Written by Gina Roberts-Grey
Why did Jack kill himself? When our kids are little, it seems the sea of “why” questions will never end. “Mommy, why is the sky blue?” “Why can’t I have…?” and “Why do I have to go to bed?” are just a few of the daily “whys” parents of tots and toddlers wrestle with. As the parent of a 16-year-old, I thought my days of unanswerable “whys” were long behind me. And then one fateful evening my son’s phone started chirping and pinging with a fury that rocked his world and opened mine up to a painful set of questions I couldn’t answer. Why did one of his best friends end his own life? The Centers for Disease Control says suicide is the third leading cause of death for those ages 15 to 24. It’s the fourth leading cause of death for kids ages 10 to 14. One in 12 teens have attempted suicide, according to the CDC, and the National Institute of Mental Health believes as many as 25 suicides are attempted for each one that is completed. All those numbers add up to significant odds that a teen’s or tween’s life will in some way be touched by suicide, yet somehow I thought, perhaps naively, that our family would be different. That my son would soar through adolescence and young adulthood without being exposed to suicide. Why weren’t we that lucky? I’m in snowy, but scenic, Upstate NY and mom to one 17-year-old son and three Bichons. The hours after learning the news were filled with silence, sobs and the search for solace. My son and his friends told stories of the previous days, weeks and years with their pal. And all the stories ended the same, with a “why.” My son asked why he won’t see his friend again. Why Jack didn’t trust him to confide how he was feeling. And why God was so unjust. As parents, we expect to have all the answers. We assume the ability to swoop in and save the day, chasing away our children’s doubts, worries and fears. But suicide strips away our superpowers. It leaves us feeling helpless and unable to comfort or console. It robs us of ample answers. My husband and I quickly realized that in order to serve as the pillars of our son’s support system, we needed to deal with our own set of questions, starting with, Why can’t we make sense of this for our son? A grief counselor helped all of us realize not every “why” question has an answer. And we shouldn’t feel pressure or guilt to have an answer to every “why” question. It’s hard to know how any child will react to a friend’s suicide, so instead of trying to answer “why” we focused on outlining support. Taking cues from our son, we gave him the room to gather with friends, an outlet to express anger, confusion and sorrow, and the freedom to not live up to expectations that included “sucking it up” and “acting like a man.” An already affectionate family, we hugged him a little more. And to listen, we said a little less. We pored over stories of Jack together. We shared laughs and tears and reconnected over pizza picnics in the living room. We also accepted the reality that it’s okay for some “whys” to remain unanswered. A mom to one 17-year-old son and three Bichons, Gina Roberts-Grey lives in snowy, but scenic, Upstate NY. She is a regular contributor to Prevention, Glamour.com, Lifescript.com, MSN, EverydayHealth.com, and other health sites.