Loving Someone Who is Chronically Suicidal

Note: This is a reflection on living with a loved one who chronically wishes to die. There are no graphic details.

Photo by Bruno Henrique on Pexels.com

It has been so very hard to write these past months since my son, Blake, was released from his second hospitalization. I’m pretty sure I’ve been on autopilot. I don’t experience joy in the same way I used to. I find myself drifting off when I’m with a group (the few occasions that I am now). I am delighted to hear what is going on with my friends’ children: the upcoming weddings, the new jobs, starting a new education, traveling. Yet there is just this sadness in me that lingers. It touches everything, leaving its residue. I don’t take new patients into my OCD and anxiety psychology practice. I’m sure many people think that I just have a long waitlist. The truth is, it would be unethical for me to take on more when I’m struggling myself.

Yes, I am depressed. I know it. Yes. I’m in treatment myself. Have been for a long time. Thank goodness for therapy. It sustains me through the ups and downs. It keeps me moving on through the unknown.

I’m struggling whether to tell you today about the sense of abandonment or what I’ve finally come to that is providing me a measure of peace. Probably the latter today. With the abandonment part comes a lot of anger and I can’t find it in me today. No. I’ll tell you instead about the peace.

A couple months ago we ventured away for a family overnight. In the bathroom as I prepared for bed, I wondered to myself how one actually copes with having a chronically suicidal loved one. What is one to do when their loved one is chronically in emotional pain, shares about it frequently, and could leave this world at any moment? 

“How do I keep going? How does one come to terms with this?”

My therapist hadn’t been able to answer that question when I’d asked her about it the previous week. It felt to me like an unending grief – like I was watching my 22-year-old son die from a life threatening illness and I could do nothing to save him. Part of me wanted him to “snap out of it,” though I knew that was unrealistic, even unfair to suggest.

Just then, in the hotel bathroom, it washed over me that, indeed, my son did have a potentially life threatening illness – it just wasn’t a physical one. 

“So how do people manage when someone they love dearly has an illness that may end their life at any time?” I wondered, thinking of a particular colleague whose spouse was painfully terminally ill. 

I rolled into bed, considering this. It occurred to me that, when you love someone who is seriously ill, you stay with them through their pain. You empathize with it as much as you can; you don’t discount it or disregard it or blame them for it. You accept that it is part of their illness. And while you desperately do not want to lose them, you accept that death may be part of the equation at any time. If that’s the case, you appreciate each and every positive moment together that you can, knowing that it may be brief. And while you don’t want to lose them, you respect their right to choose what interventions are acceptable to them.

When I awoke the next morning, I recognized that I had a new perspective on living with my son. It is what guides me and helps me to keep moving through the unknown. My son’s illness is potentially life threatening. In fact, somehow I have fully and radically accepted that I may lose him at any time. I don’t want that, but I have no control over it. My job is to accept and hear his pain, no matter how difficult that is. I can hold hope for the best, while helping him pursue the treatments he is willing to accept. And, maybe most important of all, I can cherish the moments of joy that we have – and we do have them sometimes. 

Somehow they are all the more precious.

*If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please consider reaching out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or the equivalent in your country.

23 thoughts on “Loving Someone Who is Chronically Suicidal

  1. I lived this a very long time. You are truly lucky he shares. I would shut down, still do. I don’t want to burden others, yet it makes it so much harder. I learned the same lesson as you. I am not evil, horrible, disgusting, or a failure. I am human. Cancer eats away at you and so does depression. Cancer patients aren’t always upbeat and thrilled to have another day, sometimes they just want the pain to stop too. If I can’t imagine blaming a cancer patient for not wanting to be in pain, why on Earth would I blame myself for not wanting to suffer anymore? I can’t.

    All I can do is the same thing as a cancer patient: FIGHT! Take the Meds, do the therapies, fight to live and love and accept. Fight. One day I will run out of fight. I know that. We all do. But, it won’t be today, and that’s the best I can truly hope for. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

      1. Thank you, Angie.
        My perspective changes depending on where I am. When I’m the way I am now, my perspective is more as I wrote it. When I’m working in my field, my perspective is more from the one that you shared as I worked with mental illness pre-covid. So I see both clearly, and I write from the one I am connecting most closely with in the moment. But I have been on both sides, and the truth is, it’s a cancer. You either have it and it’s slowly killing you, or someone you care about has it and it’s slowly killing them. Either way, it’s there.

