By Dr. Gladys Sweeney

The loss of a child to suicide is one of the greatest tragedies life can bring. The community often reacts with shock, guilt, anger and depression. Parents may feel profound guilt and responsibility for the death. As a bereaved mother once said: “You think there should be a logical reason, so you’re searching for it … It’s just like a thorn in your side, that you have to figure out the answer. Why? Why? Why? What did we fail to see? Why did she not ask us for help? What support did we not get for her?” {{more}}

Some parents have described their experience as having their hearts broken from devastating grief. Some express the feeling that a vital and core part of them has died or has been ripped away. Suicide can feel like the ultimate failure of parenting.

Mental illness and suicide among children are serious problems in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), half of all cases of mental illness begin by age 14. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states that suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds and the sixth leading cause of death for 5- to 14-year-olds.

Studies show that more than 95 percent of young people who completed a suicide had been diagnosed with a mental disorder. Severe depression is the most prevalent of these disorders. Other psychological diagnoses that increase the risk of suicide among teens include bipolar disorder and addiction to alcohol and/or drugs. These conditions often cause young people distress, irritability, agitation, hopelessness and feelings of worthlessness. Teenagers experiencing these emotions often tend to isolate themselves from parents and seem to reject any attempts of consolation and outreach.

It is important to note that most teenagers who killed themselves had been in treatment for these psychological conditions. Even for families who have lived with mental illness, the actual death comes as a profound shock. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the death, no parents are ever prepared for the suicide of their child. The question of eternal damnation is another source of pain for parents of children who have killed themselves.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 2282) states that grave psychological disorders may diminish the responsibility of the one who has committed suicide. Teenagers plagued with serious psychological diagnoses make impulsive decisions, clouded by feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and despair. They lack the ability to clearly and objectively appraise their life crisis. Amidst grave suffering, there will always be a tendency to want to know why such tragedies occur.

As time goes on, though, parents realize that the answers may never come, and the why will grow less urgent. Eventually, our faith helps us to let go of the why and to look for the who. Who can heal us from the wrenching pain of having lost a child? The answer is Jesus. Jesus Christ suffered a sorrowful and painful death, even though He was completely innocent. His death is the ultimate sign of His mercy and of His willingness to suffer with and for us. His death gives us hope that meaning can exist in suffering. His resurrection also teaches us that there is life after tragedy, even the death of a child by suicide.

A bereaved mother said: “I finally made, again, a conscious decision that either I’m going to stay feeling like this or I’m going to allow God to help me. My choice. I can make the choice. So I decided to take a risk and see, and test God. I decided that I was going to open that gift of grace and I was going to allow Him to work in my life. And so that’s what I would pray, that He would give me what I needed for the day. That He would put the people in my path that I needed. That He would open my eyes so I could see the people in my path … that is the fight that He gave me.”

All parents who has lost a child are free to make the choice to trust in God’s merciful love and to allow His grace to heal their deep wound. May each have the faith to trust in His love!

Dr. Sweeney is the founder and academic dean of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, a graduate school in Arlington, Va. This column is part of the U.S. Bishops 2010-11 Respect Life Program.