by Margaret Thomson
Ten years ago this August my son Kieran, a medic in the army, died by suicide. Needless to say, our family was devastated as we unwillingly took up membership in that most terrible of clubs, the one you never want to be a member of.
For almost a year, Kieran’s deployment had been repeatedly delayed, which may have increased the anxiety my son was almost certainly feeling, even though he vehemently denied in a suicide note he posted on Facebook that his impending deployment had anything to do with his decision to take his life.
As his mother, I experienced intense anger following Kieran’s death, which, as I would eventually learn, is a common response among suicide loss survivors. I was angry with my son for not seeking help, especially after telling me and my husband in a late-night phone call less than a year before that he wanted out of the army. I was angry with the army, too, for repeatedly delaying Kieran’s deployment and for the insensitive treatment my husband and I received during the days immediately following our son’s death.
I feel certain that from the moment he enlisted Kieran felt trapped, which is understandable given the serious repercussions that can—and often do—occur when a service member attempts to separate from the military before his or her stint is done. And feeling trapped, a therapist would tell me later, is one of the most common predictors of suicide.
Knowing this, I can’t help wondering how many other young people feel or have felt at least as trapped in the military as my own son undoubtedly did. The problem is the moment you put on that uniform you’re adopting an image—or persona—that you may or may not be entirely comfortable with. Or, in other words, being in the military definitely isn’t for everyone, especially given the not inconsiderable number of challenges and stressors involved, including frequent relocations and reassignments.
Early on, Kieran told me and my husband that he was planning on using the army for his own ends. Not surprisingly, though, the situation ended up being the other way around. The army often gives you much of what you want—a steady job, good benefits, etc.—but, in return, the institution invariably demands its pound of flesh. During his time in the army, Kieran enjoyed a degree of success he’d never experienced before, but there was definitely a price to be paid in that he was no longer able to march to a different drummer the way he’d done all his life.
As a teenager, Kieran had always been more of a long-haired, peace activist type of kid. My husband and I were therefore surprised when, at the age of twenty, he began talking about joining the military. By this time, though, he was married with a child and was understandably concerned about supporting his family. After dropping out of college his first semester, Kieran saw himself as having few options other than the military. In my opinion, though, as well as that of my husband, our son was ill-suited in many ways to the demands of military life. We were worried but we said little, since by this time time Kieran was not only of legal age but also married, which made us more reluctant to interfere than we otherwise might have been.
Kieran clearly romanticized being in the army. So much of what he was learning and doing was “cool,” or so he wrote in his lengthy, and often entertaining, letters home. During basic training Kieran became proficient at handling a variety of weapons, which, unfortunately, may have desensitized him to the lethal dangers such weapons often pose. He also enjoyed the “war games” aspect of his training, even though he wrote privately to my husband that he found the reality that he was indeed preparing to go to Afghanistan “sobering.”
Throughout this time, I worried that Kieran was in denial about his looming deployment, in what may have been a misguided effort to cope with his understandable fears. I was concerned that this attitude would definitely not serve him well. No, in my opinion, my son needed to face up to the reality of what he’d signed on for. If he doesn’t, I remember thinking, he’s going to be in even more danger once he actually arrives in Afghanistan.
Following Kieran’s death I wrote about all of the above and then some. I wrote as a way of processing what can only be described as a life-shattering loss. I wrote to see whether there was any way I could fashion a readable story out of a subject that most would prefer to avoid if at all possible. Had I known how great a toll the writing would take I’m not sure whether I would have persisted. But for some reason I did. Eventually, my writing recently became a book entitled The World Looks Different Now.
And it’s true. The world does indeed look different now. It changed the moment I received the incomprehensible news that my son had died. But then this is what suicide does. It changes how you see the world, as well as how you see yourself. Becoming a suicide loss survivor fundamentally changes who you are. It changes your outlook, your relationship with yourself, your relationship with others. Yes, you can—and almost certainly will—experience growth, but obviously it’s growth that comes at the highest cost imaginable.
Margaret has written a book, The World Looks Different Now.