This is how author Mark Twain described his reaction to hearing of the sudden death of his daughter, Olivia “Susy” Clemens: “It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live. There is but one reasonable explanation of it. The intellect is stunned by the shock but groping gathers the meaning of the words. The power to realize their full import is mercifully lacking.”
Twain carried a “permanent cloud” after Susy’s passing. “I did not know that she could go away and take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind,” he wrote to a friend.
Experts agree parents who lose a child experience one of the most severe emotional upheavals in life. The grief is often prolonged — no parents are prepared to bury their own children. It’s a profound derailment in the usual order of life cycle events. Approximately 60,000 children die each year in the United States.
One of the leading authorities on death and dying, Dennis Klass, Ph.D., said that a child’s passing is an “irreparable loss.” Bereaved parents often discover while the pain of that death may change over time, it never goes away because “you never stop loving your child.”
Not surprisingly, research indicates bereaved parents have heightened susceptibility to serious emotional problems. Elevated levels of depression, particularly among women, have been well documented. Parents who have experienced the loss of a child are at greater risk for psychiatric hospitalization than those who have not had such a loss.
The physical toll is potentially devastating as well. Studies have found significant links between grief and a variety of maladies — from cancer to serious substance abuse.
There is, however, one subset within the group of bereaved parents that is especially vulnerable: parents whose children have committed suicide.
Since 2007, the suicide death rate of those between the ages 10-24 has increased 56 percent. The surviving families and significant others frequently suffer the most pernicious bereavement.
Shrouded in deep guilt, resentment, and feelings of rejection, many of these parents blame themselves for the death. They tend to spend a great deal of time — years in some cases — searching for closure. How did they fail their children? A lack of love, a lack of recognition of issues, not enough meaningful time together? Despair can lead to desperate circumstances, even to their own suicidal ideation.
Deborah Serani, Psy.D., describes the baleful process: “Society still attaches a stigma to suicide. And, as such, survivors of suicide loss may encounter blame, judgment or social exclusion…it’s strange how we would never blame a family member for a loved one’s cancer or Alzheimer’s but society continues to cast a shadow on a loved one’s suicide.”
One of the most absorbing books about enduring the turbulence of a child’s suicide is the just-published I Keep Trying to Catch His Eye, A Memoir of Loss, Grief, and Love by Ivan Maisel.
Ironically, Maisel has no clinical training whatsoever. He’s an award winning college football writer, most notably associated for two decades with ESPN. But the brutally honest exploration of a family in torment ought to be on required reading lists of every clinical psychology graduate school program.
Maisel’s twenty-one year old son, Max, walked into an icy Lake Ontario in late February 2015. It was not until April that his body was discovered.
Catch His Eye tells the heartbreaking story of an unexpected suicide. First, the manhunt for a missing son; the eviscerating truth that he took his own life; the search for meaning, which never fully materializes; and finally, the struggle toward recovery, which may never be completed.
Maisel completely dissects the nature of grief in all its horror. In therapeutic circles, it is said that grief is the price you pay for love. Maisel differs: “Grief is love. I don’t think this is a matter of semantics. It’s a viewpoint. Understanding that grief is love tempers the inevitable pain. Seeing grief as love helped me handle its all-consuming nature…we have all this love for Max, and no Max. We had his absence. That love metamorphosed into grief.”
Maisel closes Catch His Eye with these three sentences: “I love Max. I always will. My grief is the most tangible evidence I have of that love.”
Over a century ago, Mark Twain drew a similar conclusion about his feelings for Susy Clemens.