I Lost My Son to Suicide and My Husband to Cancer. Here Are the Similarities I Found.
I have had seven years to process how my son died by suicide. My heart was broken, and I was overwhelmed with guilt and self-recrimination. Two and a half years after my son died, my husband died from a very aggressive lymphoma. I could never have imagined this kind of loss in my lifetime. Gradually, I found myself comparing aspects of these two heartbreaking losses with an unexpected outcome.
My son, Andrew, was 27 when he died. I thought he had a whole life ahead of him and now, suddenly, he was gone. My husband was in his early 70s when he passed away. While none of us imagined he would be gone so soon, he lived a long life, full of experiences he cared about. He was a devoted physician, a great father and a man who was loved by many during his lifetime. Knowing these things made it easier to grieve him.
After my son took his own life, I went over and over his experiences, struggling to see where I had failed him, a reaction built into to the experience of a suicide loss. I knew he went into a serious depression, but I did not know that suicide was an option for him. When and where had I failed him? I could not yet grasp the bigger picture. I was so stranded, floundering in my guilt.
When my husband become ill, the progression of his disease was eerily similar. He did not receive a diagnosis until the week he died. Apparently, it is common for a gastric cancer to be diagnosed most often when it is stage four and has metastasized to other parts of the body. During the months preceding his diagnosis, he only knew that something was wrong, saying “I am definitely not myself.”
It was not until the two months prior to his death that he had observable symptoms. Before this, I noticed his behavior and his decision-making were unusual for him. He made some unpredictable decisions, extending himself beyond what was normal. He developed mood changes which he tried to calm with increased exercise. We could see that something was “off,” but we had no idea we were dealing with a very advanced cancer. My husband was diagnosed, began treatment and died all within the same week.
It was this life experience, losing my husband to cancer so soon after losing my son to suicide, that I began to be able to think more about the role of disease leading to a loss by death.
After witnessing the progression of cancer my husband had to go through, I began to think about the progression of events for my son in his disease. It occurred to me that there were many similarities.
Both my son and my husband initially felt something was wrong that they could not rectify. A favored boss of Andrew’s suddenly shifted to a hostile stance that went unexplained to Andrew. Andrew was blindsided by this. What he couldn’t understand was why he was having so much trouble regaining his balance. Instead, he went into a serious depression which included hidden attacks upon himself.
My husband had some subtle and quietly unremitting symptoms. None of them rose to the bar of qualifying for worry. A bit of indigestion. Some additional fatigue. A splotch on his hip that was diagnosed as shingles, even though a rash never materialized. Months later, he experienced fatigue that no rest seemed to resolve. He had been so busy we both thought it was due to a new schedule tied to professional commitments. One day, the fatigue began to overtake my husband. It was not unlike Andrew’s self-criticism that had overtaken him.
These comparisons helped me to understand what disease can do. It can begin silently, barely causing anything other than a ripple effect. Over time, it can grow, sustaining itself by overcoming normal cells in the case of cancer, or ordinary thinking in the case of suicidal despair. The progression, without early intervention or understanding, has no opponents. It is free to move as fast as it can, quietly impacting all kinds of function, until one day, my husband could not get out of bed and my son could not hold one thought of himself that was not full of self- loathing and shame.
Both my son and my husband were quietly debilitated by invasive disease. Neither of them could take any kind of action that might reverse or interfere with their symptoms. The depression and the cancer had a strong lead in each of their lives. Medical interventions, including a getting a diagnosis, unless achieved early on, were not going to be able to prevent their ending.
This understanding helped me with my grieving for my son. I had shuttered myself into a dark room of self-recrimination. Now, I was able to go back over my son’s history without backing away due to my guilt. I could see more clearly where his struggles began in his life. I could see that my own history had contributed to failing moments in my caring for him. There had been opportunities for helping Andrew further if only I had understood that this is something a parent might want to do. I was raised with such emphasis upon self-reliance that I could not see these moments. I was unfamiliar with the notion of self-compassion.
Believe me, these have been painful reflections. What I have learned is that I did not know then what or how to help Andrew. I ache over the suffering this caused for my son. I now understand that we were both in need of compassion. I now understand for him how his struggle became so acute. He would have loved to know that I regard what he perceived as “failures” as anything but failure. That he was doing the best he could. I know he was doing the best he could right up to the very end.
I also understand that neither one of us deserved to struggle and suffer so much in our lives.
Early on after Andrew died, I remember being in a room full of mothers who had lost children to suicide. We gathered as part of a program on International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. I was sitting near an “older” Mom, someone I saw as having more experience than me. She said “just keep talking to them. Just keep talking to them.” I took her comment to heart. It helped me to imagine the conversation I really wanted to have with my son.
If I had it to do over, and Andrew came back to me in his same struggle, I know what I would now want to do. I would pack the car, grab my wallet and pull up alongside him as he walked down the street by his home. I would open the door and say “Get in. We are going for a ride together. We will crisscross this country for as long as we have to and as many times as it takes, making do for food and a place to sleep, while we go over every single struggle you have had in your short life that we have not talked about.” He might pause at this, but I would be unwavering: “Come on…get in.” I think he would give me a half smile and get into the car, thankful that I finally “got it.”
This may seem like magical thinking to some. But for me, this is the story that I have come to understand about my son and me. It is still a painful story, but it is not as painful as being stalled without a story that provides love and understanding for both of us.
This leaves one further thought to consider. My husband died from a cancer that few can survive without very early detection. He will not carry a legacy that he is somehow to blame for his ending. I can still spend days trying to track down where his disease might have begun. He is honored for all he achieved in his life and by those who loved him. Neither his life nor his ending will carry any kind of stigma. Those of us who loved him will, however, always feel like he left us too soon.
My son Andrew’s ending is different. He will go unmentioned in general conversation. I have often felt the weight of comments like “I thought you were such a good family” or “you couldn’t save your own son” still hanging in the air around me.
Now, I am thinking about this differently. It is, of course, no one’s job to mention Andrew. Now, I no longer hope or need this for him or for me, because what I needed most was to come to my own motherly position on his life, his ending and my role in this outcome. I needed to find a narrative that included understanding on behalf of both of us.
From my perspective, and after weeks, months and years of introspection and heartache, I have finally come to my own conclusion about our lives together. This has been a hard-won struggle supported by the love and support of my family and friends. I can now own my story and his, because in my mind’s eye, we now “get” each other.
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