My Son Died by Suicide, and I Don’t Know Why

By Carrie ThompsonNovember 17, 2020

This piece was originally featured here on Medium. We’re sharing it, with the author’s permission, to honor Ben’s story and to highlight International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day on Saturday, November 21. For resources, please visit AFSP’s site.

July 27, 2019, began as an unremarkable summer day. It was a day for visiting with my mother and doing some chores around her house, a day for walking her dogs, a day for idle conversation and shopping for my youngest son’s freshman dorm room. It was a late afternoon for a hilarious dinner with my sons. My mother spent the entire time commenting on the “atmosphere,” by which she meant the cute waitresses that she thought Ben, the oldest, should ask out on dates. The rest of us laughed to the point of tears as she offered to ask for their phone numbers on his behalf.

It was also the evening that Ben, who left only after a long hug and a “love you” and a plan to get sushi the next day, died by suicide.

It became the night that I sat in the parking lot of a funeral home, physically unable to leave until I’d seen my son. It was a night of begging everyone — the funeral director, the officer at the scene, the State Medical Examiner’s dispatcher — to please let me see my son because I couldn’t begin to accept it until I’d seen him and could confirm to myself that it really was him, because we were planning sushi and how could he be deceased?

It was the night that I was horribly rude and a complete bully to an innocent woman on the phone, telling her in the iciest of voices to “ask your faceless bureaucrat boss how she would feel if she wasn’t allowed to see her dead son whom she’d just had dinner with a few hours ago? You ask her that, and then you tell her that I’m not leaving this fucking parking lot until I see my son, no matter how long that is, or until they take a grieving mother away in handcuffs. Did you get all that?”

It is now the date that is forever etched in my brain as The Night Ben Died. Subtitles include The Night My Children Lost a Brother, or The Night My Heart Shattered Completely, or The Night I Lost My Son to Suicide and Said So Right In the Obituary (and Everyone Had a Judgment About It), or The Night My Son Died by Suicide and the Questions Started.

The questions. The questions — from friends, family, and the occasional nosy acquaintance who should mind their own business — felt endless. Some of them were spontaneous and well-meaning; others were intrusive; others came as statements, barely masking the curiosity beneath. Some of them had a tinge of judgment, either about Ben or about us after we published the cause of death in the paper. “Did you have any signs?” “Was he depressed?” “Wow, I never would have guessed.” “Were you aware he was struggling?” “He seemed so happy.” “We’re so shocked by this. It must have been such a shock to you, too.”

Many of the questions and statements about not knowing, about being surprised, condense into one underlying question. Although every family may be uniquely unhappy according to Tolstoy, every family who’s lost someone to suicide struggles with that same essential question. It’s the question we most want answered, even though the answer could be devastating. That question is “Why?” Why did Ben’s life end that way? Didn’t he know we will feel his loss forever? Why didn’t he say something? Didn’t he know he was loved? Why didn’t he ask for help? Why?

We could replace Ben’s name with the name of anyone lost to suicide, and the question remains the same. It haunts us. It’s a unique source of pain that only those who’ve lost someone to suicide experience. Accidents, illness, drugs, cancer, murder… we might ask why these things happen, and we might wonder what made this random twist of fate come home to our lost ones, but suicide is somehow seen as different. There’s blame involved, and shame involved, and we have to figure out where to direct, or how to deflect, those toxic feelings. Because life’s basic instinct is to live. And suicide is seen by many as a choice made by the person who died.

In some ways, that’s true. Ben made a decision the night he died; he completed suicide. There was no accident, no long noble battle with cancer, no evildoer to blame. It was my son, my beloved Ben, making a mind shift from battling his anxiety and depression, to losing hope, to taking action and making one horrible, impulsive, irrevocable, utterly tragic decision to end his life.

And we, his family, loved ones, and friends, are left with “Why?” What led him to that point? Because for that to happen, for someone as vibrant and intelligent and successful and beautiful and funny and adventurous and kind as Ben to die this way, there has to be a cause. How could he have gotten there? And if our Ben could be that lost, couldn’t anyone? Suicide is a mystery, a scary prospect, a fearsome monster lurking just beyond the edge of darkness.

