Motherhood can be a dream. Nothing compares to welcoming your own children into the world, to watching them take their first steps, to hearing their first words, to seeing them make friends, go to school, graduate, begin their careers, start families of their own…
Motherhood can also be a nightmare. Nothing is more agonizing than watching your children hurt, bullied, or in pain. No terror is greater than that of seeing your children in danger or putting themselves at risk. No loss is more devastating than the loss of a child.
For me, motherhood has been both a dream and a nightmare. Several decades ago, I brought two children into the world. In 2010, one of them left it suddenly and unexpectedly, by his own hand. He was nineteen years old.
Whether or not I could have prevented my son’s premature passing is a question I will never be able to answer, and one that I had to abandon long ago in order to move through my grief. What I do know is that sharing my personal experience with suicide and suicide prevention will lessen the chance that other parents end up facing a tragedy similar to my own — and it may also open the door to a more joyful future for their families.
*Before reading on, please note: If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.*
In the years leading up to the passing of my son, Logan, I was well aware that he was struggling internally. We had seen numerous doctors who made different diagnoses and prescribed various medications to try to “fix” him, whatever that meant. This unsuccessful process ate away at our relationship, and on the day he took his life, we hadn’t spoken in several weeks.
Looking back, I can see so many red flags that might have indicated an intention of suicide. Understanding these warning signs is, I feel, crucial for every parent — whether or not you imagine that your children might be at risk. The following list is not comprehensive, but it’s a good place to start.
What They Say
No one reading this will be shocked to hear me suggest that teenagers and pre-teens are not known for being overly talkative with their parents. At moments when they do open up to you, however, there are a few things I urge you to listen for:
1) expressions of hopelessness, helplessness, or unbearable pain
2) talk about life not being worth anything
3) worry about being a burden to others
4) a sense of oppression or of being trapped
How They Feel
As parents, we’ve all done it: We’ve brushed off emotional outbursts or tantrums in our children as “growing pains,” or chalked them up to haywire hormones. Not every adolescent mood shift is innocuous, though, and none of them should be ignored. When checking in with your children, keep an eye out for the following feelings:
4) shame and humiliation
5) sudden bouts of relief
That last one might sound confusing, but it is actually one of the most significant and frightening of mood-related warning signs because it may imply a resolution to take suicidal action.
What They Do
From day one, our children are experimenters, and that’s a beautiful thing! Their interests and habits will evolve over time, straight into adulthood. But the following drastic, seemingly unprompted changes in behavior can be symptoms of an underlying crisis:
2) withdrawal from activities
3) shifts in attitude toward friends and family members
4) creation of questionable relationships
5) acts of aggression
6) erratic or changing sleep patterns
7) onset of or increase in substance use
8) giving away of prized possessions
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is an excellent resource on identifying risk factors and warning signs, and I recommend visiting the organization’s page on this subject. In addition, I am happy to answer questions and provide personalized insight directly anytime. (See the end of this article for contact details.)
So, having pinpointed common indicators of internal unrest, how do we move forward? What can we do for the people we love most in order to stave off self-harm or suicide?
The action list below may seem extremely simple, but that’s one bright spot in this dark discussion: The things we can do to protect our children are simple. Yet they do take time, consistent effort, and genuine care.
The process of healing through any mental or emotional burden begins with opening up, which is why active listening sits at the top of my list. Whenever your child is speaking to you — even if the topic seems trivial — make sure that your ears and mind are focused. Though they may not want or need your input or advice, knowing that you hear them and that you care could mean the difference between their coming to you with their problems and the decision to hide them/avoid them altogether.
2) Start a Conversation
Having an in-depth conversation, which involves both those listening skills you’ve honed and the asking of gentle questions, might feel especially daunting as you watch your children navigate the choppy waters between teendom and young adulthood. But this is just the age window during which such heart-to-hearts are so essential for healthy development — and awkward as they may feel at first, they become easier the more often you have them.
As for strategy, the key here is not to make your child feel cornered. I advise starting small, by asking specific but casual questions while you’re alone in the car after school or while you’re preparing dinner. What was the best/worst/funniest thing they did in class? Who did they have lunch with (and was it any good)? What are they looking forward to doing tomorrow? The answers you receive may not be deep or detailed. By showing interest, however, you’re opening the door for future talks.
3) Take Quality Time
As it turns out, the quantity of time you spend with a person is not as important as the quality of that time. Whether you and your child have ten minutes or several hours together in a day, that time will be most effective and enjoyable if you are fully engaged. This means putting phones and other electronic distractions down — unless, of course, you’re using them to communicate with each other! — and being present in the activity at hand. Show your child that you know how to play and have fun, and that you value doing so with them.
4) Seek Assistance
If in listening to, speaking with, and spending time with your child, concerns that feel beyond your ability to alleviate pop up, it’s time to seek professional assistance. Consulting your family physician can be a solid starting point as they will likely be familiar with your child’s medical history, and will also be able to guide you toward local mental healthcare providers. Scary as this step may seem, it could also be the most important one that you make. It could be the step that saves your child’s life.
Though Logan’s story — our story — is a tragic one, I no longer view it from the bleak perspective that I held when his life ended. I’ve been fortunate to discover just how much hope and inspiration is embedded in my journey, and to find my heart’s calling in sharing it with others.
Whatever struggles you or you and your family are facing, I encourage you to reach out to me for support, guidance, and healing. Send me a message at cathleenelle.com, and I will get back to you personally.