More than 10 years have passed since our eldest son died by suicide. As I reflect on the first year after his death, I remember how it felt impossible to accept the painful new reality.
For years afterward, my husband and I tried to come to terms with our excruciating loss and all that led to our son’s final, desperate act. Mired in grief and guilt, we agonized over the now-obvious warning signs: his social angst and anxiety through adolescence, the inner demons that continued to plague him in college, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
My inability to heal him, to make him feel safe and whole — what feels like my failure to help him in any “real,” significant way — has haunted me. After all, isn’t a mother’s primary job to make sure her young survive?
The path to healing from this loss has not been straightforward. It has required honest introspection, radical acceptance, true forgiveness and unrelenting strength.
Remembering My Son and All His Complexities
I will always think of our son as a shooting star that burned out early. His future seemed so bright and full of promise, yet it all dimmed too quickly. Smart and creative, he was an outsider who couldn’t find his place at the table the way others his age did. He remained at the edge of the crowd, longing to feel accepted, but unsure of where to start.
My heart aches for those like him who feel compelled to sit on the sidelines in isolation, overwhelmed by thoughts gone wrong, who see only one solution.
Finding a Way Forward with Forgiveness
Our family was thrown into a pit of despair by this loss. As you might expect, climbing our way out has taken effort and time. Experts call this recovery process “grief work,” for it feels like hard labor, both physically and emotionally.
There is no hurrying through the pain, guilt, confusion and desperation. My husband and I struggled with sadness and guilt over losing our son and not being able to get him the support he needed. However, with time, we were able to recognize the ways we had showed up for him.
We had tried hard, making sure he always had a warm, loving family around him and access to an array of mental health supports (psychiatrist, psychologist, peer support networks, etc.). Eventually, with this recognition of our efforts, the weight of the guilt lightened and gave way to acceptance and a less self-critical feeling of regret.
Another stage of the healing process required admitting and coming to terms with our feelings of anger toward our child for what he did. Through honest discussion, we discovered that we didn’t see our son as just the victim of a violent act, but the perpetrator who ultimately murdered someone we loved. We felt that he had not only robbed himself of his future, but also robbed his family of a future with him in it. However, as we learned to forgive ourselves for his death, we learned to accept and forgive him, too.
Accepting Our Scars and Celebrating our Strength
My husband and I made it through a figurative fire and crawled out scorched, scarred and transformed. A core piece of my life that was once there is missing — yet sometimes I can still see, feel and hear my son like he’s a phantom limb.
Through time, I’ve learned just how strong and resilient I am. I understand, now, that I am a person who can walk this difficult path and bear this heavy weight. Our marriage, too, is sturdier than it has ever been. My husband and I have shared a harrowing experience, but one that has soldered the pieces of our bond together and melded us in ways we couldn’t have foreseen.
I will always feel a special connection to people who are also grappling with sadness and loss. Unfortunately, there are many, but they do not need to go through it alone. Sharing our stories and memories, while accepting our new realities, is the way we can move forward and heal.
Susan Wight has been a commercial artist and copywriter since 1986, including for clients such as Nolo Press and the National Brain Tumor Foundation. She has been a member of the National League of American Pen Women (NLAPW) since 2002.