The teacher called me over the phone and said in a calm voice, “Your son attempted suicide in school and is now on the way to the hospital.” It was as if the world stood still. How I wanted to say, “Excuse me, what did you say?” The words were clear, yet they were incomprehensive, or I simply refused to comprehend.
We headed to the hospital emergency room. Checking with reception, they confirmed he was there. We acted as how we usually visit hospitalized friends or relatives, as we walked along the corridor with the school teacher waiting. The teacher paused and said in a calm voice,
“We sent him here immediately after after attempting suicide.” It was as if the world stood still…..
The teacher went on to explain that he had come in after jumping out from the 3rd floor of the school building, right outside his classroom and landed on both his legs. He has been stabilized while still undergoing operation.
We were stunned! We did not know what to do or say. We did not have words to describe. Questions invaded our minds: Why? What had we missed so blatantly? What had we done wrong? How had we failed so badly as parents? What was the root cause that led to this?
This was how this client, a 16 years old student was presented to me for therapy by his parents, 5 months later upon recovery, at least physically. The parent is concerned and is looking for all possible means to ensure that this incident would not take place again.
From the therapeutic perspective, surely we will need to look at the impact of the trauma (e.g. Post-traumatic stress disorders); various skills such as dealing with set-backs, emotional regulation, anger management and assertiveness as well as helping the client to move forward with their own goals and dreams.
Nevertheless, the focus of this article is what parents can do and how could they cope with this traumatizing event themselves which will definitely create a deep and huge scar in their life too.
This is a upper middle class family. Well-educated and professional working couple. As most educated couples, they never hold back in supporting their children’s education and often guiding, teaching and helping with their children’s school work too. They send their children to private school. As far as they are aware, they are providing the best they could for their children; care, attention, opportunities and material comfort. Yet, how could this ever happen?
More were revealed as the parent continued….
As their son was fully awake few days later, he simply said, “It has nothing to do with you.”
Upon further probing by the parent, their son revealed that he felt like such a failure, for being the weakest member in the school team for the inter-school mathematics competition two days ago and blaming himself for their lost.
Also he felt that his schoolmates no longer wanted anything to do with him, they pointed out his character flaws and questioned why anyone would want to be his friend, and he went on to speculate that even God would not accept him.
To make matters worse, few weeks ago, their son had already felt rejected by another set of friends. He has been feeling hopeless and helpless since then.
On that day, as he sat there in the classroom, the darkness closed in… total failure… no one could help…..no friends… no hope… no matter how hard he tried. Feeling totally overwhelmed, he just rush out towards the school corridor and took the leap over the one and a half meter wall……. He did not think of suicide when he did this, he just want to bring an end to all these pain, physical or emotional.
It wasn’t that he wanted to die; he just wanted to escape the pain, the sense of helplessness and hopelessness that seemed so overwhelming.
What can parents do?
As parents we are not mind readers. Yes we need to be our best to stay connected, observe, ask questions, and be involved in our children’s world as much as we can, but we will never be able to read their minds.
Let them speak and we listen. As parents we can create windows for listening. We can say, “Dear, being a school representative has been such a huge part of your life. It’s been disappointing not to be able to represent the school anymore. How are you doing with that?” As parents we have to remind ourselves our part is to attempt to open the door to let them express themselves. We cannot control the willingness to respond and let us in. Our part is to be intentional / creative with the attempts, creating a safe atmosphere for them to express themselves freely and confidently. Check into our urge to jump in, trying to offer solutions or fixing it for them too soon. Let them say what they want to say and wait. While they speak, they may already found some way out or realize how absurd they reactions were. Just listen and let them speak.
Most importantly, let them know you love them, unconditionally, no matter what. Kids sometimes get the impression that our love is based on superficial things like how well they perform in school or play sports or how good their grades are…As mentioned by the parent above, “When our son lay in that hospital bed, the only thing I wanted him to know was that I loved him NO MATTER WHAT. We left a note at our son’s bed, which said, “We want you to know we love you. We are not sure what caused you to take this step but you will make it through this.” That’s what matter.
On the contrary, parents need caution with taking blame or credit for their child’s actions. When my client attempted suicide some of his parents first thoughts were “What did we do wrong? How have we failed?” I have to reassure them of a harsh reality, “Kids eventually have to learn to make their own decisions. We made ours and they will forge their own path with the decisions they make.”
Be compassionate with our own failings and mistakes. When we accept our own mistakes and failings with compassion; we are being a role-model for our children in dealing with set-back and facing life difficulties; it doesn’t mean that we are lowering our standard or being self-indulgent. It just means that we can learn from the past mistake and keep improving. Self-compassion is the antidote for depression and the bedrock for sustainable self-improvement.
Our children become increasingly independent. In the progression from childhood to adulthood our relationship with our children changes from one of control to one of influence. When children are young, parents can, to a great extent, control their world. As they grow toward adulthood, that control decreases as independence grows. Holding on to the control is like tightening the grip on sands, the tighter it gets, the more it slips away. The goal is to continue to influence through a healthy relationship and open communication. Our parenting role changed from being a commando to a coach then a counselor and finally being a consultant.
Letting go is hard. Perhaps, parents could start to prepare some similar version of a conversation or a written note as below:
We are not your enemy or trying to hold you back. We love you. We are trying to give you suggestions on a course of action that we believed will give you a brigther future. We accept that ultimately it is your choice. You need to realize that for good or bad you will live out the consequence of your decisions. You are shaping your future just as our decisions have shaped our lives.”
One of my previous clients has this to say to her parents in one of our session, “Mom and Dad, you raised me right and I have your good genes and teaching. Now you have to trust me to make my own decisions.”
Some Final Thoughts
Many parents could never imagine that they would ever have to walk through this experience. My heart goes out to any parent who has walked a similar path. To those who have lost a child to suicide I express deepest grief and empathy.
I am so much grateful that many parents and their children are willing to share their stories despite the deep pain and remaining scar. I am humbled by their courage and perseverance, despite their vulnerabilities and immense sufferings.
As one parent mentioned, "What I found was people who had lost someone they loved, not people like me, who had tried to die and lived instead — people who were confused about what happened next, who felt so much shame that they couldn't talk about what had happened to them, people who felt misunderstood and alone – that need the most support from the society"