On December 20, Deneen and Roy received news no parents ever wanted to hear. Their 23‐year‐old son, Mills, had taken his own life. After they heard the devastating news, they were forced to face the reality of not knowing how to cope with a suicide.

Earlier that day, Deneen and Roy attended church.

“I remember looking at the praise team and wondering how Lisa could stand on the stage and sing after just losing her son to cancer,” says Deneen. Deneen could not have anticipated that only hours later she and her husband would be dealing with the loss of their son. As with any suicide, details came in snatches. Some details may never be known. Mills Snap-chatted with his mother the day before. He talked to his sister that night. Mills and his girlfriend had a disagreement.

The next morning, Mills’ girlfriend went to check on him, concerned because she couldn’t reach him by phone or text message. His door was unlocked, and she was the one to discover him. Because they had just started dating, she didn’t know how to contact his parents, but reached his sister via social media.

Three weeks before his suicide, Mills called his mother and asked if he could come home. He called and made the same request to his father. It was unusual for him to call instead of texting and odd for him to ask permission to come home.

“Mills came and brought his dog. We sat on the porch, talked and later had supper together,” says Deneen. “Mills would start to say something and then say, ‘I don’t know.’ Several times I asked him what he meant, what he didn’t know, but he couldn’t articulate his thoughts. When he left, we hugged and said I love you. We had no idea Mills was depressed or having suicidal thoughts. Mills was always smiling. He loved his job. He wanted us to meet his new girlfriend. Our perception: life was good.”

What you can expect

The death of any child is tragic, but suicide puts a different spin on the grief process and how people react. As you learn how to cope with a suicide, you may experience some, or all, of the following:

Multiple conflicting emotions

Along with intense sadness, suicide survivors, those left behind after a suicide death, can expect multi‐faceted emotions. Anger, guilt, shock and confusion are common. You may feel guilty for not recognizing clues in time to intervene. However, children, teens and young adults are skilled at hiding their emotional pain and mental anguish from their parents. Avoid taking on responsibility for thought processes of which you were unaware and actions you could not control.

Anger is also present. You may be angry with your child for his or her decision, and then feel guilt for anger toward a deceased child. Additionally, your anger may be directed at God for allowing suicide to happen. Realizing anger is part of the grief process, it’s important to deal with it so healing can begin. Talk about your emotions with your spouse and those you trust. Talk to God. Honestly express your anger to him. Seek counsel from professionals. Above all, don’t allow anger to consume you.

Complicated grief

A suicide death is complicated, and your grief may be prolonged. Grief may be a two‐steps‐forward‐one‐ step‐back sequence, lasting longer than you want it to. The grief journey is different for each person. Learning how to cope with a suicide is different for each person. Don’t allow anyone to rush you or try to convince you it’s taking too long. Allow grief, but also, as much as possible, maintain a forward‐looking perspective.

Unusual and unhelpful responses from others

Many people don’t know what they believe about suicide. Some have been taught a suicide death equals eternity in hell, but no scripture substantiates this belief. When people don’t know what they believe or what to say to suicide families, they often respond in ways that are thoughtless and cause you additional pain. Or because they don’t know what to say, they don’t reach out at all.

“The afternoon of Mills’ celebration of life service, a woman I hadn’t seen in years came to our house. She put her hand on my arm and told me the statistics were not good for marriages surviving the tragic death of a child,” says Deneen. “I can’t imagine how she thought that was helpful. Only by God’s grace could I look at her, smile, and say, ‘You don’t know the strength of my marriage and the power of my God.’ ”

Unanswered questions

One of the most difficult facets of the aftermath of suicide is unanswered questions. Suicide provides no opportunity for resolution. The what‐ifs come with frequency and questions loom large. You may feel as if you are attempting to put together a jigsaw puzzle. No matter how hard you try, you’ll always be missing a few pieces. You can speculate but may never know for sure what caused your child to choose suicide.

“Suicide makes you play mind games,” says Deneen. “I don’t know how people who aren’t rooted in Christ handle this.”

Feeling others are watching you

“It was hard for us to go back to church,” says Deneen. “Not because we were mad at God, but because it felt like people were watching us. Maybe we went back too soon.”

Perhaps it is human nature to watch others and see how they respond to tragedy and loss. Suicide amplifies the sensation of being under a microscope. If you feel the need to be out of the public eye, and can, take a break from your normal patterns and give yourself the opportunity to grieve privately.

How to cope with a suicide

Talk about your child

Sometimes, because suicide is so painful, families opt for silence. Instead, remember positive aspects of your child’s life. Talk about the successes and tell funny stories. In doing so, you are not trivializing your child’s death. You are celebrating life.

Find your personal coping mechanism

The morning after Mills’ death, Deneen turned on the radio and heard a song she had never heard before. She fell to her knees and worshipped God, kneeling in a puddle of tears.

“Christian music is my therapy. The music of Mercy Me has had a huge impact on me. I have a folder of music on my phone titled ‘Mills.’ Bring the Rain and Look Up Child are among the songs saved in that folder,” says Deneen. Her other coping mechanism is reading. “I feel I need to read to feed myself. I have been in the Bible even more since Mills died. Each day, I ask God to show me my purpose for that day.”

Roy learned to fly. When he is in the air, and focused on flying the plane, he experiences freedom. He also leans on the men in his Bible study group and their studies.

Commemorate your child

After Mills’ death, many people reached out by planting trees and contributing to ministries. His fraternity started a scholarship in his memory. A friend gave Deneen and Roy a special remembrance, a glass and brass box filled with forty filigree stars, signifying each of the forty people who accepted Christ as Saviour at Mills’ celebration of life service. Deneen had three star bracelets made, one for her and her two daughters.

“God has used stars repeatedly. The message is clear. God wants us to shine for him. God is in this entire story. Maybe we are here for others,” says Deneen.

Be available to others

You may wonder why God allowed this tragedy, intense grief and stinging loss in your life. Only God knows his purposes, but you can be assured he grieves with you. God gave his only son to redeem us. He understands the loss of a child.

As time goes on, you will see opportunities to minister to others who are suffering. Their loss may not be suicide, but you will understand and identify with their pain, no matter what the source.

Forgive your child

Forgiving your child for choosing suicide is an important part of healing. Those who choose suicide are not thinking of how their decision will affect loved ones left behind. So forgive, and in doing so, free yourself to move forward with the assurance God has a plan for your life beyond suicide.

Final thoughts on how to cope with a suicide 

Suicide, and its aftermath, are akin to an earthquake that rocks your world and continues to buffet you with aftershocks. While you may never “get over” the loss of your child to suicide, God will make a way forward and heal your broken heart. Then, as opportunities come, be instrumental in reaching out to others, ministering to them, and holding up each other’s arms when grief overwhelms.

God is greater than suicide. Trust him to provide strength, courage and endurance for the journey of life after suicide.

Related reading:

Candy Arrington is an award‐winning writer, blogger and speaker. Candy’s credits include three traditionally published nonfiction books (AFTERSHOCK: Help, Hope, and Healing in the Wake of Suicide, When Your Aging Parent Needs Care, and Life on Pause: Learning to Wait Well). Her blog, Forward Motion, speaks to maintaining a forward‐ looking perspective despite difficulty and learning from life situations: CandyArrington.com.

© 2022 Candy Arrington. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.

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