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Overcoming a Parents Attempt at Suicide
Are you or someone you know suicidal?
The risks to children of parental suicide.
In the United States it is estimated that between 7,000 and 12,000 children lose a parent to suicide each year. No record is kept of attempted suicides.
It is extremely difficult to overcome a parents attempt at suicide and a parental suicide can have lasting effects on a child. According to a study led by Johns Hopkins Children's Center, "Losing a parent to suicide makes children more likely to die by suicide themselves and increases their risk of developing a range of major psychiatric disorders."
Ask any child of a parent who committed or tried to commit suicide and they will tell you it's a daily battle to overcome their parents legacy. Lead investigator, Holly C. Wilcox, Ph D, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Hopkins Children's Center says "Losing a parent to suicide at an early age emerges as a catalyst for suicide and psychiatric disorders. However, it's likely that developmental, environmental and genetic factors all come together, most likely simultaneously, to increase risk."
The day my mother attempted suicide.
I was nine when I found my mother overdosed on sleeping pills. Even at that young age my brain comprehended what my eyes were seeing. I don't know how I knew that an empty bottle of pills meant my mother could die but I did. Had I seen it on TV? Had I read about it somewhere? I honestly couldn't tell you. I ran to get my father and handed him the empty pill bottle. The look on his face reaffirmed what my nine year old brain had already registered, my mother could die. That was the day I turned 30. Obviously not in years but in responsibility. That is also the day I learned to become numb, to bury my feelings so far down they would never see the light of day. You see I was the oldest of 3, my brother a year younger, my sister just 2 years old. They clung to me as my father loaded my mother in the car and drove off. I reassured them everything would be OK and calmly walked to the phone. I called my mom's parents, my grandparents, when my grandmother answered the phone and I told her what had happened.
My mother didn't die but she never came back either. My father dropped her off at the nearest ER and told the doctors to call her parents he didn't want her back.
It's funny how 30+ years later I can remember exactly what she was wearing, what was going on in the house that day, but for the life of me I don't remember anything after making the call to my grandmother.
How did I keep my brother and sister entertained while our world shattered around us? How long were we left alone? When did my father come back? When did he tell us our mother never would?
You learn to live with a parental suicide, you learn to function "normally" and you learn coping skills for all the baggage that was dumped on you but you never really get over it. And that's OK. Everyone has baggage. Some people's baggage is just more broken down and torn than others. We have resources available to us now that were not available to our parents. There is no shame in needing or asking for professional help. And it is never too late to begin healing.
"Children are surprisingly resilient," Wilcox says. "A loving, supporting environment and careful attention to any emerging psychiatric symptoms can offset even such major stressor as a parent's suicide."
What makes suicide different from other deaths?
The main difference between deaths caused by suicide and other types of death is CHOICE.
Many children lose their parents at an early age from accidents, disease, military. No one chooses to have an accident or get cancer. They may chose to go in the military but it is with the intention of making a difference not being killed.
A parent who commits suicide makes the choice to die and leave their family and children behind. They chose the method. They chose the day. They chose the time. They chose the place. They make a conscious decision to die. THAT is how it is different.
Breaking the cycle with your own children.
My daughter will be nine soon. The same age I was when my mother tried to commit suicide. Lately I have been reliving all those moments when my childhood was normal and I didn't know what horror was right around the corner. I realized a few months back that I will now be forced to live it through my daughter’s eyes now. I am seeing my nine year old daughter going through her "normal" childhood about to turn nine and I realize I am now my mother and my daughter is now me, at least in the ever present video that keeps playing in my twisted mind.
I am hurt, I am angry, I am many emotions that I should have felt at the time but couldn't. How could she have done that to us? Who is supposed to take care of me while I am taking care of my siblings? Who is going to protect me as I protected them? Maybe I have to experience a normal childhood through my daughter’s eyes so that I can finally know what a normal childhood is. What it actually feels like to have close friends to confide in through my teen years, get excited about a prom, or a boy. Have the confidence to try out for school sports. What it feels like to know my biggest worry is which outfit I am going to wear. Most importantly how it feels to know that no matter how many mistakes I make my mother is there for me. Maybe, just maybe it will be my relationship with my own daughter that will finally heal me.
Resources to help you.
If you are having trouble dealing with a suicide there are people that can help you. Below are some great online resources.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: (AFSP) is the leading national not-for-profit organization exclusively dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide through research, education and advocacy, and to reaching out to people with mental disorders and those impacted by suicide.
Stop a Suicide Today: 70% of people who commit suicide tell someone about their plans, or give warning signs. Take the questionnaire at this website to find out if someone you know needs help.
National Institute of Mental Health: The mission of NIMH is to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery, and cure.
The Light Beyond: An amazing resource for those dealing with a suicide. Helping those left behind and guiding them toward healing.
- Coping with Suicide Loss: Helping Children
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has been at the forefront of a wide range of suicide prevention initiatives -- each designed to reduce loss of life from suicide.
- Psychiatric Morbidity, Violent Crime, and Suicide Among Children and Adolescents Exposed to Parental
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. Psychiatric Morbidity, Violent Crime, and Suicide Among Children and Adolescents Exposed to Parental Death