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