In Their Own Words: Three Parents Open Up about Losing a Child to Suicide
In the latest story of Cook Children's Joy Campaign, we're talking to families impacted by suicide
Six in a series.
Like an earthquake rumbling underfoot, crumpling the ground beneath, the suicide of a loved one has a way of knocking you to your hands and knees.
After the initial shock wave throws you, constant aftershocks of emotions—running the gamut from guilt to shame to horror to inconsolable sadness—may leave you struggling to regain footing long after your loved one has died.
Survivors of suicide often experience a complicated type of grief that differs from other types of bereavement, mental health experts say.
“With suicide grief, they’re dealing with a trauma on top of the loss,” says Sharon Walker, LCSW, a therapist in Arlington who specializes in complex trauma and trauma grief. “With most people who die by suicide, it’s usually violent or tragic in some way. So, the person grieving has to deal with the fact that a person chose to take their life and that how they died. That changes the grief process.”
Walker, a former longtime-facilitator of the support group Survivors of Suicide (SOS) in Fort Worth, says another dynamic comes into play—the social stigma attached to suicide.
“Death can be tragic, like a murder or a car vehicle accident. But the stigma around suicide still exists today, and so family members have to contend with that piece, as well,” she says. “It makes their grief different.”
In April 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranked suicide as the 10th leading cause of death based on its most recent data collected in 2018. It was listed as the second-leading cause of death for Americans ages 10-34 and the fourth-leading cause for ages 35-54, according to CDC reports.
It has long been accepted that when someone dies by suicide, six people are directly affected by it. But a researched-based estimate published on the American Association of Suicidology’s website suggests the ripple effect of one suicide extends far past that, personally affecting 135 people on average. Based on that, an estimated 6.9 million people are touched by suicide annually.
The Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors, an international non-profit group that operates an online support group, lists the dynamics that can complicate suicide bereavement on its website. The factors include circumstances surrounding the loss; post-traumatic stress; stigma and isolation; prejudices involving suicide; investigations into the deaths; religious and spiritual beliefs on suicide; family and relationship tensions; and survivors’ questions about why their loved ones chose to take their own lives and whether they could have done something differently to prevent it.
Through her years working with suicide survivors, Walker has seen families experience all of these dynamics. And some, even more than a decade later, still wrestle with them.
“Grief is not something we ever get over, and it doesn’t ever stop. What we learn to do is grow around our grief, to encompass it and incorporate it or manage it into our own life,” she says. “We walk with it.”
When talking with families and friends facing a loss from suicide, she reminds them that they can get hijacked by their grief. And that everyone has their own process of grieving the loss.
“Every time you turn around—there’s a reminder, there’s a statement, there’s a feeling, there’s an emotion—and you are overwhelmed by your grief,” she says. “And as we walk with this, and you learn to understand your own grief process, it becomes something that you can manage.”
“It’s not that the grief gets smaller, but you grow big enough around it to start being able to manage it,” she says. “And then you can take it off the shelf and touch it when you want. It becomes something that you can eventually manage and live with and incorporate in your life. But as far as ever getting over it, there is no such thing.”
Many suicide survivors circle back to help other survivors find their way out of the devastation caused by a loved one’s suicide. They take the energy from their own grief and put it toward helping others, Walker says. The success behind the SOS group she ran for 18 years was because survivors returned to give back “because they knew how devastating it was to other people.”
“And the very act of sitting there and saying, ‘You can survive this. We didn’t think we were able to either, but we’re here to help you know that you can.’ Well, as a professional, I cannot convey that any more brilliantly than what a survivor can to another survivor,” she says.
Brad Hunstable, CEO of electric motor company Linear Labs in Fort Worth and an Army veteran, understands firsthand the complexities that grieving families face after losing a child to suicide.
Nothing prepared him for April 17, 2020, the day a figurative “nuclear bomb” went off in his world, altering it forever. Hunstable had just finished a call when his daughter, then 8, ran to him, telling him something was wrong with her big brother Hayden. The 12-year-old had been playing his favorite video game Fortnite in his bedroom while his dad worked from their Aledo home.
Hunstable rushed upstairs to his son’s bedroom and found Hayden in the closet, unresponsive. He called 911 and tried unsuccessfully to revive him. Hayden—described as a fun-loving, active boy who enjoyed playing sports and loved life––died by suicide four days shy of his 13th birthday.
Hayden didn’t suffer from depression or have any diagnosed mental health issues. No one could have predicted he would take his own life, his dad says.
Hunstable believes isolation during the initial COVID-19 stay-at-home mandate—attending school online and not getting to see friends regularly—took a toll on his son and factored into his impulsive decision to end his own life. It was also later discovered that Hayden had accidentally broken a large-screen gaming monitor just before his death—a monitor he used to play Fortnite and similar to one he’d broken months earlier but had worked to replace.
He was excited about his new replacement monitor and was set to have friends over to play Fortnite at his upcoming birthday party, says his dad, who founded Hayden’s Corner, which advocates mandated resilience classes for children and champions responsible gaming education, in honor of his son.
Hunstable—who also produced a short documentary about Hayden’s death titled “Almost Thirteen”—has spoken to various mental health experts about youth suicide and believes impulsivity plays a huge role. (Parental guidance and discretion is advised when watching Hunstable’s documentary because the disturbing subject matter may cause emotional distress.)
“When you look at youth suicide, 55% of them are impulsive and 50% don’t have a previous mental health diagnosis,” he says. “They may have something, but it’s not diagnosed. Impulsive suicide in youth happens because a boyfriend broke up with me…I got into a fight with my parents…a girlfriend just broke up with me…I’m being bullied.
“In Hayden’s case, he broke his monitor for a second time right before his birthday, in the middle of a pandemic,” Hunstable says.
Developing resiliency is key in addressing suicide among children and teens, he says.
“It’s always complicated. It’s never simple,” he says of life and what sometimes leads young people to impulsively choose suicide. “When you get the perfect storm of complexity, and they haven’t developed some resilience capabilities—and you haven’t taught them or had open dialogue about these things or it’s just too much—this is where you end up.”
Hunstable believes parents need to have “uncomfortable conversations” with their children about suicide so they know how to cope if the impulse ever hits them. Research shows that bringing up the topic of suicide in an age-appropriate manner does not plant the idea in children’s minds, he says, adding “that’s a myth.”
Find a way to help them contend with their emotions and impulses, like teaching them breathing techniques, meditation, playing guitar or screaming into a pillow, he says. Let them know it’s okay to talk about it, Hunstable adds, and if it happens when you’re not around, teach them to go to a trusted adult like a teacher or a grandparent.
What would he say to parents who are hesitant to discuss suicide with their children and methods to cope with their feelings?
“I’d say, ‘Do you want to be in my shoes?’ My son disappeared off the face of the Earth. I still struggle with that concept. He was there one minute—and then he went poof. You don’t want to do this,” he says. “It has nearly broken me. It nearly broke my family. It still might.”
“Hayden doesn’t have PTSD—we have PTSD,” Hunstable says of himself and his daughter, who found her brother. “I know it sounds like a cliché because I used to think the same thing. I’d hear parents say, ‘It can happen to your kid.’ Now, I’m that parent, saying that it can happen to your kid. And what’s scary is—it really could.”
Jamye Coffman, M.D., medical director of The Center for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect at Cook Children’s, knows firsthand it can happen to anyone. She lost her son Aaron, 20, to suicide on Aug. 10, 2010.
“I’ve been very open about his death, open about his suicide. And what I’ve found is that a lot of people came to me with similar stories, maybe it wasn’t their child, but with suicide in their family,” she says. “I was amazed at how many people have been touched by suicide. I think they just don’t talk about it because they don’t know how people will receive it.
“I want to talk about it because I want people to know it can affect anybody,” she says. “The rain falls on everybody, right? It doesn’t matter how good, how bad, how rich, how poor––none of that matters.”
Dr. Coffman still recalls getting the call while on vacation as she, her husband and daughter were about to enter Yellowstone National Park. The news sent her and the rest of the family reeling.
Less than a week before his death, she’d been on the phone with him. He was living and working in Lubbock, where his dad, her ex-husband, lived. He wanted to go to community college, so the two had discussed plans.
She didn’t know until after his death that his girlfriend had dumped him just before the suicide. He’d been drinking heavily that night and called a friend, who urged him to call his mom. But he never made that call.
“Obviously, he wasn’t thinking straight,” she says. “He was angry, upset, drunk, sad––all those things. But at the time, nobody really expected this to happen.”
Dr. Coffman wears a necklace with the letter “A” in memory of Aaron, who “gave the best hugs ever.” She describes him as “a super loveable guy,” who was a daredevil and enjoyed skateboarding. He was accepting of others and a good friend. He also was a great big brother to his half-sister, who was seven years his junior, she says.
“He was just a sweetheart. He would call me at times just to chat, which most boys don’t do,” she says, adding the step-family issues caused tension at times, as did Aaron’s troubles with alcohol and marijuana. “Sometimes things were strained, but we still managed to maintain a relationship through all that. We knew we loved each other.”
After Aaron died, Dr. Coffman says the pain was terrible, especially that first year. She wasn’t sure she could endure it and often found herself in her closet, her designated “crying spot.” She spent a lot of time in that closet, she says.
“When it happens, initially, you don’t think you’re going to survive it,” Dr. Coffman says. “There’s no way around it…you have to work your way through it and own it. But even though you do, it still never goes away.
“It does get better,” she adds. “The really bad moments hit you less and less as the years go by. There are less triggers. I think it was the five-year mark when I figured out, ‘I can survive.’”
She also keeps a piece of paper tacked to a corkboard on her office wall. She doesn’t know who wrote it or even where she found it, but it has made a difference to her as a suicide survivor.
The typed words on the paper are simply put:
I don’t like it.
I don’t have to like it.
What I do have to do is make a choice about my living.
What I do have to do is accept it and go on living.
The choice is mine.
Dr. Coffman has read those words daily for more than 10 years as a reminder that the choice is hers.
Tackling the magnitude of this type of grief is different for everyone, she says. Some people do well with therapy, while others may not. Some may do better with families and friends who are present and just sit and listen. Try different things until you find what works for you, she says.
Something she learned early on at a grief support clinic and has found to be true is that there are three camps of people: Those who are hurtful. Those who are neither hurtful nor helpful. And those who are helpful.
“Go to the helpful, avoid the others,” she says for those grieving the loss of a loved one’s suicide. “There were some people that I had to just not communicate with because things they said were hurtful––things they didn’t mean to be hurtful. But, you know, things like, ‘God has a reason for everything.’ Well, when you have somebody die, there isn’t a good reason. That’s not helpful.”
What was helpful for Dr. Coffman was a supportive family and friends. Those who didn’t try to fix anything but would listen when she needed to talk and let her cry when she needed to cry. It made the difference because “it was somebody who really understood me, understood Aaron,” she says.
The family also continues to talk about Aaron, which was important, she says. They still laugh together about the “silly things he did.”
“Whether it’s the cousins or my parents or his brother or sisters…we still have memories and talk about them,” Dr. Coffman says. “I think that’s important––to keep that person alive in your heart. And I think it’s one of the hardest things for people who’ve not experienced something like this. They don’t want to say their name or talk about it because they’re afraid it’ll bring up something bad for you. Well, the bad is always there. But knowing people still remember him and can talk about him and remember the fun things about him, that’s important.”
Like many parents who lose children to suicide, Dr. Coffman also struggled with self-blame and guilt after her son’s death and battled her share of “what-ifs.” She needed reaffirmation that she was a good parent and a good person. That affirmation came from a woman who worked as a secretary at Cook Children’s Emergency Room at the time of Aaron’s death. The woman, who lost her brother to suicide, sent Dr. Coffman a letter, which she says she carried in her purse for many years.
In the letter, one of the things the woman wrote was, “We do the best we can with what we know at the time.” It’s a message that applies to most everything, she says, but as a grieving parent who lost her son to suicide, it was really helpful.
“I had to remind myself of that over and over because any mistakes I made as a parent weren’t intentional. They were done because I thought it was the right thing to do,” she says. “So, hearing that from her, in what she had gone through with her brother…when I would get into the depths of guilt, I would have to preach that to myself, and I would pull out the letter and reread it.”
The death of Aaron has had a lasting effect on Dr. Coffman and her family. It changed every part of her, and it was for the better, she says.
“I don’t think I could ever be the same person,” she says. “I always tell people it has changed me down to the molecular level. It affects every part of you. It can get changed for the worse…you can become bitter. Or you can choose to change in the sense of ‘let me learn from this, let me see what ways I need to change to be a better person.’”
After his death, she did a 180-degree turn on her parenting style “because it changes your ideas of what’s important and what’s not important,” she says. She became more accepting of others, something her son excelled at. And though she thought she was already a kind person, his death helped her become even more so, Dr. Coffman says.
She wants her son to be remembered and encourages others to talk to suicide survivors about their loved ones. It’s one of the most important parts in their healing process.
“It may help them to know that someone else is thinking about their child and has fond memories. And that that person, like Aaron, affected their life in a good way,” Dr. Coffman explains. “Especially when they die young and haven’t had the opportunity to really do a lot. But, even in a short life, they made a difference and still make a difference. Because (Aaron’s life and death) changed me. It changed my husband. It changed my daughter. It changed us to be better people.”
North Richland Hills resident Ellen Harris understands that sentiment. She lost her 22-year-old daughter Jordan to suicide on March 27, 2012.
Not long after, she and her husband Tom started The Jordan Elizabeth Harris Foundation to ensure their daughter would be remembered. The Fort Worth-based non-profit group focuses on suicide prevention training and awareness, as well as funding research efforts in depression.
“There’s no question that the foundation was and continues to be therapeutic for us because it’s our way to honor her life,” Harris says. “And to bring awareness to a subject that people weren’t willing to talk about.”
Jordan was a former valedictorian and National Merit Scholar in high school and named a Stamps Scholar at the University of Michigan, where she was about to graduate with a degree in organizational studies, a field that focuses on social justice. She had been diagnosed with depression the last six months of her life, which came as a surprise to the Harris family.