In these few months since Ben died, I’ve explored countless theories about the causes. Researchers and experts say that it’s never one single reason. Rather, it’s a constellation of factors that swirl together and overwhelm the ability to cope, to keep going, to live. Even though I only see it in hindsight, Ben hit all of the indicators.

Stress and anxiety. Ben was increasingly stressed and anxious about all the unknowns in his future. A job he’d been considering turned out to be a false promise, and he was deeply worried about where he would live, about not having a job lined up, and about his financial situation.

Impulsivity. Researchers believe that people who die by suicide may be inherently more impulsive. Ben’s tendency to act impulsively showed in his willingness to drop everything for his friends or to go anywhere on a moment’s notice. Stories from people who have survived their suicide attempts show that their decision involved an impulsive moment as much as a specific plan; it’s a few minutes of spiraling into the mental anguish of lost hope, feeling totally entrapped with no way out, and deciding anything is better than enduring the pain of it all even a second longer. So while my Ben might have considered the method and the means and established ideas about an attempt, in the final spiral, he wasn’t thinking rationally at all; he was functioning on impulse.

Mental illness. Depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are all risk factors for suicide. Ben and I discussed him having a bipolar mood disorder several times. It’s a topic I’m deeply and personally familiar with. Ben knew from my example that these conditions can be managed quite successfully, but that it takes effort and time to tame. With my encouragement and support, he sought help… but he was waitlisted in two places for evaluation and counseling. Then his college course load caught up with him, and he stopped following up; he told me he was too busy for counseling even if they did have someone become available.

Last summer, it’s entirely likely that Ben was caught in the aftermath of an intense, pressure-packed senior year in which he earned a 4.0 GPA with 24 credits, followed by a 3.9 with 23 credits. He graduated cum laude, but the intense schedule he kept to achieve at such a high level probably induced a manic state. He received awards and medals and money at graduation and was supposed to feel great and be at the pinnacle of success. In reality, he was crashing into the depths of bipolar depression, exacerbated by having no idea what to do next, the anxiety of no job, the uncertainty about paying his student loans, and the defeat of moving home for a while until he could figure it all out.

There were signs of his distress throughout the year. He called me sobbing from anxiety and stress more than once. He told me how little he was sleeping and how he didn’t even have time to eat, so I sent him expensive protein bars and healthy snacks he could eat on the go. I also brought him food whenever I was in the area visiting, and I put money in his bank account so he could get something delivered if he could find the time. I responded with love and support when he poured out his stress to me in text messages. I encouraged him to talk to his department head or to follow up with counseling, but he always replied that things were improving. I worried incessantly when he would go radio silent for days at a time due to his schedule, hoping he was eating and sleeping and practicing at least some measure of self-care.

July 27, 2019, is the date I lost my son. It’s also the date when I began to realize there are some questions that, no matter how much we wish otherwise, can never be answered, because no answer can ever be satisfying.

All of my theorizing, all of my understanding, is at best an educated guess. None of it can fully answer the question. None of it can fully explain what darkness led my son to die by suicide. None of it can ever fully heal the loss we feel.

We must realize that my son’s story isn’t unique. The experiences of people who struggle with mental illness and depression are often obscured by society’s narrative about suicide. It’s imperative that we unearth these lived experiences so that we can try to understand what moves someone from contemplating suicide to completing it.

There was a battle. There was a long, dirty, exhausting battle with an enemy in his mind, a mental monster that can be relentless, that waits for a moment of weakness and isolation, and strikes with utter, sometimes deadly, accuracy. On the terrible night he died, my son lost the ground in his battle with the monster and spiraled into its trap.

The monster had some help. There is still a terrible stigma attached to mental illness that dissuades people from reaching out for help when the illness begins to get the upper hand.

