All the King’s Horses an article printed in Lifesavers Magazine Spring 1996
Perhaps it is a measure of the progress I’ve made in the six intervening years that I am now able to think rationally enough about our son John’s suicide at age 22 to make a few observations about the experience. The feeling of loss is still so overwhelming that my thoughts do not readily sort themselves out. Most survivors are motivated to help comrades in anguish; and so I write this in hopes that something of what I learned in my own struggles might be of help to survivors, especially those whose loss is recent.
The death of one’s child by whatever cause is devastating. In the case of suicide, the agonizing sense of personal loss is compounded by suddenness. It is further compounded by the nature of the act itself which is unfathomable, at least initially by most parents, siblings and friends. The bereaved must struggle not only with terrible grief of loss, but among other antagonists, with the anguish of relentless self-doubt as to what responsibility may rest with oneself. In addition, unlike cases of accidental death, the survivor is agonizingly aware of how much suffering the loved one must have endured to cause him to end his life. The survivor also is left to wonder when the awful battle with depression began.
My own experience is that most people are totally mystified by the act of suicide, and many still believe that the individual could have survived if he had just stiffened his spine and focused on the good things in life, just as many still regard severe depression as a case of the blues which can be ridden out. A good friend and prominent attorney asked soon after our son’s death, “Why did he do it?” I explained that John suffered from terrible depression. He pondered that and replied, “Yes, but what was the reason he did it?”
My friend’s reaction is illustrative of the woeful failure of our society to comprehend and adequately address the problem of suicide, and the crippling depression that afflicts such a large segment of the population. As I consider the attitudes of some friends and acquaintances, I become increasingly convinced that a narrow interpretation of the concept of free will, especially by many of the very successful, deters understanding of severe depression and suicide. For example, a prominent sports psychologist who has worked with many famous professional athletes says in his best-selling book for golfers, “Free will is the greatest gift anyone could have given us. It means we can, in a real sense, control our own lives. [A person] can think any way he or she wants. He can choose to be a happy person or a miserable person.” He calls free will an old concept that has unfortunately gone out of style. Within this well-intentioned and widely espoused philosophy may lie much of the problem, especially for my generation (circa 1930), in understanding severe depression and the act of suicide. I can understand my friend’s comments, for I, too, had believed that I could, within reason, do whatever I made up my mind to do. That was before I learned about such factors affecting suicidality as the effects of an imbalance of serotonin, which is virtually uncontrollable without medication. When our son, blessed with character, warmth, humor, friends, academic achievement, athleticism and musicianship, took his own life, the concept of free will acquired for me serious qualifications. Somehow, those who understand the nature of severe depression must increase their efforts to educate society that without medical help, the will of the afflicted is disabled.
As for being bedeviled by thoughts of things I could have, should have, or might have done, I have clung tenaciously to the urging of a friend who lost a daughter to suicide. He wrote, “Just remember, you did the very best you knew how at the time.” This thought has become a virtual life jacket – when I am able to keep it in mind.
A long time friend wrote me a letter during the third week following our loss, when life seemed hopelessly bleak. His worldwide search for a lost son had taken him to Honolulu where a close friend told him, “Jerry, my advice to you is, go home and take care of your family.” Hearing Jerry’s story, I was abruptly awakened by his message. I have two daughters, and I suddenly had a heightened awareness of my deep love for them and how large a part of my live they filled. As I focused more love and attention on them, some of the sense of hopelessness was alleviated and life took on meaning again.
A friend who had lost her son to suicide two years earlier advised, “Don’t expect too much of yourself too soon.” I came to understand her meaning as time passed. By nature active and, I suppose one might say, performance-oriented, I was unable for a couple of years to summon up my usual physical and mental energy, nor to establish the simplest goals. Not much seemed important. Learning not to expect too much of myself was helpful.
During the months immediately following our son’s death, our two wonderful daughters became our lifeboats. In turn, one would travel to Cleveland to stay with us, and the other telephoned at least once daily. As consumed as I was with my own grief, I did not fully understand the extent of their grief. Nor did I understand that one of the most painful aspects of the loss of their brother, to whom they were extremely close, was the unusual concern that they were loved less by their parents than their brother. Thus, while we parents may increase the burden of loss of the surviving children during our intense grieving, we can ease their suffering by being sure to express the deep love we feel for them while we grieve the loss of their sibling. I have learned from two fellow trustees on our ASF Chapter Board, as well as from my own daughters, how devastating a sibling’s death by suicide can be.
As for putting survivors back together in the years following the loss, all the king’s men can’t do it, for the new Humpty will have a different identity and the loss will be ever-present. There is no how-to manual on survivors’ recovery; however, there is one aid in the recovery process which I unfortunately declined for too long. Being a product of the era of the self-sufficient Gary Cooper westerner, I shunned the thought of seeking counseling. After two years of sleepless nights, I was urged by my internist to see a psychiatrist. In the two sessions I had with her, she helped me to work my way through some of the most troublesome issues.
