By no means am I an expert; however, I have lived experience, which they say is the best teacher.
If you are also the parent of a child who has survived the persistent thoughts of wanting to die by suicide, or an attempt to die by suicide, we are fellow travelers on this journey.
Here’s how I see the process we are living day by day:
>> Accept it
>> Realize you can’t fix it
>> Give yourself a damn break
>> Seek the help you need for your child
>> Seek the help you need for yourself
>> Allow yourself to grieve
>> Be patient with both of you and never give up
1. Accept it
How will you live with the knowledge that your child doesn’t want to live?
Don’t waste time in denial, hoping that this isn’t actually happening. What you resist, persists. Accept it and move forward. As much as you may hate and protest against your new reality, you need to embrace it in order to move through it. Adjusting quickly is the first and best thing you can do.
Let this be your mantra: I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, I can’t cure it, but I can learn to cope with it.
2. Realize you can’t fix it
I retitled this piece from my working title “How To Help Your Suicidal Kid” because there’s nothing you can really do to help. The first step is to realize that and surrender to it. This situation is similar to what you would practice in a 12-step program where you must admit you are powerless over your addiction and you need to just let go and surrender to a higher power. In the end, you have to accept the reality that your child will always have free will, no matter what you do or don’t do, and you truly have no control over that. You will do what you can, but make peace with the idea that it might not be enough. The sooner you are able to let go of the illusion of control, the better it will be for both of you. You can’t save people; you can only love them while they save themselves.
Acknowledge that it’s not your job to fix your kid. You aren’t their therapist or doctor or any other healer. Your job is to enable your child to get the help they need from the appropriate sources. Perhaps it’s medication, or therapy, or family counseling, or a hospital stay. There are a myriad of therapies available today; assist your child in evaluating and pursuing these. Help them show up to appointments. Help them remember to take the medication. You are their encourager on the sidelines, consistently showing up for your kid every day.
Avoid toxic positivity. Telling a mentally ill person to think positive equates to telling a wheelchair-bound person to just get up and run. Accept them as they are, and let go of the desire to change them. Don’t impose your expectations on them. Know the warning signs when they are in distress so you can react appropriately and try to catch a relapse early. Sometimes your only job is to just be present in their suffering.
3. Give yourself a damn break
There aren’t many things more painful for a parent to face than the idea that the child they brought into the world doesn’t want to be here anymore. Parents feel responsible and feel like they could have done or said something differently for this not to happen, but that isn’t the truth. It’s our own egos that make us want to take responsibility.
Get over yourself and consider this: maybe…you didn’t cause it. Maybe…you are along on the journey to guide and support and to make even the smallest corner of their world better in any way possible. Maybe…it’s not actually about you.
Attempting to die by suicide seems like a conscious choice to the average person. However, suicide feels like the only way out to people trapped in the prison of their mental illness. People who die by suicide have died as a result of depression, or unrelenting anxiety, or a personality disorder, or some other mental illness. When you perceive your brain to be the cause of your misery and you’ve tried multiple avenues to get better with no result, your only wish is to escape. Parents of a child who has attempted to die by suicide wrestle with anger over the thought that their child made a conscious choice. It’s natural to feel the anger, but don’t hold onto it; let it pass. You will feel an onslaught of emotions, and though it feels like the pain will never stop, it will all subside eventually.
4. Seek the help you need for your child
It may seem strange that this is not at the top of the list. But if you haven’t gone through the first three steps, you’re not going to get anywhere. You can’t be in denial, wishing for reality to change. You also can’t be flailing around in your vain attempts to provide solutions and fix this yourself. And you certainly won’t be any use to anybody if you’re flagellating yourself for your perceived shortcomings as a parent. These reactions are understandable but will impede all efforts to effectively help. Get it out of your system, and get on to the healing that begins in this step.
Give your child the tools to help themselves. You won’t necessarily know what those are, but you will be spearheading the search. You don’t have the answers, but you are the conduit for obtaining them. You are not expected to know everything or how to do everything, but it is your responsibility to start figuring it out with the help of professionals. Not every road you travel will get you somewhere; you will hit some dead ends, but you are there to help navigate and be alongside your kid on this journey.