My son was at a moment when society tells young people that they should be thrilled and that they should be commencing the next phase of their life. His depression was feeding on the fear of being judged as somehow lacking if he admitted that he was deeply lost and depressed. If he expressed that he felt unsafe, what would the response be?

It comes down to two essential truths.

The first truth is that my son didn’t have to die this way. For whatever reason, he didn’t feel safe letting us know that he was struggling and losing the battle. That is utterly tragic, and we must change that. We must get to work and learn ways to talk about mental illness and about suicide appropriately and safely, with sensitivity, so we can identify and help people who are struggling on the edge of tragic action. We need to make it simple and easy for someone who feels unsafe to reach out for the help they need. Because help was available to Ben, but for whatever reason, he didn’t ask.

My Ben was so loved; he mattered to so many people. He told me more than once how much he appreciated my support and love. I know he knew we loved him. So it wasn’t for lack of love or lack of support that we lost him. Any of us — all of his friends and loved ones — would have come to Ben’s aid. We would have held him, walked with him to find help, stayed with him until safety was achieved and he found the ground again, until he could see that he wasn’t trapped, that he had resources. There would have been no shame, no stigma, no judgment from any of us; there would only have been love. But clearly, Ben believed otherwise, and I know he didn’t get that belief from his family and friends.

The second truth is that healing and moving forward, to me, means learning to live with and make peace with the unanswerable question of why Ben died by suicide. Because I’ll never fully understand it. But more importantly, no answer, no matter how much sense it makes, no matter how well researched it might be, no matter how eloquently I try to word it, can ever be satisfactory.

Because the only truly satisfactory answer would be to have my son back, alive, whole, and well, and that’s impossible. So I need to make “There was no one reason, no simple explanation. I will never fully know why, and I’m making peace with that” become the only answer that matters. More importantly to me, Ben’s death by suicide cannot be, must not be, the only thing that we remember about him. His life was so much more than that, and it cannot be reduced to that.

We won’t be able to fully battle suicide until we, as a society, eliminate the stigma around mental illness and suicide, and become okay talking about it in the same way we are okay talking about cancer, about divorce, about sexual orientation, about alcoholism and addiction, about all kinds of things we used to find uncomfortable and only spoke of in a whisper. We need to make it acceptable for anyone to say “I am so depressed that I think I could harm myself” without fear of judgment. When we can do that, maybe we won’t be left wondering why they died by suicide, because we’ll be able to provide the help they need so that they can choose to live.


Whatever you are facing, there is always hope. And we will hold on to hope until you’re able to grasp it yourself. If you’re thinking about suicide, we encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool to locate professional help and to read more stories like this one here. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.

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Comments (23)

  1. Arlene Engels

    My daughter died in February of 2020. She took her life in our home. Everything I read was the closest I have come to her situation. Sadly this was her second attempt. I think she realized after the first what she would have missed out on. But circumstances with a boyfriend found herself feeling worthless again. She was smart, beautiful and had a family who adored her. I am so sorry for your loss. Its the worst.

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  2. Heidi Butterfly

    This is so incredibly important. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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  3. se

    Arlene, i just wanted to say that like Carries post, what you also said has been heard. Thinking of you and your child, as i am Carrie and Ben. God bless.

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  4. Arlene

    My daughter attempted in March of 2019 and then again this February. Your story was the closest read I could relate to. I am so sorry.

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  5. Jenny Deupree

    Dear Carrie, thank you for your caring and thinking about the whole picture. I am someone who contemplated suicide many times, but never had enough negativity come together to make me actually do it. I never thought about anyone being sad or upset, I thought they would be glad I was gone. What you say about the cultural bias against mental illness and suicide is so true, and so much the reason WHY. It was not anyone’s fault, not even Ben’s fault. It was a combination of negative circumstances that start with our culture.

