When my children were young, they loved to play ‘the floor is lava.’ The object of the game was to avoid touching the floor, or certain doom would befall the unlucky one – sudden death by invisible hot lava that flowed across our carpeted living room. I would watch them careen and leap from sofa to chairs to various throw pillows. I remember shaking my head and laughing quietly at the screeches of their laughter, their shouts of – Mama, it almost got me! Watch me jump! Look at me! As long as they were on that corduroy armchair or one of those oversized burgundy throw pillows, they were safe. Those were the rules of the game, those were the predictable outcomes. I thought as long as they were fed, loved, given the space to grow and learn – they would be safe. But they were not safe. The floor was lava, but I did not know then that sometimes there is no place to launch a small body to safety, and sometimes there is nothing for a small hand to hold on to.
During the first few weeks after my daughter died by suicide at college, I bought every book on suicide that I could find. I read everything on the internet about suicide, and I joined several online support groups. From these, I learned that you are supposed to say “she died by suicide,” not that “she committed suicide.” I read so many reports and statistics. A recent article by CBS news highlights the disturbing data regarding suicide among young people, with a 56% increase between 2007 and 2017 according to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). Another report published by the Journal of the American Medical Association said that the rate of death by suicide among young people is at a record high, the highest it has been since 2000, and that suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24. I remember being shocked as I read these things. I remember asking, how is this our reality? With all the advances we have made in nearly every field, why are so many of our children, our young people, taking their lives? As I read all these words and numbers, I tried to make sense of the broken jumble of words that I always carry with me – my daughter is dead – and I still try to make peace with how in the world did I not know?
After a couple of months, I put the suicide books on a shelf – most of them were not terribly helpful or comforting, but there were a few books that offered bits and pieces of truth that shone through the platitudes, the powdered-sugar words. (I’ll share some of those another time.) I did not want powdered-sugar words; I wanted the truth – the hard, sharp, and dangerous truth. I wanted to feel the weight of my loss in the words, and because this loss hurts so much, I wanted the words to hurt. But they did not tell me why my daughter died, and they did not tell me how to live with the how in the world did I not know?
In an article titled, “A Very Dangerous Place for a Child Is College”, Dr. Louis M. Profeta argues that parents should know if their child is ready for college, and discusses the dangers of college – particularly the dangers of assumptions that college will protect and police its students like surrogate parents. I agree that college can be a dangerous place, and that not every freshly minted high school graduate is emotionally prepared to go off to college and live (somewhat) on their own. However, the author states, “It was a simple question, one they perhaps had not thought about in a world where some modern parenting involves hermetically sealing the previous 18–20 years of their lives from anything that could possibly hurt them. In reality, some of their parents—people who love them the most—were setting them up for academic failure, a lifetime of addiction … and even worse … their death.” I have a hard time with that statement. I understand that the word “some” is inserted to reflect that this statement is not about “all” parents. But the challenge that we all face as parents is astronomical. The rule book we are given requires a forklift to carry around. From the day our child is born, we need to make sure they have access to rich sensory experiences (tactile baby books!), organic food (no added sugar!), and early language immersion (dual language schools!) We need to listen to them with empathy, but respect their need for space and privacy. We show up at every school/sport/band/extracurricular event, and we volunteer countless hours so they see that we value them. We don’t let them spend the night at other people’s houses – you never know what could happen; we’ve all heard stories about sexual predators. This list goes on for days, and is largely the responsibility of mothers.
And if you don’t do all these things, if you are not someone who drags around the colossal rule book, then you are not a good parent. As sure as the sun, your child’s doctor, teachers, gymnastic coach, music instructor, the mom next door, and the whole world all line up at the firing squad because you didn’t fall in line. So you fall in line.
And I appreciate that Dr. Proeta is calling out the dangers of college and recognizing that some kids are not ready for this chapter just yet. However, to place the blame so heavily and completely on parents is rather shortsighted. I would ask – who and what are shaping the parents? Who are the writers of the enormous, unattainable rule book for “how to raise the perfect child”? What roles do society, cultural norms, intergenerational tension (or trauma even) play in how children are nurtured and cared for? I think it is easy to blame the parents – yes, parents make mistakes, sometimes monstrous mistakes and terrible misdeeds. But to default to the parents as the problem for a child’s failure to thrive overlooks the responsibility we have as a society to sit with the bereaved, to ask the necessary questions, to seek the truth.
The truth is that there is no rule book for suicide, there is no tidy list of steps to take to guarantee that someone you love will not kill themselves. This is hard. We love tidy lists, we love rule books. Eat whole grains, drink water, exercise every day – prevent heart attacks! Eat vegan, avoid refined sugar, practice mindfulness – live longer! I think suicide is like an inconspicuous neighbor. Like the quiet man in the brown house that has always lived next door to you, or the nondescript woman who always walks her dog past your house at the same time every day. You don’t notice them until you do. Until he tears down his house, spewing broken glass and loose concrete in the street, causing a dangerous mess. Until the dog breaks loose and lunges at you, barking and growling with teeth bared – scaring the living bejesus out of you. Then you notice what was there all along. Then you see that the floor was indeed lava, and there was no place left to go.
