Ian was 18 when he died by suicide. Cheeky C is one of my closest friends and Ian’s mom. I remember receiving her call four years ago that he was gone; and I’ve not witnessed a girlfriend survive a more devastating loss. I have come to notice that the winter holidays seem to be the worst for Cheeky C. Although she is a warrior and a survivor, this season hits her hard. My spunky, outspoken, and cheeky pal becomes withdrawn and more downcast. The truth is, I will never have my original Cheeky C back. Losing her son was a traumatic turning point and I know she is changed forever, but this time of year seems to be especially heart-rending.
Ian died on January 20th, 2013 and his birthday is February 26th. Cheeky C and her husband both have birthdays in January, as well, making Thanksgiving and Christmas the start of a tough stretch of months for their family with constant reminders that Ian is not still here. She describes this time of year as living in a fog. She resorts to “survival mode” and has a hard time coping with the holiday season. She agreed to conduct an interview with me in the hopes of helping someone, anyone, who may benefit from reading her story. Here is what she had to say:
Q: What was your very first thought when you learned of Ian’s death?
A: I just gasped.
Ian was away, stationed on his army base, and two military people came to our door. My husband was getting ready to go on his law enforcement night shift and all I saw was their blue pants through the door. I knew something terrible had happened. They came in, sat down, and said that Ian had been found unresponsive. I remember thinking, “how could this happen?” At first I thought he had been sick and maybe died of an illness. Every scenario, except suicide, ran through my head.
Later I learned that Ian took his own life. I didn’t even believe it. He was never depressed. He never displayed typical suicidal behaviors. This is our fourth year without him. He should be coming home this year from the military.
Q: What strikes you about the way Ian died by suicide?
A: Ian was careful and put a lot of thought into it. He googled how to suffocate. He purchased a black back and starter fluid. He was so deliberate. One thing I still think about is the broom and dustpan he purchased with the other materials. I can speculate, but I have no idea why he bought those.
Q: What do you want people to know about Ian?
A: He was a very caring and loving person. His 5th grade teacher once asked Ian’s class if they would give up TV for a day to save one child in another country. Ian said he would give up TV for the rest of his life to save one kid. I share this because I knew from early on that Ian was an emotionally sensitive child. He was a normal boy and teenager, but he was extremely selfless.
Q: What was your favorite thing about Ian?
A: I appreciated how he was always friends with the “underdogs.” He didn’t care about dumb stuff that kids get carried away with. He was more mature than most kids and wise beyond his years. He parted ways with a childhood friend in high school because of the friends he started associating with.
Q: How did you view suicide before Ian’s death?
A: Honestly, I didn’t have much experience with suicide. I don’t think I had a thought about it one way or another because it didn’t seem like something I was ever going to have to live with. It’s kind of like cancer. Cancer sucks, but I’ve never really lost someone to it, so it doesn’t hit close to home for me. It was the same with suicide.
Q: How do you feel about suicide now that you do have to live with it?
A: It depends of the day, honestly. There are some days when I feel like people that commit suicide are in so much pain. They are not selfish, like people claim, because they don’t see a way out. Then, the next day I am angry with Ian and I don’t understand how he could have done it. I wish he would have asked for help or let us know he was thinking about suicide. I don’t have any set feelings because they change all the time.
Q: Do you think you could have prevented Ian’s death?
A: I think in Ian’s case I could have. I say that because Ian was always a really reserved kid and now that I’ve had all of this time to process, I realize he struggled with a ton of anxiety. He didn’t want to be in groups unless it was friends and family. I didn’t know him to be super depressed, but I believe we could have gotten him help because I believe we could have found a way to treat his anxiety and anything else he was dealing with.
Q: Why do you think Ian died by suicide?
A: Honestly, I think that he made a bad choice, for him, going into the military. We didn’t know it at the time. In boot camp he would write letters about feeling like he made a huge mistake. We would tell him to stick it out and that he would be fine. He didn’t want to be there anymore and he didn’t see a way out. He met people from all over the United States and saw how ugly people can be and it was just too much for him. All of the hazing made him see the worst in people. I think there were things going on in his unit that we still don’t know about. I don’t think there is ever one thing or one reason any person dies by suicide.
Q: Did you push to have the hazing on his base investigated?
A: Yes, we did. My entire family was interviewed by the Criminal Investigation Division. Once we told them the things that Ian was telling us over Christmas, they launched an investigation. Right after Ian died, another military person shot and killed his roommate. The outcome of the investigation was a disbandment of Ian’s unit. Six military professionals were court marshaled, and other changes were made on his base. In the videos he left for us he said that he didn’t do this because of the hazing but spoke directly to his fellow servicemen and told them that they shouldn’t treat people the way they were treating them.
I often wonder if he would have been better off in the Marines but in the letters he left us he said, “there were nights when I would lay in bed and think about the shotgun I had in my closet back home.” My guess is that he didn’t go through with it because it would be worse on us to have found him. I believe he waited to leave home to complete suicide.
Q: Did you ever speak to Ian about suicide while you were raising him?
