It has been not quite a year since her teenage son jumped from a building and killed himself. And her grief is still so raw, she couldn’t help lashing out after she read my Tuesday column about a forum on suicide at Agoura High.
The advice offered that night to parents, stung by a string of recent deaths, seemed inadequate to her: Talk to your kids. Keep tabs on them. Don’t let them use alcohol and drugs.
“I pity the parents who think that by being on top of their kids 24/7, that by drug testing them every time they come home from a friend’s house, that by hounding their children, they can protect them, can stop them from suicide,” she wrote.
Her son was “a brilliant student, a good athlete with a loving family” who “inexplicably” ended his life at 14. The details she shared are heart-wrenching. I pledged not to breach her family’s privacy by disclosing them.
Her email forced me to consider the damage that suicide inflicts on a family. And it made me realize that blaming “parenting” only compounds survivors’ pain.
It took Ester Ybarra Bryant three months to muster the courage to call the coroner’s office and ask what killed her 13-year-old: Death by carbon monoxide. Suicide.
“I asked how did they rule it a suicide. They told me the evidence was overwhelming,” she said. Her son had used a strip of rubber from his bicycle tire to bind his mouth to the tailpipe of an idling car in their West Covina garage.
She struggled to believe it. “I told the police somebody must have come into the house and made it look like a suicide.”
Nathan had no drugs or alcohol in his system, just remnants of his favorite snack, a Rice Krispie treat. He was in the seventh grade, a Boy Scout and an altar boy. His father had died three years before, and the family had gone through counseling then.
“I was blindsided by this,” Ybarra Bryant said. “We talked about everything: drugs, alcohol, sex. But never about suicide. “
In hindsight, there were signs. His grades had fallen from Bs to Cs. He’d stopped joking around at home. He’d given away his beloved pet mice and collection of Transformers toys.
“I thought it was just growing up, coming of age,” his mother said. “Now I know I failed my son. That’s the guilt that I live with; that I was not a good enough mom.”
For survivors, guilt is a companion to sorrow, anger and pain.
“We all feel there is something we could have said or done that would have saved that person,” said Richard Mogil, program director for Suicide Prevention and Bereavement Services at Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center.
“Ninety percent of the time, there is some form of mental illness involved — depression, bipolar, other personality disorders. It’s not the person, it’s the illness,” Mogil said. “Some people will go to any lengths to end their mental pain.”
Didi Hirsch offers support groups for people who have lost a loved one — and for those who have attempted or are contemplating suicide.
Teenagers are particularly high-risk. Suicide is considered the third most common cause of death among adolescents. Some are trapped by youthful immaturity and self-centered tunnel vision. Some compound their struggle by self-medicating, abusing drugs and alcohol. Some are swept up by what a rabbi at the funeral of a 14-year-old called “a sudden emotional tsunami.”
They all leave behind families wondering what they should have seen or done.
The reality is, Mogil said, “You can do something about what’s happening with your loved one. But it may not be enough.”
For all the progress we’ve made in understanding addiction and mental illness, suicide is still considered by many a shameful exit — a failure of will or character or parenting.
“Survivors feel the stigma,” said Mogil, whose younger brother shot himself to death at 48.
Some don’t feel welcome at conventional bereavement groups. “People are looking at them and saying, ‘My loved one died of cancer or an accident. Yours chose to die.’ That’s cruel and blind and devastating,” Mogil said. “It’s the disease that made that choice.”
Parents feel ambushed and isolated. “It’s a sudden death, and yes, it does catch us totally by surprise,” said a mother named Marilyn, whose 14-year-old daughter killed herself nine years ago.
“She had good grades, she was involved in school, she was active at our church. … She was moody, but we thought it was just a normal teenage phase.
“Looking back, there was depression that none of us recognized,” she said. “We don’t look for the warning signs until after something happens.”
Now Marilyn volunteers on the Didi Hirsch Crisis Line, talking to people considering suicide. “They reach out because they’re ambivalent. You try and sort of open their eyes. They don’t necessarily want to die, they want the psychological pain to stop.”
She has dealt with her own psychological pain — the burden of parental guilt — by learning to forgive herself.
“You listen to every mother’s story: ‘If I had done this, maybe it would have been different.’ And you realize there is no guarantee,” Marilyn said. “Even if we take them to every therapist and listen to every problem, there is no guarantee.
“All of us do the best we can, given what we know, in the circumstances we’re in. This has been a very humbling experience.”
From Marilyn’s perspective, being a “hyper-vigilant parent” is better than the alternative. “Better than to have to say ‘If I had only listened to that little voice’ after your child is gone,” she said.
But for the mother who wrote to me, newly bereft, there was no “little voice.” Her anguished email said it still stings to hear rumors “that my son was — fill in the blank — taking drugs, being bullied, on antidepressants.”
She recognizes that outsiders need a logical explanation for what is a frighteningly irrational act. It’s a way of putting distance between my child and the suicide victim; a way of keeping our families outside the bounds of tragedy.
She offers, from the trenches, a wake-up call:
“The only thing that lets these parents sleep at night is this fantasy that they have the power in this situation to protect their child. If they knew the reality, if they knew OUR reality, they would never be able to sleep at all.”
Information on the warning signs of suicide can be found on the website of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, https://www.afsp.org.