by Jim Carpenter
About 3:30 in the afternoon on Friday, September 19, 1975, my 16 year old son, Larry, committed suicide. The first of our three children to get home from school, he had gone into the garage and started the car parked there and laid down on the floor next to the exhaust pipe. In a relatively short time, he succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. I found his body. I attempted to give him CPR. But it was too late.
For many years afterward, his mother and I alternated between two intense emotions: guilt and anger. Naturally, we felt guilty for not having prevented his tragic death. We blamed ourselves for failing to pick up on any signals he might have given that he was thinking about such a drastic, final action. We felt as though we were complete failures as parents.
On the other hand, we felt angry with him for deliberately ending his own life in a way that was so enormously painful for his family (including his two sisters). Furthermore, we were unable to see why his self-inflicted death was necessary. He did not leave a note justifying or even explaining his actions. We interviewed his school teachers, his classmates, his friends, the adult advisers of his church youth group, his employer and co-workers, the neighbors, etc. No one had a clue as to why he would do such a thing. To the contrary, everyone agreed he had everything to live for: he was a straight “A” student, a gifted musician, a handsome, winsome young man, an active church member, and a good employee. So we felt betrayed by his action and were angry with him for it. Then, of course, we felt guilty for being angry. We realized that, as hurtful as his death was to us, he himself must have been hurting a thousand times worse to have chosen such a time and way to die.
Although there were many friends, neighbors, co-workers, and church members who gave us warm emotional support, we were deeply offended by the thoughtless remarks made by others:
- “We don’t always understand God’s will, but we have to accept it.” (How can suicide, homicide, fatal auto accidents, drug overdoses, etc. ever be “God’s will”?)
- “God let this happen to spare your son something worse that might have happened later on.” (How do you know that? What could be worse than the suicide of a promising son on the threshold of adulthood? I would prefer to have him live and take the chance that “something worse” would never happen.)
- “You still have your two lovely daughters.” (True, but not any number of children could ever take the place of another.)
- “You and your family will come through this better, stronger persons.” (Maybe so, maybe not. If “God” or “Destiny” or whatever wants to make me a better person through suffering, then let it be my own personal suffering—not the suffering and death of my innocent child.)
My wife and I agreed it would be better if these folk had said nothing at all; just a hug or an arm around our shoulder would have been far better.
In the end, we had to learn the hard lesson of forgiveness:
- We had to forgive these well-intentioned people for their insensitive comments.
- We had to forgive ourselves for our failure to be perfect parents (is there any such thing?).
- And we had to forgive Larry for taking the only way he could see out of whatever it was that drove him to such a desperate decision.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending. We had no idea whatever how to grieve, and no one else pointed us to any resources that would help us mourn our son’s death. There was no time off from work, no support groups, no bereavement counseling. We muddled through the best we could, but we made a lot of mistakes in the process. In time, my wife and I divorced. I had to completely rework my personal belief system, resulting in my relinquishing much, if not most, of my inherited faith. Fortunately, both our daughters seem to be well-adjusted, productive human beings: one is a Registered Nurse, the other is an elementary school teacher. My former wife is now a licensed Social Worker and I am a Hospice Chaplain.
Thankfully, today there are numerous resources to help us through the grief of losing a loved one in death. I commend Peggy Sweeney and Grimes Funeral Chapels for reaching out to make these resources available to as many people as possible!
About the Author: Jim is a native Texas born in Houston. Ordained a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he has served as pastor of local congregations for over 37 years. Jim is currently in his fourteenth year as a Hospice chaplain with Peterson Hospice in Kerrville, Texas. Jim holds a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctor of Ministry degrees. He is the proud father and grandfather of two grown daughters, a son, and five grandchildren.