        The only good news is that depression and cancer are a lot alike in other ways too. Sometimes, you can get an amazing remission that was totally unexpected. Sometimes, it comes back harder than before. But as long as you keep fighting, your chances of beating it again are good. And he’s extremely lucky, please remember that. He has you. Not everyone has someone. Some people survive this nightmare completely on their own with no one to hold their hand. But it just proves, you can survive.

        But it’s also important to know that cancer doesn’t care if a million people adore you, it’s a great equalizer. So is depression. You can only love and support him as far as he’s willing to go. You can’t fight for him. Grab the Pom-poms out from the closet, but you can’t go any further. Only he can.

        I know what it is to live like you are, resigning yourself to the truth yet leaden with guilt and fear. Please hear me when I tell you: guilt and fear will not help anything. It will wear you out and that makes it harder for both of you. To do what you need to do, to be the loudest cheerleader, you have to be able to look him in the eye without that look in your eye that somehow you did something or failed to do something that made him this way. You are no more at fault that he has suicidal depression than you would be if he got dx’d with cancer. Fear is normal, but you have to control it for both of you. If you can’t he will feel it. It will cause him to feel so many feelings it will overwhelm. I saw it in my mom’s eyes, so I know. Love and support is all you have to offer. Offer that. With your whole soul.

        And from his perspective, I don’t know how old he is, or how long he’s lived with this, but I can tell you he knows that he’s broken. He’s not, he’s just different. But to him, in his brain, he is irrevocably broken. He is a disaster, a failure, an epic pain in the ass, a drain on everyone around him, and a burden to the world. None of it is true, but one small self doubt is so easily Catastrophized in our warped and sick brains. It’s hard to keep it from consuming. So nearly impossible. But I can tell you, it can be done. He just wants it to be better. Yesterday. That’s not how it works, and every minute it doesn’t work that way is another lifetime of failure in his head. The part that you can truly help him with here is reframing those moments. Instead of every moment being another one where he is failing at having gotten better, every moment is another moment TOWARD being better.

        Suicidal thinking hits hardest and has the most chance of succeeding when everything is framed in past tense. Those are the times that I was in the most danger of… of. I was working with a suicidal patient in my old job and I was actively depressed bordering on suicidal. I couldn’t fail her. I was already failing myself I couldn’t fail her too. Without thinking I reframed it to future looking for her. She balked and kicked up a fuss but I could see her brain working. The next day she actually asked to go to a therapist because “I’m worth trying to live for”. I almost burst into tears. When I was writing the report that night I was thinking about our conversation the night before. I had given her awesome advice, but never once thought of it for me. I wrote a version of it on a notecard and read it every day. I still have it. “It hurts right now, but you are hurting so you can take a step forward and out of the fire. You’ll get there. Keep walking”

        That’s how I’ve gotten through the last five years. I just keep walking. When I’m too tired, and I simply can’t go anymore, I give myself permission to stop and waste that moment. The next one ticks up pretty quickly. If there’s no mad dash to the finish line, the process matters so much more and it helps in the long run.

        I truly wish both you and your son the absolute best. I hope he gives himself permission to see that there can be light at the end of this darkness. I hope you find your smile again, with him.

        Ans if you need anything, please don’t hesitate. I understand more than you will ever know, and I can empathize with both of you almost completely. Neither of you are alone.

      2. You hit the nail on the head in so many ways. I so appreciate your honesty in sharing your experience. What you describe is what he has shared – so many different parts of it. And I am so grateful that he shares. And I’ve had to learn to be strong enough to listen. Really listen. It’s a work in progress. Thank you for reminding me we are not alone. I’m also glad that you keep walking. Thank you for joining me here.

      3. Thank you for being so open about what you are going through. I have been through many tough times. Am going through one right now. If my experience and perspective can help even one person understand another person (whether you better understand his pain or he better understand why you can’t truly empathize with it), then ive done something good.

        And please, remember, the best thing in the world for both of you is your inability to truly empathize. It’s frustrating for him I’m the moment, but it’s important for both of you to remember, those who can truly empathize have gone through it. And no one who has gone through it wants it doesn’t their loved one, or even their mortal enemy. You are doing nothing “wrong” by being unable to fully empathize, he is doing nothing “wrong” by sometimes wishing you could. It’s normal.

