My son, at age 32, took his own life in the fall of 2011. As a mother, no matter how many counselors, doctors and friends tell you it isn’t the parent’s fault, you can’t help but wonder what you did wrong. Didn’t I cuddle him enough? Should I have been stricter. Was I too harsh? Bottom line, I felt I had failed as a parent.
The first Christmas after Derek’s death was especially heart-wrenching. Every year I had bought an ornament for each of my three children to decorate their own tree when they were ready. What was I supposed to do with Derek’s ornaments? I couldn’t even bear to look at them. My husband and I scaled back on holiday decorating that year. We got a live tree, a black hill spruce, in our son’s honor, that we planned to plant in our yard in the spring.
The spruce looked beautiful when we planted it and it had lots of new growth in the spring. I was so pleased. Another winter passed, and the following year, in mid July, my husband accompanied me to a five day writer’s conference in Texas. When we returned, I was shocked to see brown needles and brittle branches on the tree, as if it were parched. How could this have happened so quickly? I talked to a landscaper who suggested we water it daily.
I diligently watered the tree, but it continued to drop needles, and every day I felt more distressed. I had neglected Derek’s memorial tree. I had failed to take care of it properly, and now it was dying. The metaphor was obvious. It seemed almost fitting that the tree would die under my care.
By chance, my husband happened upon an article in the Detroit News about a spruce decline throughout Michigan. The needle cast and branch dieback that began seven years ago had reached epidemic proportions, and the previous winter made them especially vulnerable to canker diseases. Fungicides are generally ineffective. All you can do is remove the infected branches and hope for the best.
Right away, I ran out to look at our son’s spruce and saw blue fungus up the middle of the trunk. It had a disease. I hadn’t neglected it after all. There wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent it from succumbing. I fell to my knees.
Our son didn’t like taking medication, and you can’t force them on an adult, although one time we did strong-arm him into the hospital. His depression seemed to improve, but it never went away. He moved out of state for work and we hoped that a new job would give him focus and a new outlook. He’d even found a new doctor he liked. Then he stopped taking his medications, and shortly after, his mental health declined. We didn’t know what to do, short of dragging him to the hospital again. We were about 12 hours too late.
However, there’s no way of knowing that, once left to his own devices, he wouldn’t have tried to take his own life again. His psychic pain from his illness was too great to bear. Just like the spruce, it’s a sad truth that you can’t always prevent the inevitable, and you can’t blame yourself.
You can find more from Linda at lindaksienkiewicz.com