There’s no guidebook on how to prepare your child for college either. Academically maybe yes. But emotionally, socially, etc. No. I’m still in the elementary years for my kids and I keep hearing ways to make sure my youngest is ready for kindergarten. Learning the structure of kindergarten, making sure they have the tools socially for kinder, and being emotionally ready. For my oldest it’s all about grades and academics on how to prepare for college. Yes, it may be ways away for my kids. But I work in the college setting. I see how different it is compared to when I went to college. The suicide rate has gone up for college students and campuses are trying to provide services for students. But what can I do as a parent to prepare my kid?
I live your blogs. Very real, thought provoking, and extremely relatable. Keep it up!
Thank you for the support! You are exactly right – there is definitely no guidebook for raising and keeping children safe. We can’t even rely on our own personal experiences since the world has changed so dramatically since I was a kid. I had zero access to any type of technology, other than a clunky TTY. I didn’t even have email until college. Today kids live in their phones, and as a result, I don’t know if they know how to live out here.
I am so sorry to hear about Eve.
My wife, a pastoral counselor, was struggling with grief when she discovered: https://www.centerforloss.com/
She has taken 11 30-hour courses there and has been doing grief counseling for free ever since. Dr. Alan Wolfort (Sp?) has a different take on grief that may be helpful.
I am glad that your loving memories of Ava have found expression in your website and blog. Nancy Carroll posted a link and I just signed up.
Thank you for sharing that link, Bryan. I’ve had a hard time finding things that make me feel better. And it is not easy to get involved in support groups as a deaf person. Carrying grief, in general, is not easy. Also, I know some people find comfort in religion, but I carry trauma from religion, so those rituals are absent for me. I do like the concepts of being present (and not trying to fix things) and bearing witness. I love it when people say, I see you, and I feel you, and I am holding space for you and Eve.
I will never forget having some very tumultuous and scary years with my teens. A very kind friend, named Linc, said, “You are just not that ‘powerful,’Joanie, in regards to your children. Nature, Nurture, Choice. Our children come into this world with their nature’s intact, we nurture them to the very best of our ability and then they get to choose.” I understand this and yet I still take my mat out and wrestle with “choice” as I know in my bones my son did not “choose” addiction in his life, yet he lived with the torment daily and did not have the strength in this lifetime to combat it. He became tired and the only peace he could find was not “here” wherever “here” is. I could not have asked him to “stay” a moment longer for me or for anyone. Perhaps Ava felt this way too? As their mothers we can only hold space for whatever comes in and that is the good, the bad and the oh, so ugly at times.
Learning to live within the paradox, the mystery and the deep longing and missing our BEloved’s, Eve and Douglas.
Hand in hand, Heart to heart dearest Molly. No answers, just so many heart tethers to others who are walking this path alongside us.
You have a very wise friend. I think many of us need to hear that “we are just not that powerful.” I know I needed to hear it. Thank you and *heart touch*
My dear woman, I am so so saddened by your loss. I read these things and I feel it in the same place I felt the death of my 27 y/o son 13 years ago, right in my core. It’s a physical feeling, like a heavy brick just sitting there. And I understand your pain of “how did this happen?” Our son had a traumatic incident at 15, he was held up at gunpoint while delivering real estate flyers for a little job he was doing. We think that is what triggered all his problems later, and although we reacted with outrage and got him counseling, it didn’t prevent him from diving into heavy drinking and drugs, which all triggered his bipolar disease. This is just a guess; when I went through grief therapy many years later, my psychologist pondered that he may have had latent bipolar tendencies which flared up due to a combination of PTSD from the robbery and drugs. We had so many near misses and incidents with him, once our talented, smart, creative, wonderful boy, and we kept thinking “if we can just keep him alive until he’s 25,” all would be good. And for awhile, things were better. He was in a bipolar therapy group, he took his meds. He had a little boy that he adored. But when he was 27, he had complicated and painful oral surgery, and he also suffered from a slipped disc. He was put on muscle relaxants, pain pills, antibiotics, and the Xanax he took to stay calm. His therapy group warned him to ditch the pain pills, but he didn’t. We know now, after several celebrity deaths, that this medicine combination is lethal. He probably never told his dentist that he was on muscle relaxants, nor did his Dr. know he was on pain pills, nor did either of them know about the Xanax. And one night, home on his couch watching SNL, his girlfriend nearby, his son asleep, he took one extra muscle relaxant (found in the autopsy) along with the other meds, drank a beer or two, fell asleep and never work up because his heart stopped…. his big, healthy heart. He, at 6’1″, some 190 lbs, always felt he could tolerate all medicines “more.” He’d ask for 3 tylenol instead of 2, five Tums to my 2. “I’m bigger. What’s an extra muscle relaxant, my back hurts.” Some people in our old circle whispered “suicide,” and although he had almost attempted it years before, this time it was ruled “accidental.” It matters not. I had always felt he was killing himself slowly, in the years that he was so wild and unpredictable. I told him once that it was like we, his family, were in a boat. We were navigating shark infested waters, and he kept jumping in. His sister, father, and I would haul him out, bleeding, bitten, and hold him close to us. We were heading to a safe shore. We’d turn our backs for a minute, and he’d jump in again. I told him this at one of his rehab group meetings years before. He apologized to us, and he told everyone that all of his troubles were not our fault. He told us that he had had a happy childhood, that we were wonderful parents. Maybe your daughter would say the same. But I still feel a lot of guilt. I still feel that there were things I should have seen and done during those times when he was slipping away from us. People say to us, “you tried everything.” But I know of our mistakes, which have killed me for 13 years. How to live without him? How can I tolerate the fact that had I not made some of the errors as a parent that I did, he’d never had been into drugs? That is what panicked me in the first months, the first year, and periodically forever. How can I live without being able to speak with him?
