How One Mother Tries to Find Meaning After Loss

On Friday, February 11, 2022, our family was irrevocably shattered. We suspected something was very wrong when our youngest daughter, a sophomore in college, did not respond to our increasingly worried texts and calls throughout the afternoon. Yet we were unable to bypass what seemed to be a lengthy process requiring several layers of approval for the police or university staff to open her dorm room door. When her door was finally opened we received the call no parent should ever have to endure. Our daughter was found dead. She had died by suicide.

girl sitting on rocks
Finding meaning after suicide (@e.cook46 via Twenty20)

How does a parent find meaning after a child’s suicide?

In the two months since I lost my youngest daughter, I’ve been wondering if I will ever find meaning in anything again. My foundation has been shaken, my heart is broken, and I feel a hollowness, or rather an incompleteness. Will I always feel this way? Will I learn to integrate my loss and find joy and meaning again? 

I know that I’m not alone. Profound loss at some point in one’s life is part of the human condition. But losing a child is a loss that many never experience and while all loss is tragic, losing a child is brutal. It is an unnatural loss. It is out of order.

Parents do not expect to bury their children; it is every parent’s nightmare. Parents do not anticipate choosing a marker for their child’s grave. Parents do not plan to see their hopes and dreams for their child’s future dashed against the rock of suicide and then see their child’s room and wonder what to do with their belongings.

I’ve already filled bags with my child’s possessions for charity. Giving away my daughter’s possessions means admitting, while not accepting, that she won’t need her things anymore.

So how to go on? How does one find meaning in the incomprehensible? I have much to be grateful for. I have a soulmate who’s been my husband for 25 years. He is grieving this terrible loss and still holds me up, keeps working to support our family, and continues to be a wise and wonderful father to our two living daughters.

Our two surviving daughters are amazing. They are grown women shattered by their loss, yet they still keep going, persevering, and excelling. They are kind and compassionate like their sister, and I’m grateful that losing their baby sister has only reinforced their passion to make this world a better place: a place where people are supported and heard and don’t need to suffer silently.

Our society ignores conversations about suicide

Some have suffered similar losses and don’t have the support system I have. So how do they cope? How do they find meaning and purpose? I’m searching for these answers. I’m looking for a way to be hopeful. I have faith in my family but I feel let down by our society, institutions, the culture of selfishness, and short-sightedness. I feel tremendously guilty for the role I’ve played by being complacent and accepting of a culture that merely tolerates, and often suppresses, minimizes, and ignores conversations about suicide.

But our attitude toward suicide mirrors our attitude toward other societal problems we’d rather not address. We are not learning from history and sadly some are trying to prevent history from even being told. We are not concerned about inequities, injustice, marginalization, stigmatization, and oppression until we are personally affected.

Sure, in theory, most people are against injustice and oppression. How many of us will take up this fight if it doesn’t affect us personally? How many will do more than token gestures of activism?

How do we inspire change? It is an uphill battle against systemic oppression that is deeply entrenched in all of our greatest institutions. The greatest country in the world, the land of opportunity, the land where “all men are created equal” has become the land of “what can I do for myself? How can I get more even if it means others will get less?” This is the country where suicide is the second leading cause of death in young adults. Our selfishness is killing our children. Our selfishness is killing our future. We are losing the best of us. What will it take? 

How will I survive my loss? I feel compelled to do something. I want to honor my daughter, who had a bigger heart than anyone I ever met. Her big heart was part of her undoing. She cared so much, too much, for others. She took care of everyone’s needs except for her own. She was unable to express her needs effectively because she was failed by the systems that should have supported her.

My daughter was failed by the whole system

She was failed by her university and mentors at a time when she needed physical and mental healthcare resources, caring and compassion. She was pressured by society’s expectations to always do more, always achieve, always excel, and always succeed. She was failed in so many ways, by so many people she looked up to.

I wish I had a better understanding of what she was going through. I wish I had asked the right questions so that she could ask me for help. I wish I didn’t entrust her well-being to a university that promised that as their priority. I was made to feel that they would care for her and nurture her. How was I so wrong?

I will live with this guilt for the rest of my life. In my head I know I did the best I could with what I knew and that I did care, I did ask questions, and my daughter knew I was there for her. Yet in my heart, I will always feel that as a mother I should have somehow known or intuited what I know intellectually could not be known. A parent’s job is to protect their children. I cannot shake the feeling that I failed. I loved her with all my heart.

My husband and her sisters and the rest of her family loved, adored, and cherished her. Her friends are so bereft because she was so vital in their lives. Yet, it wasn’t enough. 

No university should attempt to justify a lack of resources, or cite problems with overwhelming need, when there are billions of dollars in their endowment fund. Parents need  to insist that those monies be used for their children’s mental and physical wellness instead of beautiful landscaping, football fields, and expensive mattresses. Superficial PR gestures need to be replaced with taking care of real and unglamorous needs such as mental healthcare, inequality, stigmatization, and marginalization of students who don’t fit the typical mold.

The changes that need to be made must start from the top. Laws need to be challenged and changed. Regulations and standards need to be imposed. Everyone must have access to and the right to receive physical and mental healthcare.

This is not about capitalism or socialism or Democrats or Republicans. This is about humans. This is about caring for each other because one day we will all have physical and mental disabilities or some sort of deficits if we are lucky enough to live to old age. Receiving help should be a human right, not a function of our financial portfolio or an institution’s misguided priorities.

Please, let’s help our children. Because without them, we have no future.

Resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Crisis Text Line

About Timna Sheffey

Timna Sheffey is in her second year of a graduate program pursuing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. She is the mother of three daughters, her youngest of which died by suicide in February 2022 during her sophomore year in college. Timna graduated with a B.A. in
sociology from Northwestern University in 1987 and has previously worked in schools for 14 years as a 1:1 with children with emotional, physical, and intellectual disabilities.

Read more posts by Timna

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