Seek a diagnosis. Even if it changes over time, it gives you a starting point. ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, or gender dysphoria could be part of the picture. Help your kid seek the diagnoses and medication or other therapies they need. Living with an undiagnosed disorder and wondering what’s wrong with you, or actively trying to suppress it, is a huge impetus in suicidal ideation among youth.
Gather allies among your kid’s friends, teachers, and other caring folks in both of your lives. Speak in broad terms so your child won’t feel exposed, or that people are gossiping and judging them behind their back. Let the allies be aware so they can be on your kid’s side. There is no reason to go into great detail except with your closest support system.
Drop the fear and let your child talk about their feelings. It is better that they talk about their desire to die than to act on those feelings. Be open to listening, no matter how hard it is to hear. Validate and reflect back to them, and don’t discount or argue against their feelings. It’s not on you to try to fix this; remember, you aren’t their therapist or doctor. Offer to go to counseling with them. Encourage them to talk to someone. Call 988 or kids help phone together or coach them to. Practice ways to interrupt the suicidal impulse. Help them recognize when to go to the hospital. Do everything you can to protect them from themselves when they aren’t able to.
When things go sideways, don’t panic; just stay calm and matter-of-fact. Practice coregulation, and breathe together. Show and tell your love, but don’t inflict guilt. Help your kid to find a positive focus for their energies. Take them to do fun things, but don’t be disappointed if they don’t seem to enjoy it. How you act and react matters.
Healing is rarely a linear process. Be prepared to take two steps forward and one step back. There is no timeline for this, and a setback is not cause for the loss of hope. In fact, relapses can be expected. You will learn ways to help your child desire to live, even though so much of this is out of your control. Be an open, accepting, non-judgmental space for your kid to vent. The world is harsh and unloving, so love unconditionally even if sometimes you don’t understand or agree with your child.
5. Seek the help you need for yourself
Put everything else aside. You are a busy person, maybe even an important person. But none of it matters and all of it can wait. The cleanliness of your house or inbox is inconsequential. Maybe you’re the person who can do it all, but you can’t be that person now. Your only job is to keep yourself together and to get the help your child needs. You cannot expect to do more than that at this time. Full stop. You probably won’t give yourself the permission to let everything else drop, but I’m telling you that’s exactly what you have to do.
You need people in your corner who will help you stay healthy. This is an enormous load to carry, particularly if you have a career or other responsibilities that can’t be set aside. This will take a toll on your physical and mental health, so you need to do everything you can to take care of yourself. It feels counterintuitive, but you still need to prioritize yourself above your child, no matter what is going on. If you crumble, what good will you be to either of you? Focus on your sleep, proper eating, and exercise, and steer clear of substances. Seek counseling for yourself; it is so essential to the healing process. Reach out to supportive friends and family whom you can lean on. It isn’t fair to burden just one friend with all your thoughts and feelings—not even your partner. It is a lot to bear, and you need a strong support system from multiple angles. This can’t be overstated.
Seek education. Learn more about the diagnoses your child receives. Understand what you can say or do that will aid in healing. Take responsibility for the small role you play in this and play your part to the best of your ability. Read about family systems and epigenetics and trauma—anything that will help you make sense of how you got to this place. But know that you may never understand the exact reasons, and it’s okay; you’ll be able to move through and past it, regardless. Be willing to change. While this is not your fault, you can take responsibility for learning and applying new skills.
Don’t become codependent. Remember, you are still ultimately only responsible for yourself. Learn how to show up in the relationship and how to have firm boundaries so you don’t lose yourself while also doing the best you can to be alongside and facilitate healing where possible. You will have a great sadness about what your kid is going through, but you can still be a happy person who lives and makes the best of your own life. Practice being here now and appreciating this moment. Stay in the present moment; that’s where there are few problems. Grab onto any happiness you can find while navigating this.