People tell me that I’m “so strong,’ and it’s true that one foot gets put in front of the other, and I have walked on. But what choice have I had? It’s not that I’m strong, it’s just that crumbling isn’t something available to me. I was teaching at the time, and I had a daughter, and a husband, much loved! I do find joy in things. Our daughter has a happy life with a good family & two precious little boys that I love dearly. We see them often and they bring us joy. Our oldest grandson, who was 4 at his father’s death, remains extremely close to us, and he has been with us every Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break, Easter, and every entire summer since his dad died. We’ve taken him to many places on trips, and he knows he can count on us and also on his aunt and uncle for anything. His mother has struggled with mental health. For you, I can only imagine the thoughts, wishes, longing, and pain that you endure. Losing a child is horrific, we are never the same. I think you are very brave to discuss it and to use the word “by suicide.” I taught high school, and after I retired, I kept hearing of at least one or two kids a year who died by suicide, but it was never discussed openly. I’m sure there is a fear and I know there is a stigma attached to it. There should not be, and those whose family members die by suicide need to be embraced and acknowledged in their grief in the same way that anyone loses a beloved family member. It easily could have been our son, and there are still many who believe it was.
I hope there is something in your life that you can cling to for hope and love and joy. For me it has been my family, my faith, and a few of my friends. With any kind of death, there are some who just can’t be here for us, and I’ve learned to accept that. Grief therapy was so beneficial to me, and I went for 3 years. I only stopped because we moved across the country. If I start struggling again, I will seek another counsel. This past January, my 65 y/o brother dropped dead of a heart attack, and my aged 95 father died one week later. My mother had passed 2 years previously, so my whole birth family is gone. Then my brother’s wife stirred up a huge problem about my parent’s estate. It was very stressful, and took 9 months to be settled, thankfully in the way it was meant to be. Throughout this year, though, I’ve been okay. I relied heavily on things I learned in my therapy.
It’s true that we are seeing so much more suicide, among children, teens, young adults, doctors, other professions. It’s a problem that needs lots of attention. So thank you for sharing your story, I am impressed by your openness, caring for others, and strength. God bless you and your family, and God bless your beautiful daughter’s soul.
Joyce, your description of your family being in a boat of shark infested waters is brilliant. I have often struggled with trying to explain how those years felt for us when our son struggled with his disease of addiction. It was exhausting, terrifying and at times there was immense hope when the sharks felt as if they were visiting another body of water that our little boat was not in.
Gentle care on your path that you have been navigating for the past thirteen years. I hope you continue to feel supported and cared for and I have no doubt you are your son’s memory keeper. If not us, then who?
I am forever grateful for my community of sisters of the heart who walk this with me. It is not something we would wish on anyone, yet there are so many among us.
Warmly and with aloha~ Joanie
Joyce – I’m so sorry for your losses. I agree with Joanie that your description of shark infested waters is very fitting. I often felt like that with Eve. She was wild, but oh so smart, so funny and witty. I felt like I was holding my breath every day – which side of the coin would surface today? We also spent years pulling her out of the waters, and she would seem like she was doing so well! Then she would make a poor decision, and they whole thing repeated. I also have guilt about things I did or I didn’t do as well. I look back and think I could have done some things differently. Would they have made a difference, I don’t know, probably not, but I still wrestle with that guilt. I think I always will. It never occurred to me – not even once – to ask Eve if she considered suicide an option. It never entered my mind – in all the scenarios I had for her, that was not one of them. I think part of it is because we don’t talk about suicide openly. After she died, then I started connecting all the dots, and wish that I knew then what I knew now. But I guess we all do? Holding space for you and your son. Hugs.