Bereaved Parents: Rebuilding Lives After a Suicide Loss
A path to healing for the families of children who have taken their own lives out of shame for not living up to parental expectations
Wise parents understand that their children do not belong to them. They are not their possessions or projects. They have lives of their own. We love them by letting them become themselves, not extensions of our own aspirations and expectations.
The poet Khalil Gibran beautifully captures this idea in his work "The Prophet":
"Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable."
And yet, as parents, we are aware that we don't always live up to these truths. Our children can too easily become mere projects through which we extend our hopes and expectations. When this happens, we must practice the arts of humility: letting go of the idea that our children belong to us. This letting go is an act of love. We let them be themselves.
Unfortunately, for some parents, this realization comes too late, and their children end their lives due to the shame they feel in not living up to their parents' expectations. When your child ends his or her life, out of shame for not living up to your expectations, a terrible pain is also suffered by the parent.
I know this firsthand. As a philosopher I am deeply engaged in public discussions about expanding our understanding of our self-destructive capacities, encouraging people to move away from a medicalized view toward more existential reconceptualization. In this context I continually gain access to self-death notes. These notes are primarily written by teenagers and young adults just before they make the tragic choice to end their own lives. Through these notes, I acquire insights into the profound suffering and the reasons that drive humans to the brink.
A recurring theme in these letters revolves around shame: the destructive self-loathing and self-aversion that can envelop lives. This shame is rooted in an inadequacy tied to not meeting the grandiose expectations of parents or guardians, expectations that become deeply ingrained in the children’s psyche.
After the tragic event, the parents grieve. "What could we have done differently?" is a common question in the wake of such harrowing tragedies.
I, myself, am inclined to believe that the answers must be sought, at least in part, through confronting an inner shadow. That is, through the painful yet significant process of self-examination. If we are bereaved parents, we must be honest with ourselves, delving into the depths of our own despair before ascending to a better place. This cannot be bypassed by simply “moving on” with life.
In our honesty we come to grips with what has happened and with the corollary idea of what it means (and could have meant) to be a truly good parent. A painful contrast emerges in our minds between what was and what could have been. We understand that parents must be extremely cautious not to view our children as projects or extensions of ourselves, fixed ideas meant to fulfill our unfulfilled dreams and shield their existential vulnerabilities. This objectification of children, which turns them into targets for our projections, is a painful realization that bereaved parents often come to acknowledge, burdened by guilt and responsibility.
But guilt, too, is not the desired outcome. The need of bereaved parents is to have the empathetic and non-judgmental presence of close family members, friends, and healthcare professionals. That is, of people who can be with us, in caring ways, so that we can indeed “move on” but in honest and constructive ways. Grief, guilt, and pain cannot be permanently eradicated, but there are still opportunities for rebirth where the pain from the loss is not expressed in self-destructive tendencies. Rather the pain is creative transformed, to use the language of process philosophy. Through the non-judgmental presence of others, including their listening ears, the pain becomes integrated into ways of living that help bereaved parents become beneficial presences for others. The pain is transmuted into kindness. And the children, whose tragic deaths the bereaved parents forever lament, have not died in vain. Their death is redeemed, insofar as it can be redeemed, by creative transformation of the parents, by their honesty and kindness.
I write this during the holiday season. During this time of year characterized by the festive season and a focus on achievements and gifts, I appeal to parents and guardians to confront their own shadows and vulnerabilities, before it is too late: to descend into the darkest recesses of their own souls and vanquish their inner dragons. By doing so, parents can prevent the transference of this darkness onto our children and acknowledge their unique individuality and independence. And I also appeal to parents who have suffered the deaths of children who have ended their lives, to live with the hope that, despite failings in the past, change is possible which adds some kind of goodness, some kind of beauty, to the world. This addition of goodness and beauty is for the child’s sake, helping the child live through the kindness. Can we, as parents, offer empathy and support to our children without imposing our own desires upon them, recognizing their inherent freedom and sense of adventure? Yes, we can.
Please note that children who ends their lives may do so for other reasons, too. My notes here pertain only to situations where excessive expectations on the part of parents, and the pain of not living up to them on the part of children, is the precipitating circumstance. There are many other circumstances which can lead to such an act: mental health issues, bullying, substance abuse, academic pressure, peer pressure. Bereaved parents need not and ought not face shadows not of their own making. They, too, need the non-judgmental presence of others to work through their grief, and for them, too, the grief will never completely end. Lives are forever changed when loved ones end their lives. But here, too, a certain kind of healing is possible, such that the grief can be transmuted into kindness and other forms of goodness extended to the world. The whole of life is a process, and no act - not even the ending of a life and the suffering that arises from it - is the end of the story. The story unfolds in ways that are not predictable in advance, but in which forms of healing are always possible. And each story, like each life, is unique.
Moreover, and importantly, each life is situated in a larger social context that needs to be taken into account when considering suicide and bereavement. Acts of suicide, and the reasons for them. extend beyond an individual's life. Their roots can and do include various societal factors, including trauma, racism, social exclusion, oppression, violence, alienation, loneliness, finances, and poverty. Acknowledging these social dynamics challenges the limited viewpoints often presented by psychiatric diagnoses that rely solely on biomedical and essentialist interpretations of mental health issues. Individuals facing discrimination, marginalization, and persistent hardships are at a heightened risk of experiencing mental distress and considering suicide as an option. The shadow lies, not in the individuals immediately affected, but in society as a whole.
By acknowledging these underlying social factors, it becomes imperative to promote and nurture a shift in perspective. Rather than viewing suicide solely as an isolated consequence of neurobiology and personal circumstances, it should also be regarded as a reflection of the broader challenges that individuals encounter in their lives. Risks to suicide, and the pain suffered by families of those who end their lives, can be reduced, not by personal transformations alone, but by changes in society.