A Mother's Journey
How I Worked Through My Mourning and Re-found Joy
By Lois A. Bloom, author of Mourning After Suicide, Pilgrim Press, 1986
My son Sammy died by suicide at the age of 23 in December 1982, due to his schizoaffective disorder. He was suicidal, depressed, and troubled. My husband and I did our best to find him good care but his psychiatrist never seemed interested enough to grasp his problems. Whenever my husband and I had contact with his psychiatrist, with consent from our son since he was over twenty-one, and I asked questions, he looked at me and said, I was an over-reactive mother and not to interfere in Sammy’s life! Of course that was impossible since our son was living with us after a major breakdown, having been in the UCLA Neuro- Psychiatric Hospital for three months and he needed our help. He saw this psychiatrist after his hospitalization for the six months prior to his suicide. One week before Sammy took his life he told me he remembered what he was like before his illness and didn’t want to live the rest of his life with his disorder. When I told his doctor about this, he said he was only having suicidal thoughts and didn’t have a plan so not to be concerned. Later that week, my son told me how he planned die so when I reported this back to the doctor once again, he said there was no need to worry. Easier said then done, I did worry, but was taken off guard by his assurances.
After our son’s death, we discovered his psychiatrist had no experience with suicidal patients. He was recommended by staff members at UCLA and sadly we all naively went along with their choice. For months, I was angry with the doctor and wrote him countless letters telling him so, but never did mail one to him. The letters helped me work on my anger. Following his death, I felt I had seriously failed my son because I knew so little about suicide. In 1982, there was little information available. My father was mentally ill with bipolar disorder for much of his life, but Sammy’s symptoms were dissimilar and Dad was not suicidal.
My husband and I had private counseling from Dr. Edwin Shneidman, Professor of Thanatology and Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Life-Threatening Behavior at UCLA and co-founder of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center. The main issues we shared as a couple was that each of us were dealing with so much despair that we weren’t listening to one another. Dr. Shneidman pointed out our problem at various times and gave us an active listening guide to practice with which was helpful. He also suggested we attend a survivor’s support group. The meetings were valuable for several reasons: 1) we met other survivors who we identified with since their loss was also by suicide, 2) their questions were similar to ours thereby normalizing our experience, and 3) it helped us not feel so detached from the world.
I had more issues to deal with than my husband because of the guilt I felt. With this issue it helped to read books about guilt thereby learning about it so I could work on each problem in my head and sometimes writing about it. Looking back, I wish I had followed through with finding a counselor for me. Instead I made a detailed plan of the issues that I felt important to work through and did the progress myself over a period of years.
Two important issues I found essential to work on were first, re-thinking and re-working my religious beliefs with God. I did this by making a list of books I wanted to read so I could learn, then follow through with sorting through to a solution that fit with my thinking. Secondly, I found a need to have a strong hope that my grief would lessen and not be so all-consuming. Both of these issues took a great deal of work and time but trust me when I tell you how important they were to my self-help program.
After a few years of working on my self-help program I made a list of some of the things that helped and comforted me while grieving:
- Praying to God.
- Hugs from loved ones.
- Screaming in the shower.
- Wearing my son’s jacket that he was wearing when he died.
- Being with my family.
- Having a regular schedule, eating, sleeping, exercising, etc.
- Making a list of various issues I felt were necessary to work through.
- Going to a therapist.
- Thinking positive thoughts.
- Sharing my deepest thoughts with family and a friend who was non-judgmental.
- Reading books about grief so I better knew what to expect.
- Going to support groups.
- Realizing there was no time frame for my working on my grief.
- Taking a piece of paper that I drew a line down the middle then on one side wrote, “the things I did right as a Mother” and on the other side, “the things I did wrong as a mother.” Listing these items and surprised me to find I did many more right things than wrong ones.
- Learning about suicide so I could understand why my son chose to end his life in this way.
- Learning about suffering and how the Holocaust survivors survived which helped me with survival techniques.
- Working on my self-esteem.
- Listening to relaxation CDs and music that soothed me and helped me to relax and sleep better.
- Made a personal music bibliography about how different music helped me in a variety of ways. I found connections there.
- Reading then re-thinking my religious beliefs with God.
- Reading about humor and mourning.
- Learning how not to become a bitter but a better person.
- Discovering how not to let my son’s death ruin my life and how to make his loss matter.
- Becoming a volunteer facilitator at the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center’s Survivors Group and at my church’s grief program.
- Giving myself permission to smile, laugh, and find joy in life again.
I found it necessary to work through each concern until I was finished with it so I could move on to the next issue on my list. Once I understood I was a good mother and person, I gained back the control I felt I had lost and could better move through the process of grief.
I remember that before Sammy’s ten-month illness and suicide, he lived a happy and productive life for twenty-two years. His dying by suicide was only the means by which he died. I think of his happy life much more than I do how he ended it now. So you see my grief journey has changed
I have found joy and happiness again. Now I have a different kind of relationship with my son since physically he is no longer with me and I found it important to stay connected with him. I do this by talking out loud to him, lighting candles and saying his name, writing letters to him, looking at his photos and including him when our family celebrates holidays where we discuss the good times we shared. Personally, I do not believe in closure since missing my son will be a life-long situation. As long as I live, my son lives on in a meaningful way through me and always in my heart.