It’s a lonely journey. It’s not the same as having a kid with a physical illness like cancer or a kid who needs a new organ; those parents might be inundated with offers of help and sympathy and fundraisers and all the rest. Parents whose children are facing mental illness are largely ignored. Nobody seems to know what to do or say, and the parents often don’t share their story. I think this is partly because it’s not so clear cut as a failing organ or cancer; we often can’t make sense of it ourselves. You can’t see a mental illness and there is the lingering, yet wrongheaded idea that parents have somehow caused it—creating an aura of shame. The brain is an organ like any other in the body, and it can be affected by illness. But its workings are so much more mysterious, and the cause and cure are harder to pinpoint. People seem to think that a person should have control over their brain and therefore mental illness is their fault. Of course, no one is expected to be able to control or take responsibility for something going wrong with a kidney or heart. The very real stigma compounds the pain of dealing with the illness.
6. Allow yourself to grieve
When your child suffers from suicidal ideation, you will go through the stages of grieving. Your child has a life-threatening illness. Your kid is still here, but nothing will ever be the same, and you will naturally grieve the child you thought you knew who seems to no longer exist. You have been thrown from the trajectory you both were on; the future becomes wide open, and that is extremely anxiety provoking. It doesn’t mean your child can’t get to a healthy place again, but everything has changed, and in coming to accept this, you will pass through the steps of grieving.
Despite understanding intellectually why people attempt suicide, they want the pain to end and can’t see any other way; you will feel an array of uncomfortable emotions. You’re going to feel angry, even though you don’t want to. You’re going to feel like your soul has been crushed. You’re going to feel like your life has been hijacked and you are your kid’s hostage or punching bag. Remember, this is not your kid’s fault, and they aren’t doing this to hurt you or ruin your life. It’s not about you and it’s not a reflection on you, so don’t take it personally and don’t torture yourself with blame. Vent your feelings to your support system—never on your child. You have to allow yourself to feel all of it because if you don’t, it just accumulates and gathers force. You will find a way to live with the immense heartache, and then, it will subside.
Life now becomes about learning to exist with a new reality—one where your child could die any moment. Try to find the balance between holding tight to your kid and letting go and learn to lean into letting go. This is after all their life journey and you’re just along for the ride. It is said that you’re only as happy as your least happy child. You will feel pain, grief, anger, hopelessness, and suffering—oceans of suffering. This crisis throws into stark relief what is important, what matters, what doesn’t, and the brevity and fragility of life. And that is an unexpected gift.
7. Be patient with both of you and never give up
Keep going. Even on the darkest days, keep going. Muster up enough hope for both of you. No matter how many sleepless nights you spend at the hospital, never give up. In the throes of what your kid is going through, they may say horrible things. Let them. Let it bounce off of you. You are their safe person who will never walk away. Don’t take any of it personally. They need to vent their feelings somewhere; you can be that place for them. All you can control is how you show up and who you want to be. Be the consistent beacon, the lighthouse shining your love—a love that will never be withdrawn. One day, your kid may thank you for fighting for their life when they weren’t able to. They may thank you for loving them so intensely and protecting them from themselves.
Days have to pass. Just let time go by. Feelings and thoughts will change. Adolescents turn into young adults, medications kick in, hormones settle down, brains get rewired, and therapies hit home. You can get through the next five minutes. Just take it even one minute or one day at a time, and as that time passes, things will get better, for both of you. Just do your utmost to keep your kid safe under your watch, and as days go by, they will start to change and feel differently. Nothing is permanent.
For us, it’s been a five-year journey, and I feel like we have rounded a significant corner. Any parent who has gone through this will tell you that even when things seem calm, they are still on guard. Once you’re in it, you’re in it for good; the anxiety of knowing that your child could choose to exit life will never leave your mind. Nothing can take you back to the time before. That doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate and enjoy the good times, but you know how fragile it all is. Recovery is a lifelong process; look for and celebrate the almost imperceptible shifts as well as the significant milestones.
We have reached a new stage of the journey where things have improved to a degree that I genuinely feel hopeful for a brighter future. This is my wish for you.