A major aspect of surviving the suicide of one’s child has to do with the spousal relationship. The complexity of this subject is well beyond my ken, but it is common knowledge that a marriage is frequently at risk. Each party is striving desperately to cope with his or her own devastating loss and the related complications arising from the death of the child. Each grieves in his or her own way and often the worst moments are out of synch with those of the other party. One may strongly need support at the very time when the other is least able to provide it. Although my wife and I did not mutually seek counseling, I suspect it would have helped our relationship.
For reasons not entirely known to me, our marriage seems stronger now than before, despite the fact that at times during the early months and years following John’s death, our thirty-year relationship hit new and serious lows. While we communicated poorly and seldom on the subject before, now we share thoughts about our son. While much has been written about surviving the death of a child, the subject of overcoming the challenge with which the marriage is faced could be more fully addressed.
As for the family unit, although our daughters are married and living elsewhere, my wife and I are even closer to them than before the loss. We travel often to them and they to us, and surely we are also loved by AT&T.
However, even years later, the survivor is choked from time to time by an overwhelming wave of despondence. It may be triggered by seeing a father with his son, a youth playing a guitar, a high school football game (which I still avoid), or by having an intrusive flashback. I assume that every survivor develops his or her own defenses to control the duration of these random attacks, but they cannot be eliminated. In my view, the best defense against the constant awareness of loss is the love we have for family and close friends.
I may be alone in this phenomenon, however while never to look back nor to second guess had always been part of my philosophy, somehow in the years following John’s death I have involuntarily examined virtually every mistake of any magnitude I have made that my waking or sleeping mind has been able to dredge up mistakes relative to every aspect of my life – and it has proved to be quite a list. This exercise of involuntary self-examination was initially a confidence destroyer. With time, however, I believe it may prove to be a strengthening agent, although I doubt my former level of self-assurance will ever return (which some might say is a positive development.)
Friends, as well as family, did much to bring my wife and me through the worst period of grief. Even though invitations often came when we felt least like socializing, I believe that we should have made a greater effort to accept every extended hand. When friends offer to help, it is only human for them to resent rejection of the helping hand. I also believe, with 20-20 hindsight, that more social intercourse might have hastened the healing process.
At times we found ourselves hurt and angered by a few friends’ seeming lack of sympathy. In time, I recalled my own occasional failure to fully extend a hand in a friend’s time of loss, and became less judgmental. I now understand how much a simple invitation to play golf, dine, or anything else can mean to the bereaving.
Meaningful contact with survivors of any kind of loss is difficult for many people. I now find it easier to extend sympathy and to initiate discussion about another’s loss. I suggest to survivors to be aware that some friends and acquaintances feel deep sympathy for our loss but have trouble reaching out. It would have been most unfortunate had Nancy and I distanced ourselves from friends who did not adequately extend the hand we expected, for they may not have the capacity for whatever reason to do so, and yet are valued friends.
In 1992, I worked with Dr. Howard Sudak, then President of the American Suicide Foundation, to organize a chapter of ASF in Cleveland. I had repeatedly turned down his urging to do so, which came so soon after John’s death. He ultimately persuaded me that ASF’s work to prevent suicide through research and education afforded an opportunity to help prevent deaths such as that of our son. I have found the constant exposure to the subject of suicide and prevention measures to be painful. On the other hand, I suspect the work has been somehow therapeutic.
The primary goal of our chapter is to raise funds for research to further the mission of the Foundation. Our educational efforts have included nine conferences for school personnel. Several such conferences are planned for the coming year, including a conference for clergy, as well as a conference for directors of corporate employee assistance programs. The goal of these educational events is to teach professionals to identify individuals who may be at risk for suicide, and how to respond to them, including referral for appropriate treatment. Participant surveys indicate that nearly all who have attended these programs have found them to be helpful in their work.
My heart goes out to all survivors, especially to those of you whose loss by suicide has been recent. Be assured that, while the pain is always present, strength returns with time. With its return comes increased pleasure in the world around us, although it is assuredly a different world from the one we knew.
Lyman H (Tim) Treadway founded the Northeast Ohio Chapter of American Suicide Foundation (ASF) in 1992. ASF later became American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Northeast Ohio (AFSP). AFSP Northeast Ohio became Suicide Prevention Education Alliance (SPEA) on January 1, 2005. Mr. Treadway served as Chairman of SPEA for 13 years and now serves as Life Trustee. The mission of Suicide Prevention Education Alliance is to prevent suicide and promote recognition of adolescent depression through education and alliances with community partners.