What my Son’s Death Taught Me

Eleven years ago, my 18-year-old son Evan died by suicide. These are the six most important things I learned from his death:

  1. I don’t have control over other people and their choices, but I do have control over myself and my own choices. I’m not an all-knowing being and I wasn’t able to prevent Evan’s death. The pain and confusion I experienced in the aftermath nearly killed me, but I finally realized that how I move forward and heal is my responsibility. Evan’s death is a part of my history, but it doesn’t have to define my future.
  2. I am resilient and capable. If I was able to survive my son’s death and go on to thrive, what can’t I do? I discovered a well of strength inside of me that I never imagined I had. With time, it has become a quiet confidence in myself and in life itself.
  3. An open-mind is a powerful tool. I can use it to question my beliefs and imagine possibilities.  “Who says a parent can’t survive the death of a child?” “What if God is something different than I originally thought?” “Can something good really come from tragedy?” It takes courage to ask the big questions, grapple for the answers, and adjust your worldview accordingly, but I’ve learned that it’s worth it.
  4. Death is just a change of form. I no longer fear death or a place called hell. God is not interested in punishing us or teaching us a lesson. God is pure love and only love is real. Everything else is an illusion.
  5. I don’t know what hidden pain others might be carrying. I do my best to extend compassion to those around me. I avoid judging others and instead send them love and light and strength as they find their way through this oftentimes difficult journey of life. It costs nothing to be kind.
  6. Life is complicated and precious and beautiful. In the grand scheme of things, our time on earth is very short. I strive to live in the present moment and to spend my time and energy doing the things that bring me joy. I eat delicious food and laugh with friends. I hold hands with my husband on the streets of a foreign city. I lie in the warm grass with my granddaughter as we watch butterflies float through the air above us. It is true that there is great sorrow in this life, but it is equally true that there is great goodness. I choose to focus on those parts and express gratitude for it all.

Ten years later – what I’ve learned about surviving and thriving after my son’s suicide

It’s been ten years today since that sunny September morning we found our son Evan dead. He hung himself from the railing of the tree house in our back yard on a Wednesday and every Wednesday that went by marked another week that I had held on by a thread. The weeks turned to months. After a very rough patch when I seriously considered taking my own life, too, I knew I was going to at least survive, even though I wasn’t sure how or why. I was forty years old and I knew that someday I might live over half of my life as this shell of woman with most of her heart missing and her eyes always looking off at something in the distance that nobody else could see. It seemed like a life sentence. That future was filled to the brim with nothing but hopelessness. But the possibility of merely existing on a kind of emotional life support for decades also became the very thing that motivated me to find another way.

I no longer mark weeks or months since Evan left us. Even though just the memories of that day we found him still sometimes tighten my throat and send hot tears down my cheeks, they no longer make me wish I could dissolve into the earth and quit existing. More often than not my thoughts of Evan bring a smile to my face now. With time, I faced my grief, accepted reality, and I kept going and here I am – mostly content and optimistic, hoping to live many more decades filled with laughter and beautiful moments.

Mostly, I’m just grateful to whatever invisible force, I like to call it “Grace,” is out there that propped me up and whispered in my ear, “Who says that losing a child means you have to lose yourself forever, too?”

Unfortunately, Evan’s Dad Paul, who became my ex-husband a couple years after we lost Evan, got stuck in the despair and chaos that is so familiar to those left behind by suicide. After struggling in that sticky tar for over four years, he found his way out of it by ending his life with a pistol in his home office. He used a permanent solution to solve a temporary, albeit serious, problem. Now my kids and I are navigating our way through another suicide and I think it is more important than ever to share what I’ve learned about finding a way through the pain of suicide loss.

  1. Feel your feelings without judgment

That is my number one piece of advice to anyone experiencing loss. Feel your feelings, whatever they are, and for God’s sake, don’t make matters worse by judging them. You might feel angry, guilty, confused, or even relieved. You might feel something else and that’s okay, too.  No matter what you’ve been taught or what others might say, there is no right or wrong way to feel about losing someone to suicide and your feelings might change on a dime or over a period of time. Denying how you really feel is like punching yourself in the face. It’s pointless and it only hurts you, never helps you. Judging your feelings is just as bad as denying them. You can’t help how you feel. Feelings aren’t good or bad. They’re neutral, so treat them that way.

Many early in their grief just want to know that it won’t always hurt as bad as it does right now. I promise you it won’t.

When the initial horror of the whole thing starts to subside, it will be important to express your feelings, too. You can write in a journal, talk to your dog, or talk to yourself. Again, without judgment. About a year after Evan died, even though I never had before, I started writing poetry. I was able to capture the feelings that seemed so complex and just out of reach somehow. Of course, there are other ways to express feelings, too. If I knew a thing about painting or music or film making, then maybe I would have chosen one of those mediums. Maybe you know of others that appeal to you. You don’t need an audience, either. I found some answers to questions like “why?” and “what could I have done?” through journaling. Keep reading and you’ll see some of the answers I came up with.

