I thought this was the worst moment of my life. But the worst was yet to come. Amid our agonizing wails of grief, my husband managed to ask, “How did he die?” I was expecting to hear “overdose.” Instead, the officer said it was a suicide. The method left no question.
I was unable to respond or move and quite literally could not wedge that cause of death into my head. I never fathomed suicide. It was an extra twist of the knife that brought with it so many emotions. All at once–with confusion leading in the race. In the next painful cry of agony, when I was finally able to draw a breath of air, I thought, “No, no, anything but suicide. Please not that.” As if I could rewind back to the moment I thought it was an overdose. Because as ugly as that is, I could understand it. An overdose would be an accident. Or maybe not. But if it wasn’t accidental, I’d be none the wiser.
I’m not about to imply that losing a child to suicide hurts more than losing one to overdose
Losing a child hurts. Period. It can’t hurt more. And both are stigmatized deaths cloaked in shame. However, a death by suicide is loss unlike any other—largely because there is a feeling of the person having chosen to leave you. Was I that crummy of a mother? Why didn’t I see the signs?
Later, I would find out my son was going through withdrawal and suffering a major depressive episode when he took his life. He’d relapsed and been taken back to detox from the recovery house in which he was living just two weeks prior. Then, he had walked out for just one more party, and during that time, we didn’t know where he was and communication was spotty.
My son had been the funniest and most popular kid in school. But depression and anxiety moved in full time when he was 15, having only made cameo appearances prior to that. We didn’t have a diagnosis that early though, and he was a master at hiding it. Charles reached for drugs and alcohol to cope with pervasive thoughts of suicide triggered by his depression. To him, reaching for a drug to numb those thoughts and alleviate emotional pain was better than killing himself. But in the end, it was what finished him.
It didn’t start with heroin but with marijuana, alcohol and any pills he could find. It took years for him to find his drug of choice and when he did, he felt like a king at first.
Why wasn’t suicide on my radar?
One, because in 2015, no one was talking about it. I would later find out that those who suffer from depression and addiction are six times more likely to die by suicide.
Despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in treatment for him, from wilderness to therapeutic boarding school, it was never mentioned as a possibility. Even mental health and addiction specialists didn’t want to touch the topic. So, when he displayed classic signs of suicidal ideation in his last phone call to me, I was unable to connect the dots. I heard the despair and I was too emotionally wrung out to translate it. Not having been through a relapse with him before and only knowing about the heroin addiction for some thirty days, I misinterpreted his despair as rock bottom. Surely, he would ask for help, and for some reason, I expected that cry for help to be neater and prettier than it was. He never said outright he was suicidal.
I now wonder, as do many experts, how many deaths ruled as accidental overdoses are really suicides?
Underreporting on both overdoses and suicide mean we’ll never really have an accurate answer. It’s difficult to determine intention after a death unless there is a note or a prior suicide attempt. But even prior attempts are grossly underreported. What’s more, ninety percent of all youth suicide attempts are unknown to parents.
Some have estimated that as many as 25% of accidental overdoses are not accidents. As a public speaker who often speaks to groups in recovery, many in the room will admit to having attempted or considered suicide and will share that one of their overdoses was an attempt at killing themselves. So, given the relationship between SUD, mental illness and suicide, why aren’t we screening for it in our emergency rooms? This can be covered quickly with just four questions. Suicide is preventable and often the person doesn’t really want to die. They just want to end unimaginable emotional and/or physical pain.
Signs of suicide
Signs of suicide include talking about not being able to take it anymore, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, feeling as if they are a burden, expressing a desire to end pain, and not liking the person they see in the mirror. Frequently talking about death and giving away prized possessions are also signs.
Hearing despair, in addition to any of the above signs should inspire you to ask the question, “Are you thinking of suicide?” If they say yes, follow with, “I am sorry you are feeling such pain. Can you tell me more?” Then, just listen with empathy and connect them with resources. And for that, you should call a local (or national) crisis line and ask, or go straight to the ER if they are in eminent danger.
To move forward with my life after my son’s death at age 20, I had to talk about these taboo topics. I had to understand my son’s addiction, depression, and the emotional pain that were a result of these disorders before I could forgive myself for missing the signs of suicide. Because, I couldn’t live the life I wanted to live, the one I think he would have wanted me to live, by holding myself hostage to a cause of death.
Suicide Warning Signs American Foundation of
Suicide Prevention: https://afsp.org/about-suicide/risk-factors-and-warning-signs/
Crisis Text Hotline: 741-741, Suicide hotline 1-800-273-8255 (calling a local crisis line is
always your best resource if available.)
Anne Moss Rogers is a public speaker and writer who advocates tirelessly for mental health, addiction, and suicide prevention and is currently working on a memoir. Anne Moss Rogers blogs at Emotionally Naked and is Executive Dir. of Beacon Tree Foundation, advocates for youth mental health. 190 percent of suicide attempts are unknown to parents