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How Being Transparent About My Son Dying by Suicide Helps Me Heal

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

There are many things I remember about the day my son, Tom, died.

I remember the last thing I said to him and his reply. I have the last text he sent me about the books he ordered for his next quarter at college. I also have the last text I sent to him when he was not home when expected.

I remember calling his dad and asking if he knew where Tom was because he wasn’t home yet. I remember his return call telling me Tom was dead. I remember arguing with him over the phone Tom was sleeping and he couldn’t be dead, and his dad repeating over and over he was not sleeping.

I remember driving to Tom’s dad’s house shaking and wailing in disbelief and walking up to the house with strangers watching me from a distance with bowed heads and hushed voices.

I remember saying I could not face seeing him in that state, but still climbing the stairs to his room, reading the short handwritten warning note on the door, and seeing him lying before me. I remember many of the horrible and vivid details of the scene which, although dampened by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) counseling, still haunt me.

I remember sitting on the front stoop of the house wailing with my husband, LJ, by my side, both of us in disbelief and not truly understanding the significance of how our lives were going to change. And then making calls to key people in our lives.

I remember emergency personnel moving us to the backyard so we would not see Tom’s body being wheeled down the stairs, but looking through the glass door and catching sight of the yellow body bag rushing by.

One thing I do not remember was the moment our family decided to be honest with our extended family, friends and community about how Tom died. I know we had that brief conversation, but I can’t remember if it took place in the kitchen, dining room, back patio or front yard. I know it was short, because neither of us wanted to be anything but honest, so the decision came quickly. And I do know that one important decision has impacted my healing process and my life.

Initially, it was difficult to accept our son died by suicide. I immediately felt 100% at fault for his death. However, through extensive counseling and much research, I now better understand depression‘s tie to suicide. I am grateful I do not live in fear of the truth of Tom’s death being found out, because there is nothing to hide. There is no shame in his illness or his passing. Our upfront honesty freed us to travel our grief journey openly.

As I walk through my life after, I vacillate between fearing people see and judge me as a mother who lost her son to suicide, and hoping they do, because that means they have not forgotten Tom. And it might give me the opportunity to talk with them about our wonderful son and the illness which took him.

Tom’s death changed the course of my life journey. Our loss compelled me to become better educated about mental illness and suicide and called me to become a public advocate and educator around prevention and safe messaging. It also called me to be an informal counselor for parents who are concerned about their own children. (I always refer people to experts after our initial conversation.) I also meet with loss survivors, so they do not feel alone on this painful journey.

I am grateful our community lovingly embraced us early on, so I am strong and empowered enough to give back through advocacy and education as a part of my healing process. Because we chose transparency, we have presented to more than a thousand people over three years regarding suicide prevention, safe messaging and how best to speak with those who have lost a loved one to suicide. In return, we feel blessed when people contact us and share how our story started conversations with their loves ones or opened their eyes to their own situation, allowing numerous opportunities for intervention. We have a responsibility to use Tom’s story as a way to educate others, and I am proud it is his legacy.

Original photo by author

Originally published: March 6, 2020
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