A: Ian was never baptized because I’m not religious. I didn’t believe that God would punish Ian because of my choices. It was important to me that Ian make his own decisions about religion. We talked about everything from Catholicism to Viking Gods. I shared my opinion about the bible which is that it should be used as a template. We talked about death and suicide, but not directly. I don’t know what a discussion about suicide would have entailed and I don’t know if it would have made a difference. His grandma was super religious and she told me that he started reaching out to her about God in the time leading up to his suicide. Many people believe that suicide is a sin and that children who die by suicide are in hell. I don’t believe that, at all. Honestly, I know Ian is fine. It’s just the loved ones he has left behind that are sad. I believe spirits get help on the other side. Ian is getting help because of suicide.
Q: What do you want your loved ones to know about you as a mom who has lost a child to suicide?
A: Probably just that it’s something I will never get over. Friends think there will come a point when I won’t be sad anymore. Sometimes I just lose it. I don’t see a way that I won’t be sad anymore. This is not something I am going to get over, ever.
Q: What advice would you give to other parents whose children have died?
A: Reach out to other parents who have lost children. It is one of the most relatable things knowing that other people have suffered in the same way. You can move through this and be okay. You will always be “in it.” Maybe there will come a time when I can talk about Ian and not cry. A big key for me was learning that this is my new normal.
I highly recommend the book, My son My son, by Iris Bolton. I credit her and her book with reinforcing the fact that we move through this as mothers. We can smile again and we can laugh again.
Parents feel guilty if they start to enjoy life again because they are living and their child isn’t, but you have to get off the f***ing couch. Everyday I had to literally make myself get up and leave the house. Sometimes I still do. I knew that if I just stayed in my cocoon at home, I may never get out of it.
Q: Do you feel guilty?
A: No. It wasn’t always that way, though. I really felt guilty at first. I felt guilty for not seeing things I should have, or feeling like I let him down. I was mad at myself. I would say I still feel that way on occasion but typically I know it was not by fault. Now I know that there are things I did miss. Maybe there were signs, but they were so small and so widespread that I couldn’t have picked up on them. I just missed some things. The “what ifs?” come here and there, still, but in general I don’t still feel guilty.
Q: Why did it take you so long to tell people that Ian died by suicide?
A: We didn’t want people to think poorly of Ian. The stigma isn’t right, but there is one. We didn’t tell his friends until three years after his death on his birthday.
Q: What are some ways you coped with Ian’s death?
A: The big one has been TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors). They sent me a ton of information. I’ve been to their annual events with amazing speakers and different types of therapy. This is how I learned how important it is to reach out to people. They are the only ones who get it. I would also tell every parent to go to a medium. I felt more at ease after visiting with one. The medium was relatable and provided reassurance that Ian was okay.
Q: What’s one of the hardest things about meeting strangers since Ian’s death.
A: People never say, “just tell me about your family.” They say, “do you have kids?” They don’t typically ask me if I’m married and I have stopped asking people if they have kids because I don’t care. This sounds mean, but it’s usually a quick conversation and I move on from strangers. I keep it generic.
I don’t know if it’s harder for me because he was my only child. There was one time that I said that I didn’t have children to a stranger’s question. I felt so guilty. I cried and cried. Other times I say, “yes, I have one son and he has passed away.” Either way it feels awful and I still usually cry.
Q: Do you wish your friends would have done things differently after Ian’s death?
A: Our friends were great. There is no right thing they can say or do. Advice to others includes just dragging your friend out of their house. Make them come out. Be patient with any parent you know and try not to say stupid things. I don’t become angry or resentful with my friends over their children, but I get angry when people try to compare their situation to mine when they’ve not lost a child. I try to keep my close friends, but I still feel pretty numb. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s hard for me to even feel feelings unless I’m just sad over Ian. I’m just numb. I’m lucky to have friends who understand this.
Q: Do you like talking about and remembering Ian?
A: Yes. Right now I still can’t talk about him without crying. I wish I could do more to remember and honor him but I can’t do that right now without being a complete wreck.
Q: How has your marriage survived Ian’s death by suicide?
A: We are both too stubborn to leave. We love each other very much. I will say that we grieved very differently which can often lead to divorce. I had a lot of help and support outside of my husband, so he wasn’t the only one I was relying on. He doesn’t want to talk about it and neither does my mom. My dad does, though, and so do I. We visit and that helps. I had others come in to help him, as well. Often times we feel like our spouses should be everything, but they can’t be. We have made it because we understand this and we each have our own s*** going on. We get help from friends and resources outside of our marriage which has made us stronger as a couple.
I am thankful to Cheeky C for her willingness to talk openly about her journey and share the strategies which she has found to be helpful. She is a wealth of knowledge…not because she chose to be, but because she has survived the unimaginable. When she shares stories or resources for parents who have lost children my heart aches, yet I find myself grateful that I don’t truly understand. Selfishly, I hope I never do. I think about Cheeky C more often than she may realize. Every time she smiles, I see Ian’s grin. I admire her willingness to face each day and reconcile her new normal.
If you liked this post, I think you’ll love these other JBJ shares, too: