You had one job!An internet meme
Parents are supposed to keep bad things from happening to their kids. That’s the rule and everybody knows it. If something terrible happens to a child, our first thought is often, Where were the parents?, not, There, but for the grace of God, go I.
If you’ve been reading my blog lately, you know that our 43-year-old son took his life just two months ago. We were devastated but not surprised. For many years his mother and I had been doing everything in our power to help him find healing from the deep, chronic depression that had stolen his love of life. We kept praying that some miracle lay just around the corner, something that would give him back his desire to live. We supported him as he tried all sorts of medical and psychological treatments. In fact, he had long periods when it seemed like he had turned a corner. Inevitably, though, he would fall back into that same, dark pit.
Suicide pushes survivors to wonder if they could have done something to prevent it. And we can always point to something we said or did, or might have said or done, that could have made a difference, at least in the idealized world of our imaginations.
My father committed suicide. I was only nine at the time. As a child, I didn’t and couldn’t understand the complexities of what drove him into that hopeless place. I needed to make sense of it somehow, so I blamed myself. I came to believe that he had abandoned us because I wasn’t a good enough son; he had rejected us because he didn’t love us any longer—he didn’t love me any longer.
With the perspective that comes from growing old I’ve come to understand things differently, but I still feel the sting of that rejection. I misunderstood his motives, but I still feel some inexplicable guilt and shame that I didn’t, somehow, save him. Irrational, yes, but the feelings are real enough.
A father should always protect his children from harm. Impossible, of course, but at the very least, a good father should make his children feel they are powerfully and unconditionally loved.
I loved my son and I made sure he knew it, through the words I spoke, through the ways I engaged with him, by taking an interest in him, talking with him, listening to him, and by trying my best to give him reasons to hope.
It wasn’t enough. I really thought I could persuade him to hold on to life. I was wrong.
Perhaps I give myself too much credit. I made plenty of mistakes as a father. Perhaps something I did set him on the path that led him to give up on life. I just don’t know. He chose suicide, but am I culpable?
I suspect these sorts of questions are common among survivors of suicide. I also suspect I could torture myself with these sorts of unanswerable questions if I wanted to. But if I believe what I claim to believe, I have to throw myself down at the foot of the cross and accept the mercy and forgiveness that is freely offered there by Jesus.
What else can I do?