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  6. Sherry Bennett

    Dear Carrie, How did I stumble upon your brilliant, moving essay some four years following the tragic death of your Ben, I don’t know, but I am glad I did. I am sure that the pain is just as pronounced for you now as it was then. As a sufferer of Bipolar I want to tell you that I have never read a piece that so captures this terrible mental illness as you have in telling your very personal story of loss. The impulse factor is so critical and you have described the complex series of events that can lead to that dark destination, that point of no return as only a broken hearted mother could. I thank you for your courage, compassion and love for your son and the thoughts and feelings you shared in your writing of this amazingly accurate account. Ben is with you always, but you know that!

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  7. John Lyford

    No works can express the feel for the loss of your son. 🙏 😢 🙏

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  8. Annmarie Anderson

    I have schizoaffective disorder bipolar type. A little schizophrenia and a lot of depression and a little mania. I have times when there seems only one way out. The closest I ever came to suicide was the night after a day spent laughing with friends. My family and friends wouldn’t understand how I went from laughing to suicidal in a twelve hour span. I’m not sure I can understand why either.

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Losing a child is never easy.

    Reply  |  
    1. TWLOHA

      Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing about your mental health journey, Annmarie. While your experience is unique, please know you’re not alone. We understand that the seemingly sudden shifts from one intense emotion to another due to mania can be exhausting and alarming, and we hope you can find a way to have grace for yourself during those trying moments. If you ever need a safe space to share or want help finding a counselor to confide in, please email our team at [email protected]. We are here.

      With Hope,
      TWLOHA

      Reply  |  
  9. Billie Jay

    We too lost our beloved, beautiful, bright, kind, good humored, but deeply troubled in his mind, 29 year old Sean at the end of January 2020.
    Your words are so eloquent. Much of what you write resonates with me. I want to do something that will be helpful to those that I believe can be helped and have good outcomes. Where there is life there is hope. I have donated several times since we lost Sean. I would like to do more.
    Thank you for what you are doing.
    Kind regards,
    Billie

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  10. Debra Collins

    Thank you for writing this. As the holidays are quickly approaching, it is ever present my son will not be here to a part of it. I lost him 16 years ago to suicide when he was just 20. Your words are truths, the questions, the stigma attached to suicide. No one knows the pain for survivors of suicide, the knowing it didn’t have to happen, he could have reached out to me for anything and he chose for whatever reason to just put an end to his struggle. I am sure he did not think about me and my life after because he would not have done it if he had considered that or his sisters and nephews and nieces who adored him so very much. I think he felt so hopeless and was in so much physical and emotional pain that his ability to think rationally was compromised and the pain he felt, was so overwhelming, it was all he could think about. My heart was broken and my life forever changed, I have learned to cope with living without him but my heart never stops hurting. I felt like everything stopped when I got the call , and it took me a longtime to feel like I was alive again. I have a wonderful family and they have been thru the trenches with me but I try not to let them know just how much I still hurt and miss my son. It takes some time to feel the sun on your face again or to feel anything other than the heartbreak. The awareness of mental health has become more focused on in recent years and I hope anyone struggling can feel it’s ok to say I’m not ok. Even if they don’t use those words, pay attention to their habits and moods, ask questions and try to let someone you suspect is struggling know you care and want to help.

    Reply  |  
    1. TWLOHA

      We are incredibly sorry for your loss, Debra. Your grief is valid and will continue to be valid no matter how much time as passed. Please honor it as best you can and please reach out for support when you feel safe to do so. Thank you for sharing this with us, for being honest and vulnerable. And please know you can always reach out to our team by emailing [email protected]. We are so glad you found Carrie’s words. Thank you for being here.

      Reply  |  
  11. Melanie Lawrence, MD, MS

    Thank you for sharing your experience and pain and knowledge with us! We do have to encourage mental health to be an integral component of healthcare and human existence.

