OK. Let her cry.”
The death of his brother definitely fast-forwarded his maturity
He has struggled with anger and frustration and the “how could you do this to us?” more than I have. Very understandable. Very natural.
While I don’t feel he has fully grasped the “addiction is a disease” part or even the clinical depression, I see he’s making an effort to understand it. I can’t fast forward him through that journey. I have to allow him to move through it at his pace. No lectures, just listening and I think he’ll find that place of understanding at some point.
Richard had just graduated from college and was excited to start his new life and pursue his passion as a filmmaker. He had just achieved his greatest accomplishment since learning how to walk which was followed just two weeks later by the worst thing to ever happen to him. It did indeed force him to stop and regroup. As it did all of us.