  1. Find support

I was already seeing a therapist when Evan died, so of course I kept seeing her. I also found an amazing support group. The people there knew how frustrating and painful it could be to do things like cancel my late son’s cell phone or file his last tax return as “deceased.” They knew what it was like to hear people say the worst possible thing at the worst possible time. (In case you haven’t figured it out yet on your own – some people are clueless and insensitive, but they’re almost always trying their best, so extend them as much grace as you possibly can.) It wasn’t a club any of us wanted to be in, but being in it together was better than being in it alone. I’ll be honest, it takes some guts to walk through the door. Just saying my son’s name out loud to that group of strangers almost made me run out of the room screaming and never go back, but I’m sure glad I did go back. Not only did I get to talk with others who could relate to what I was going through, some of them had actually gone on to live normal happy lives, even though they’d had a loss. I saw them laughing and sometimes talking about their lost loved one without crying. The group gave me hope. If they could do it, maybe I could, too. These days, there are even on-line groups and those can offer great support, too.

If someone offers to pick up your dry cleaning or shovel your snow or do anything at all for you, I hope you’ll accept their help. If you can’t bring yourself to do it for your sake, do it for theirs. People want to do something. They can’t bring back your lost loved one and they might not have any idea how to comfort you, but maybe they make a mean tater-tot casserole and they’d like to bring it over. Let them.

  1. Take care of yourself

The last thing a person usually thinks of is taking care of themselves during such a stressful time, but it is so very important. It’s actually simple and basic, even if not always easy in practice. Eat healthy food, make yourself get some form of exercise, get enough rest, and take your vitamins and other medications. See your doctor if you need help with any of these things. If they recommend medications for anxiety, depression, or sleeping, don’t let your pride get in the way. You aren’t weak for choosing to take those things. You are actually taking charge of your situation. You are doing what you need to do to take care of yourself.  Maybe most importantly, avoid medicating yourself with unhealthy or excessive food or booze. It’s like pouring gas on a fire and we all know that’s just never a good idea.  My drinking got out of hand after Evan died and so did Paul’s. When cutting down didn’t work for me, I quit altogether. Paul’s habit got worse and worse and alcohol was likely a strong contributing factor in his suicide.

Overall, treat yourself the way you would treat a friend or a child, with compassion and understanding and tender loving care.

  1. Evaluate your Beliefs

When Evan died, I discovered that I believed all kinds of things about parenting and suicide and society and God and a whole bunch of other things that I wasn’t even aware of before. I paid attention to the beliefs I became aware of and asked myself if they were true and if I wanted to keep believing them or choose something that was more helpful to me and my healing process. I gathered perspectives to choose from by reading a lot of books on subjects like loss, grief, spirituality, and resilience. I talked to others and attended conferences. When it was all said and done, I had made a major shift and found a level of peace I had never known before.

Here’s what I choose to believe now. I believe that Evan and Paul are both in a good place. I believe that there is never one reason someone chooses suicide, but that life is a complex tapestry of events and circumstances. I believe that Evan and Paul weren’t thinking about how much they would hurt us, they were only thinking about ending their own pain. I know that the only way I could have stopped these deaths was if I were an all-knowing God-like being. I must admit that I am not.  I know that I can’t change the past, but I can choose my future. I also know that there are some things that we just can never know.  I’ve accepted that.

Be honest with yourself: Do you want to heal and move on, whatever that means to you? Or do you believe that it’s wrong in some way? Do you believe that you can’t honor your lost loved one and be okay at the same time? Do you believe that you need to carry a huge load of pain around forever to prove how much you loved them, even if you’re only proving it to yourself? If so, remember that you are the one in charge of this belief system and you can choose to believe the things that will help you move forward instead of the things that will keep you stuck.  If you aren’t sure of your answers to those questions and what kind of belief might be helpful, I’d like to invite you to consider this belief as a stepping stone – “I am open to healing and I might be okay.”

Time helps a lot, but time alone won’t heal this kind of pain any more than time alone will heal a broken leg. It takes some effort, some action, some intention, and some belief that healing is in fact desirable and possible.

You can choose to believe that hope is real and that any future is possible for you.

  1. Believe in yourself

In the words of A.A. Milne, “You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Even though you have experienced something that most people believe no one is really capable of surviving, here you are. You are looking for solutions and finding them. You are seeing other people who have survived the trauma of suicide loss and haven’t been obliterated. Whether you add me to the list or count me as the first you’ve ever encountered, I am real. I am not special. I actually considered myself emotionally fragile and mentally unstable even before Evan’s suicide. I had a drinking problem, a slew of stress related health issues, a terribly unhealthy marriage, and I seriously considered ending my own life. If I can make it, you can, too.

You can’t change the past, but you are the author of your life from this moment forward. How do you want to live? Who do you want to be? You carry an inner wisdom and you can find the answers to these questions if you start asking them and start listening.

An important part of creating a happy is future is gratitude. Gratitude is the magic that makes change happen. Look around you right now and see the things that you are grateful for. These good things can’t “make up” for your loss, but that doesn’t make them any less real. There is good in the world and you can see it. I know you can. I used to think that the glass was half empty and only some delusional nitwit would say it was half full. Now I can see that both perspectives are true. It’s just up to us to choose which one we focus on. Choose gratitude as much as possible.

When it all gets right down to it, after all I’ve been through and everything I’ve learned about overcoming loss, my mom’s kitchen table wisdom just might be the truest thing I’ve ever heard.  No matter the problem, she would always say, “It’s gonna be okay.” You are gonna be okay. Trust that. There is no one right way to do this whole grief thing and you don’t have to pay one lick of attention to what I or anyone else has to say about this. You have to do what works for you. Trust yourself.

No matter how smooth or bumpy, I know that all roads eventually lead to something good. I am confident that you can and will find your way.


Steph & Evan Summer 2007