    Reply  |  
  12. Charlotte

    Maybe he didn’t want you to know why – a man’s pride can be so strong. He told you he loved you so there should be no guilt on your part. That emotion you can try to purge because it is within you and he wouldn’t want you to harbour it. He was very brave, so brave that no one could have changed his mind about what he chose to do, no one could have.
    Focus on talking about the many beautiful times you had with him. Perhaps he lived a larger and more beautiful life in the short time he was given, and you shared that time with him. Perhaps it was written? I truly feel for you and imagine it must be hard to bear, every day. I hope that I haven’t offended you with my naive comments but that my objective thoughts help you to move in a healing way through the grieving process. Go and see a craniosacral osteopath. They are remarkable for releasing stress and negative energies via synovial fluid.passing down the spine and out through the sacrum. They work absolute miracles, believe me.
    Best wishes to those of you left behind. . Don’t forget that his spirit remains.

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  13. Jody M.

    To all who struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts and those who have lost loved ones to suicide, I’m so very sorry you had to go through that kind of painful experience. I care. The closest I have come to such an awful experience was two or three years ago when a friend of mine wrote in her Christmas card that her only child/son died by suicide. She said he tried twice before but succeeded the third time. So, my condolences all those who are grieving.

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  14. Sean

    Thank you for sharing this. It breaks my heart. I have a teen that we are struggling with talking about harming himself. It is not just him, it’s half the middle school students that are his classmates. They are talking about suicide as if they were discussing what they will wear to school today.

    Reply  |  
    1. TWLOHA

      Hi Sean,

      Thank you for taking the time to share this with us and with Carrie. It breaks our heart to know that your son and his classmates are experiencing these things. We know teenagers are not immune to mental health challenges, but the rate at which they are enduring such thoughts is a lot — for them and for parents and teachers.

      At TWLOHA, we have a program called Between the Bells that’s designed to spark conversations about mental health for high school students, that also offers ways to cope wit heavy emotions and resources that they can utilize for free. You can learn more at http://www.twloha.com/highschool.

      You can also reach out to our team for encouragement and support by emailing us at [email protected]. It would be our honor to help in whatever way we can.

      With Hope,
      TWLOHA

      Reply  |  
  15. Ilona Kozlik

    Beautifully written. I have a beautiful cousin Hal, an amazing young man Jason, at our Church who decided they could no longer struggle with this dark evil monster. I remember the great times we spent together, not their final solution. Looking back, I see these two beautiful people had made their decision because they were so at peace with all those they were surrounded with, all those who loved them very much. That’s when we, standing on the outside relax, then their final solution to their endless struggles happens, leaving all of us who love this person are left with emptiness, Why’s of how could I not see this coming, the guilt and so on and on because there is no answer to suicide WHY? because it is personal. I Thank God for the time he has given me with Hal and Jason. I leave all else to God. Wonderful Read, Thank You….God Bless You and Family

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  16. Kristen

    Loosing a 1st born son at any age to any situation causes parents to question suicide and leads to an eternal PST state. Although I did not loose my 1st born to death, I lost him at 5 due to parent alienation. 💓 The spirit lives within your soul and may tears of joy run happily down your face WHEN your souls reunite.

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  17. Charlotte Tomic

    What s beautiful essay and testament to your love of Ben. You surely must have helped others by this deeply personal article. May you heal in the knowledge that you are helping others.

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  18. Paige Bernabei

    Thank you for sharing your story and putting these difficult emotions into words and know there helping other even 4 years later. Ben will not be forgotten. My dad died by suicide and I agree with those eternal “questions”. Over time I have come to see it was just the way he left this earth- it didn’t define him. Sending you peace, much love and comfort. Again, thank you for this beautiful story- putting Ben’s story out in the world is helping all us heal too.

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  19. Joseph

    My heart bleeds for you. There are no words to bring back your Ben. Mental illness is a real and awful problem with so few caring doctors.

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  20. Angie

    To this Mom: I’m so sorry you have gone through this & are going through this. I can’t imagine. It’s my worst nightmare. You are such a good Mom. Your love for your son is visible in your words. He knew how much you loved him. Of that, I’m sure. There is one hope & that’s Jesus. Your son went straight from this world to His arms & you will see him again. I hope you can find some peace in that. You are the best Mom! I pray for you peace & acceptance. I am so sorry for your loss. You take care of yourself. Love & blessings:)

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