By Dr. Micaela Wexler
The loss of a parent is devastating for any adult. As a psychiatrist, it is one of the most painful transitions I encounter. Your status in the world is dramatically changed. Immediately upon the death of your parent, you are plunged into a sea of nostalgia, and it is easy to feel unmoored. You are no longer being tugged by the larger vessel that guided you your entire life. Now YOU are that vessel that will have to take the lead. It is a transition that we all anticipate but for which we can never truly be prepared.
When the death is due to suicide, it is not a transition; it is a calamity. While an accidental death brings shock and denial, death from suicide generates horror, anger, guilt, confusion and shame. Add to this the fact that there is still a great deal of stigma about suicide, which can become a significant obstacle to getting help. This is most likely why people who have lost a parent to suicide are at increased risk for committing suicide themselves: the feelings are overwhelming and it is difficult to know where to turn.
It is natural to turn to family members for help. They are the ones who knew your parent best, they have been part of your entire life, and there is no need to overcome the stigma of suicide with them. However, they are not the best choice in the immediate aftermath for the simple reason too have suffered a tragedy and are devastated, and therefore unable to offer much support.
This is a time when psychiatric or mental health care is absolutely essential.
Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are well aware of the magnitude of this event, and will treat it with the urgency it requires. Besides needing someone with whom to talk, chances are that the suicide has caused enough of a physiological shock that you also need at least a short course of pharmacological assistance until you start your recovery. A psychiatrist or therapist can assist you in this manner safely. (A therapist will refer you to a physician if you need medication.)
It’s difficult to think while in such a state of shock, so I have provided the following advice and information.
First, call your primary care physician and ask for a referral.
If that doesn’t work, call your local emergency room. They will give you the number to local resources.
If you feel utterly incapable of doing either of the two previous items, then you need emergency care. Call 911.
If you have a family member who has become non-functional due to a family member’s suicide, do not put yourself in the position of being their main support. This is risky for both of you, especially if you were also affected by the suicide.
Helping someone else before you have coped with your own feelings is simply a bad idea. You are very likely to bury your own feelings while giving someone inadequate care.
If you and your loved one were both hit by a car while crossing the street, no one would expect you to become the primary care provider. With a family suicide, you are even more incapacitated than you would be if you were hit by a car.
So, in the aftermath of a family suicide, get a psychiatrist or therapist to help you and your family.
For more information, please visit my post on losing a loved one to suicide.