The Tragedy of Suicide

Ask the Experts by Megan Gunnell, LMSW, MT-BC - Psychotherapist

Yesterday a student at my son's high school went to school in the morning, sat through all his AM classes, left campus for lunch and committed suicide.  An absolutely unthinkable tragedy for his family and those who knew and loved him.

The principal shared the news with the student body sending shock waves from room to room. Kids were sobbing in the halls, hugging each other as they left school for the day in a shocked and saddened stupor of disbelief and loss. When my son shared the news with me, it took my breath away.

The permanence of the act of suicide and the devastating wake that follows for family members is truly beyond comprehension.

I woke up on and off throughout the night thinking about the mother. How could she breathe? How could she survive that first night - not able to sleep at all or if she did, waking up to the immediate thought and memory of her son's death.

It is truly unfathomable. Impossible to imagine the extent of her pain. An unthinkable horror and tragedy. It opened up a healthy discussion with my son about suicide and the depth of intense suffering, unending pain, ruthless isolation, loneliness and desperation.

We talked about feeling at times like life is just too hard and sometimes wishing it would end. That suffering can be so deep and our struggle sometimes feels so great.

But the permanence of suicide was what I drove home.

That suffering exists and is something all people experience. Once we learn to accept that, then we begin to understand the impermanence of suffering and that things are always changing and nothing stays the same. Intense suffering is temporary. Even though it can feel unrelenting. But suicide is permanent.

We also talked about the pressure high school students feel these days. From the moment they walk through those doors - it's a race to college.

Every day for me as a parent, I felt it was my duty to check in on the homework load, upcoming assignments, tests and quizzes. "How's it going with your English paper? Do you feel ready for that Spanish quiz? What's going on with your Science project?" and on and on and on.

I thought I was being a good parent. Keeping up with all the work. It was like a running list in the back of my mind buried somewhere between what I'm making for dinner and did I return that client email. I would sometimes mindlessly be half listening to my son share something about a thought or a dream or a vision he had and quickly interject with a panicked homework check in - missing the chance to really hear him talk about something precious and beautiful.

I regret this. Deeply. Especially in the wake of this tragedy.

So we arrived home after school with the Spring sun shining so bright against the crisp blue sky. Magnolia tree pregnant with blooms. The bursting yellow forsythia bush reaching to steal our attention and birds busy chirping and nest building all around us.

I paused when I got out of the car. Took a breath, noticed everything momentarily and truly felt the fragility of life. The beauty of it all. The ever changing world around us and all the things we could miss.

My son changed his clothes and moved from school shoes to flip flops and went straight to the garden to dig out some weeds. On any other day I might feel a sense of panic rise about what's next on the homework list. But today I really downshifted into the moment and simply allowed myself to be. Digging in the soil, touching the roots, smelling spring and feeling the sunshine was exactly where Elliott needed to be and my old favorite mantra came back to me: "there is enough time."

For more information on the Suicide Prevention Lifeline click here and please share the suicide prevention hotline number - open 24 hours a day:1-800-273-8255

Megan Gunnell, LMSW, MT-BC is a psychotherapist in private practice in Grosse Pointe. Megan specializes in women's issues and couples therapy. She supports personal transformative work through a practice grounded in mindfulness as well as integrative medicine and the healing arts. Megan also offers traditional talk therapy with a focus on cognitive behavioral therapy and self-care. She can be reached at 248-635-5285 or visit her website megangunnell.com. Gunnell is a member of The Family Center's Association of Professionals.

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