        If you need to talk, I truly am here. You have no idea how much this helps me. Knowing there’s someone out there that I might be able to help get through times like these helps me out my scrambled mi s in order, even just for a little bit. And I’m doing so I gain many insights into myself.

  2. Heidi

    Thank you Angie and Marlapaige. What you have both shared has helped me today in my struggles with my son. Thinking of you both with gratitude and holding you in my thoughts.

  3. Liam

    Hi Angie!

    I am so very sorry to hear this news. I can’t imagine how hard things must be right now. I admire your strength and will be thinking of you.


  4. (Note: WordPress seems to hate my computer 🙂 It often requires that I break my comment into “multiple comments”. Not sure why…but please bare with me (bear with me??)

    Hi Marlapaige,
    I’ve been following this blog for a fairly long time. I’ve been in treatment for OCD for 31 years. Sadly in my case it has been difficult beyond words…but like you I fight on. I’ve been blessed with great family support: The first 10 years from my (now ex and I don’t blame her) wife. Also from my amazing mother who supported me for 30 years…right up until she passed away last December at age 95. Before me, my Mom supported my father who had terrible depression.
    I’m convinced that my mother’s strength came from her incredibly strong Faith. OCD destroyed my marriage, my career, and then forced me to sell my dream home (just a material thing I know…but I had hoped to die there).

    I wanted to share my background so you would understand that like you, I am painfully aware of the day to day struggle that OCD creates…both for the person with the disease and for their family. I am grateful that I have no children so I will not (potentially) pass this horrible disease on. When things are not going well (which for me is most of the time), OCD basically makes life a “living hell”. (Continued…)

  5. …Having said all that, what I REALLY want to say is THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR COMMENTS and for sharing your story. I’m dealing with my illness without family support now and I’m currently in a very dark place (depressed to the point of not functioning). YOUR COMMENTS HAVE GIVEN ME THE THE COURAGE TO KEEP ON FIGHTING…TO LOOK TO THE FUTURE, AND TO TAKE ANOTHER STEP THROUGH THE FLAMES. I really needed that encouragement, and I needed it RIGHT AT THIS MOMENT. THANK YOU SO MUCH!

    In this age where we can communicate with basically anyone by computer, *** I WISH THAT THE MILLIONS WHO ARE FIGHTING OCD WOULD END THEIR SILENCE AND REACH OUT TO SUPPORT EACH OTHER *** Now that I live alone, I for one desperately need whatever support I can find. I also believe that I’m in a position to help give hope to others who suffer from this terrible disease.

    I hope you continue to communicate via this blog!! You write beautifully, and your message encouraging people to “fight for another day” is truly inspiring! Thank you again!

    To Angie, Blake, and Family: My thoughts and prayers are with you as always. There is hope as Marla has shared…at least the hope to be strong enough to fight through the current moment…hoping that the next moment will find us in a better place.

    Peace…Paul K.

    1. Paul. As always, I thank you for the support you provide to me, and to many others who read your words. I am sorry you are struggling so very much. I am sending you support over cyber space. I’m curious, since you mentioned it, are you part of an OCD support group? There are some wonderful ones out there online. Some are free. For example, NOCD offers all sorts all week long: https://www.treatmyocd.com/support-groups

      I was thinking that you have so much to share with other OCD sufferers and deserve to be supported. I apologize for over-stepping if I am. Just wanted you to know about this in case you didn’t. Blessings and peace to you!! – Angie

      1. Hi Angie,
        You are absolutely not overstepping any boundaries! :-). Thank you for the online group info. I was not aware that this service was available… which is a bit odd since I had done some Google searches.

        THANK YOU for your kind words and support.

      2. Other possibilities (please note, it’s really about finding the one that works for you, these suggestions are to help you explore, I’m not endorsing a particular one): OCD Peers: https://ocdpeers.com/ Support group finder from International OCD Foundation: https://iocdf.org/ocd-finding-help/supportgroups/ OR the International OCD Foundation does livestreams (twice a week I think) where you can ask questions, share, etc by commenting: https://iocdf.org/peaceofmind/ I hope these prove useful!!

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  7. Maureen Harzinski

    It is heartbreaking to read this. It reminds me that mental illness can be as life threatening as a physical illness. Your strength and love for your son is awe inspiring. When I and my son have been in a very dark place because of OCD I was reminded by a therapist that things can get better and to always have hope. I will keep you and your family in my prayers.

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