Coping with the worst possible grief

  • Niall Hunter, Editor

"There were 554 deaths due to intentional self-harm in 2011, 458 or 82.7% were male while 96 or 17.3% were female. Deaths from suicide accounted for almost 2% of all deaths that occurred in 2011 compared to 1.8% of all deaths in 2010."

Behind the stark statistics there is always a human story, the story of a life often extinguished at an early age. Mostly, the story relates to the national issue of rising suicide rates, and trying to understand why people take their own lives.

And then there's the story of the 'survivors' or the suicide bereaved, and how they try to survive day to day.

Few of these stories are more heart-rending than those of mothers who have lost children to suicide:

"...And I just knew the world would never be the same again. It was the end of the world as I knew it..."

"...After he died I wanted to die myself. I finally understood the pain he must have been in..."

"...There were times after his death I just wanted to die and suddenly realised this is what he must have been feeling."

"... It's a hole in my stomach that doesn't go away and it's like someone putting their hand in your body and pulling your heart out..."

Joan Sugrue captured the above thoughts and many more from seven mothers who had lost children to suicide as part of a major research project into the experiences of Irish mothers bereaved by suicide.

Joan, who holds an MSc in Bereavement Studies from the College of Surgeons in association with the Irish Hospice Foundation, presented results from her study at a major psychotherapy conference in Dublin.*

Her study provides an insight into an aspect of the suicide debate that can be overlooked.

She says the impact on the suicide-bereaved and particularly the concept of a mother's grief following the suicide of a child is often poorly understood.

"The mother-child bond is often one of the strongest, and the death of a child creates a profound change in a mother's' life," she says.

Her study provides an intense and often disturbing account of the personal experiences and profound stress of maternal bereavement following suicide. She hopes it will help give a voice to this vulnerable and often neglected group and help them to get any help they may need.

The research focused on seven biological mothers whose child had taken their own life - all had at least one other child. Five of the suicide victims died by hanging or strangulation; one died from an overdose and one died from an overdose plus suffocation.

Says Joan Sugrue: "The results revealed that mothers experienced an intense, prolonged grief, with many psychological and physical symptoms. Several participants acknowledged strong suicidal thoughts themselves and one of the mothers had attempted suicide."

The research also found that misuse of medication and alcohol was identified by some women as a coping strategy.

Other strands found in the interviews with the mothers was a feeling of wanting to die in order to be with their child, and the impact of guilt and blame on their belief systems.

It was found that immediately following their tragic loss, the mothers reported that they felt compelled to keep their emotions and pain under wraps and try to put on 'a brave face'. Six of the mothers reported that they were afraid to release their pain and grief publicly, and felt they had to protect others from it.

The funerals may have provided an outlet for open grieving for other mourners, but provided little solace for the mothers, most of whom bottled up their their grief. One, however, said she became highly emotional and threw herself on top of the coffin.

As time went on, the mothers realised that their loss had shattered many of the assumptions they had held about themselves and their lives, in both negative and positive ways.

While one mother, who was from a religious family, said the tragedy made her experience a loss of faith and belief in many aspects of her life, another mother spoke about how the death of her child led her to re-evaluate her life, leading her to become less upset about things.

Many of the mothers, it was found, were able to construct a narrative that explained the death to others and to themselves.

These narratives included:

"...He did this to make things easier for everyone. He has shown huge courage..."

"...In the end he was totally worn out by it all. It just sort of broke him..."

Mother were able to identify specific issues in their child's lives, whether it was alcoholism in the family, past bereavement or bullying. The mother of the youngest child cited bullying as a factor his death and told of how her son had stopped her from openly addressing this problem, because he believed it would only compound his difficulties.

Mothers were also, it was found, able to gain a great understanding of the pain their child must have felt in order to choose to die in the way they did.

Ironically, for some parents, it was the legacy of pain following the child's death that facilitated this understanding. In other words, the mothers were now in great pain themselves, thereby gaining and understanding into how their child must have felt.

Joan Sugrue's study also stresses that there was a great sense of love and forgiveness for the mothers towards their departed children in these cases:

"...He was one of the most unique people I ever met. I was privileged to be his mother..."

The issue of blame in these cases is an obvious one. Not surprisingly, a perception of failure as a parent and self- blame permeated most of themothers' interviews:

"I should have seen it coming. We should not have gone on holidays and left him."

Another issue identified was how the suicide impacted on the mother's role as parent to their remaining children,which was one of many challenges for them:

"...It was not until one of his tears fell on my cheek that I woke up to the fact that my other son was crying every night of the week..."

Joan notes that the mothers had no difficulty in finding forgiveness for their children while appearing to struggle to forgive themselves.

Along with the multiplicity and complexity of the issues involved in losing a child to suicide, what Joan found particularly striking in the research was the level and depth of suffering described by the mothers:

"...Total devastation. I will never come to terms with this because he was my baby..."

One mother described her longing to hold her lost child and smell his skin.

All of the mothers indicated that they had suffered from mental health problems as a result of their loss:

"...I sat looking at a wall for weeks and had to go on medication..."

Many of the mothers referred to having strong suicidal feelings, with one admitting to a suicide attempt.

Particularly desolate and affecting are the accounts of what mothers felt in the period just after the death.

"...To know our son is locked in a freezer and you want to cover him up and warm him and get him to sing our songs from when he was a baby..."

Joan Sugrue found that mother had an extraordinary desire to go out and seek their dead child. They wanted to know their child was all right, even in death. It was even felt that the only way this could be achieved was to die themselves.

There is certainly no neat, happy ending to these stories. Mothers tended to totally reject the belief that 'time heals grief.':

"...Time does not heal the scars that are left after a suicide. The scars of suicide are with you forever."

Some of the mothers pointed out that the bereavement from suicide was very different in terms of intensity of pain and the complex mix of emotions that it brings.

Joan Sugrue says her findings highlight a need to focus on this vulnerable group of people in terms of trying to look after their needs, as well as the needs of fathers, siblings and the wider family circle.

She says the study shows that the needs of those bereaved by suicide should be a concern for healthcare providers.

"The findings suggest a need for health and social care professionals to target this vulnerable group of people, especially as they are less likely than those bereaved by natural deaths to seek help."

The issue of suicide prevention is important here too, given the suicidal tendencies of mothers indicated in the interviews.

Overall, Joan Sugrue's research shows that suicide-bereaved mothers deal with immense grief and a complexity of issues, that not only impact on their own health and well-being, but change their lives and the lives of their families forever.

* Conference -"Gathering of Psychotherapists...21 years on", organised by the Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy (IAHIP). Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin. Friday October 18. Further details:

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