Guest blogger Kimberly lost her son Tom to suicide. As many survivors have experienced, Kimberly faced many inappropriate and tough questions from others, even though they may have been asked with the best of intentions. Today, she shares a “guide” with tips for talking to those bereaved by suicide loss. Though it’s written by a mother, the questions apply to all survivors.
A Mother’s Guide
When Tom died, I was thankfully referred to The Compassionate Friends website. There’s lots of insightful information, which helped me navigate the first few months. In addition, the site has great resources for friends and family about how to talk with someone about a child’s death. But the site did not cover some of the situations that have arisen on our journey.
Many friends and acquaintances reached out with their best intentions, trying to find a way to connect with and assist us while dealing with their own grief and fears about loss. Please understand, I write this missive from a place of love, not judgment, in hopes you will never need to use the information.
When you use the words “committed suicide,” I hear, “died while committing a crime.” Please use the now accepted phrasing “died by suicide.” This description is true to the situation and is less painful to hear. Whether suicide is a crime on the law books or not, I don’t want to be reminded Tom’s final attempt at finding inner peace might make him a felon.
When you ask me, “How did Tom do it?” I hear, “The details of Tom’s death are more important than the impact of Tom’s life.” If knowing the specifics of Tom’s final moments are that important to you, there are other ways of finding them out – read the newspaper or talk to the responding law enforcement agency. In addition, when you ask me that question, it takes me back, in horrible Technicolor detail, to the moment I first saw Tom’s lifeless body. I already struggle every moment to erase that image from my mind, why would you want me to revisit it to quench your curiosity?
When you say, “Did you see any signs?” I hear, “You failed as a parent because you were not aware.” If we had seen the signs, we would have taken action. We loved Tom so much we would have done anything to help him. Each of us spent quality time with Tom. We had both serious and hilarious conversations with him on a regular basis. We had daily and weekly traditions that helped us connect with Tom. He masked his pain well from his family and friends, sparing us all from his dark struggle.
When you say, “Why did Tom do it?” I hear, “Are you the reason Tom died?” The truth is we don’t know why this happened. Tom left a note, but there were no specifics to pinpoint exactly what happened or if there was some inciting incident. We are grateful for the narrative he left behind, because he allowed us some insight into his mental state, but we do not know what brought him to that act at that moment. And if we did know, I am not sure we would want to discuss it with others. Sometimes, there is no note, which I expect leaves even greater pain and emptiness. Occasionally, a note may indicate the suicide was meant to hurt others, and in that case, no one would want to share that information.
When you ask, “What would you have done differently?” I hear, “You are at fault for Tom’s death.” I can’t imagine any parent who does not wish they could rewind and revise how they handled situations with their children. Are there things I would have done differently over the years? Yes. Would they have made a difference? I don’t know. Asking me this question sends me into a tailspin of “What Ifs.” What Ifs are the bargaining part of the grief process which I am desperately trying to move past.
Instead of asking me these questions, honor Tom and me by sharing stories or showing me pictures or videos of him, whether they are new to me or not. Allow me to take the lead in sharing details of his death. If I am ready to tell you, I will. But that time might never come. Instead, tell me of your sadness and your fears, allowing our tears to fall together. Knowing he lives on in others’ memories strengthens me and helps me find peace with our loss.
Copyright 2016 Kimberly Starr
About the Author
Kimberly A. Starr earned a Bachelor’s of Arts in Theatre from Whitman College and a Masters in Theatre Production from Central Washington University. She teaches Theatre Arts at Yakima Valley College and Prosser High School as well as owning StarrBright Consulting, a performance coaching business. After her son Thomas died by suicide in March 2015, she started writing as a way to process the events and her feelings. She is married to L.J. Da Corsi and is mother to Timothy and Thomas.