When a Child Dies by Suicide

Joy Pavelich lost her son, Eric, to suicide in September 2013. She shares her own reflections on loss and grief one year later.

There are elements of common thought that, as a grieving parent, I found myself suddenly immersed in after my son died by suicide: the most significant loss that you can face is the death of a child, the most complex grief is suicide, and it doesn’t get better – you simply learn to live with it.

In the days, weeks and months – now extending past the first year – since Eric died, experience proved itself to being the ugliest teacher of all. In the lessons that emerged as part of my grief journey, there certainly were elements of truth in these simple statements, but they weren’t necessarily my truth.

While I can say with certainty that my grief is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in its intensity and capacity to endure despite the passage of time, I have learned my grief isn’t any more or less difficult than that of my two sons – it’s just different. Birth order meant that Eric was the glue in the middle of the sandwich of brothers, and his presence equally valuable to each of us; mother and siblings.

My grief is great, but as I watch his brothers struggle to learn to live again, without one of their best friends, I have become acutely aware that I don’t have a monopoly on grieving Eric’s death.

As for me, a parent who for years watched her son struggle under the weight of a mental illness, I would have to say my personal journey has been less focused on the ‘How?’ or ‘Why?,’ but instead on a life that ended out of the natural death order.

The loss of my son left me with far more than a few dark days. Some I was prepared for, others caught me by surprise.

The early days were almost unbearable, and I didn’t think I could survive the intensity of the loss. His belongings remained (and remain) untouched, and his photos grace our home as though he still lives.

His birthday and Christmas came in rapid succession after his passing. As a family, we were paralyzed. We learned that the anticipation of those days, the worry that preceded them and how we would get through, was hard to navigate. But, the day itself was often more bearable than the days and weeks before.

Mother’s Day was different. I wasn’t worried about it being difficult. After all, I was still a mother and in my mind, nothing had changed, not even losing a child had changed that fact. But nothing could have prepared me for the dark hole I fell into the days leading up to it. Other than the day Eric died, no other day has caused my mother’s heart as much pain.

The one year anniversary has passed, and we suffered as a family leading up to this critical date. After that anniversary, we seemed to collectively realize we had passed all of the firsts, and living with the loss was becoming our new normal.

Nowadays, I continue to vacillate between moments of “normalcy” and difficulty finding my breath; although, the days of normalcy are beginning to outnumber days of panic.

If there is a lesson in this for me, it has perhaps been that grief is an individual journey. There is no right way through it; we can’t predict or control much; we simply have to make our way through to the other side, or wherever it is that we end up. In that process, there is no right or wrong way.

As a family who was exceedingly close – so much so that it was often a conversation piece – the fracturing of our family unit found us floundering for personal survival, and realignment took time and continues to reconfigure itself.

Although I continue to wish back the years, I go on with the understanding that I will never be the same. The tragic passing of the ones you hold dearest to you is life-changing, but life itself does eventually go on. You slowly learn how to breathe again, and, eventually, to laugh. How that looks will ultimately be up to you.