None of them would have described her as depressed. Instead, Harris used adjectives like “loving and joyful,” “funny,” “smart” and “full-of-life” to describe her eldest child of three, who loved to travel and help others.
“She didn’t want to worry us, so she never let on. I can remember my brother-in-law over Thanksgiving making the comment that she was the happiest depressed person he had ever known,” Harris says. “So, deep inside, she was struggling, and none of us knew the extent.”
Jordan had done well in college but wasn’t sure what she would do after graduation. She had high-performing roommates and friends who “all seemed to know what they wanted to do. And she didn’t, which weighed on her heavily,” her mom says. “I think she believed she was a failure.”
She had told her mom she was a disappointment to the family and hadn’t done much right in life. Which couldn’t have been farther from the truth, says Harris, adding she has no doubt her daughter was dealing with mental illness at the time of her suicide.
“She became severely depressed, only I didn’t know what that meant,” she says. “I didn’t know what depression looked like.”
Looking back, she also believes Jordan had “hit a bump in the road” but didn’t have the resilience to overcome it, Harris says. Her daughter had excelled academically, had lots of friends and was pretty. Even though she worked hard for her grades, she hadn’t had to struggle for most of her young life, Harris says.
“I think resilience is a huge part of protection when it comes to suicide,” she says. “That’s part of my theory. I think she just didn’t have a good personal resource for bouncing back when she dealt with adversity.”
“It’s really important that children do (face adversity), even if it’s breaking up with a boyfriend or having acne or something that causes you to struggle a little bit,” Harris says. “I think you need to let your kids fail and figure out how to succeed again without you fixing it.”
Jordan’s death left an “enormous hole” in her heart, Harris says, and she faced a difficult time, especially in the early days. She still can’t watch a video of her daughter, and “I don’t know how long it took me before I could even look at a picture of her without feeling crushed,” she says.
For suicide survivors, it’s important to get a support system in place to help them because the suicide rate for people who have lost someone to it is higher compared to the general public, Harris says. While trying to cope with Jordan’s death, she and her husband tried therapy and various grief support groups but acknowledged that neither of them is much of “a sharer.” Reading books about people who had experienced what she had seemed to help her, she says.
And she immediately put her son and daughter, who were both attending the University of Texas at Austin at the time, into therapy to help them deal with Jordan’s suicide. Both were extremely close to her and devastated by her death. That seemed to help them cope with the loss of their big sister, Harris says.
“Whether it’s going to your church or wherever you find comfort, I think it’s important” to get support, she says.
It took more than a year for Harris to feel comfortable in large social groups.
“I hated the look in people’s eyes, you know, how sorry they were but how glad they were that it wasn’t them. I mean, let’s face it, that goes through people’s heads,” she says.
Harris also saw firsthand the social stigma attached to suicide. One of the foundation’s missions is to address that issue. From the beginning, she and her husband didn’t try to hide that Jordan had taken her own life. So many people with similar stories approached her, but they had never let on about what really happened with their loved ones, Harris says.
“I think death and serious illness, in general, kind of bring out interesting traits in people,” Harris says. “There were people who didn’t come around and didn’t call because they were obviously uncomfortable with what had happened and with the subject of death, perhaps, and especially the death of a child.”
“But there were other people, who were not necessarily our best friends, who just really stepped up and supported us,” she says. “Some people don’t know how to talk about things like that, and death especially is a really difficult subject. But death by suicide––there’s still such a huge stigma attached to it.”
The foundation’s goal is to have conversations with the public to eliminate that stigma and create an understanding of what’s actually behind the act of suicide. For instance, a common misconception is that those who die by suicide are just selfish, Harris says.
But, in their minds, they’re doing the opposite of selfish, she says. Many of those who kill themselves think they’ll be a burden to their loved ones for the rest of their lives and everyone would be better off without them. With the love she had for her family, Harris says, Jordan wouldn’t have taken her own life if she had been thinking clearly or really understood what her family and friends would face for the rest of their lives.
“It’s not a selfish act on their part,” she says. “This is reaching a depth of hopelessness so deep that they can’t even see anything except how they get out of this pain.”
“They don’t want to die,” she adds. “They just don’t see any other way out.”
About the Joy Campaign
Cook Children's Joy Campaign is a communication initiative that aims to encourage hope and resilience among children and teens.
Joy stands for: Just breathe. Open up. You matter.
The number of children and teens suffering from anxiety, stress and depression is skyrocketing. Sadly, Cook Children's has seen a record number of patients attempting suicide in the past year. The Joy Campaign is a suicide prevention communication initiative led by Cook Children's to bring hope and needed resources to children and families facing struggles and dark times in their lives.
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