Grieving a Child with Mental Illness
Last week, my son Bob announced he is no longer playing basketball. Bob's been playing competitively since age five and is pretty good. This year he is a junior in high school, which means varsity -- his dream.
Bob made the decision to quit because basketball is "no fun" anymore. It brings about severe stress and crippling anxiety. In the past, Bob's anxiety has led to depression and suicidal ideation.
I told my son I support him. I'm proud he made his mental health and well-being a priority. Then I went upstairs to the privacy of my bedroom and sobbed.
Grief is Common When Parenting a Child with Mental Illness
The five stages of grief following a loss are commonly known:
Let's be clear. Losing a child to mental illness is a huge loss to a parent. My own grief has been intense.
When my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 12, my husband and I mourned our many losses. We grieved the child we thought we had. We lamented the future we imagined for him. We sorely missed the friends that disappeared. We bemoaned the fate of our family, forever changed.
The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) describes the stages of emotional response a family goes through when dealing with mental illness:
- Dealing with catastrophic events--shock and denial
- Learning to cope--anger and grief
- Moving into advocacy--understanding and acceptance
It is not surprising the two lists are similar. I quickly learned the grieving process is neither linear nor circular as I found myself jumping from shock and denial during each crisis to education and advocacy on account of my child's age.
Grieving Recurs for Parents of Mentally Ill Children
They say everyone grieves differently and there is no definitive end for the pain. Since Bob's diagnosis, the losses persisted. We mourned the family dinners and vacations we no longer took. We wept silently during the eighth grade dance and graduation Bob missed. We ached for the normal teen years and activities Bob would never experience.
There will be parental grief and loss with each transition Bob makes. Today we say goodbye to the state basketball championship. Soon Bob will go to college and start a career. Later he may get married and have children. Or not. Whatever Bob's choices, I'm certain his successes will be bittersweet for us.
With grief there is hope. I truly support Bob's decision to take a break from basketball. I am optimistic Bob will experience less anxiety this school year. I secretly fantasize Bob will use his free time to study more and improve his grades. I am prudently hopeful this decision will lead to others that sustain Bob's stability. I remind myself to live in the present and love the child I have with his many gifts and talents.
I accept grieving as a part of living with a mentally ill child. I acknowledge grieving can be healthy. I ask myself where I am in the grieving process and recall the stages are not linear. Finally, I grab a tissue and assure myself that sobbing today because Bob is no longer playing basketball is okay.
Halli, C. (2014, October 12). Grieving a Child with Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, March 23 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/parentingchildwithmentalillness/2014/10/grieving-a-child-with-mental-illness
Author: Christina Halli
My son is diagnosed with paranoid scitzophrenia and he is now in supported living but reading the posts regarding parents who’s kids are on the streets I really feel for you as that was my son. The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming.
My son has been sectioned 3 times and even though he is on meds he still struggles so much and I’m so scared that one day he will just decide that he can’t do it anymore. It’s an awful situation and my heart goes out to all parents who are going through watching their children in pain.
Hello, my story is not quite the same as others as I wasn’t aware of mental illness in my son until his 30’s he covered it up with what we thought was just defiance and alcoholism and drug addiction. How could I have been so blind. He is now in his 40’s and everything has come crashing down on him with psychotic breaks, fear, delusions, hallucinations and now homelessness. The once very happy, active, smart funny kid with a lot of friends is now destitute with not a friend in the world. On the streets trying to save the world from what he believes is in grave danger from beings we could not fathom. I am in a great deal of pain mentally daily thinking about what could happen to him but I sit and wonder if I’m in that much pain how much more beyond that is he feeling. He was on medications for about 10 years which he now refuses to take. There is no one around me that understands what I’m feeling and I could not have understood another’s pain in this situation if it hadn’t happened with my own son. God bless all of our mentally ill, they are very special people.
Dear Christina -
I am at the Las Vegas Airport . Just left my 24 Year old mentally ill son there all alone on the streets to live like a beggar .
He ran away from home 22 days ago , saying that he could not live with the family in Dallas for if he did , we would all starve to death . He said he needed to live on the streets for the sake of the three of us (my wife , his younger brother and me ) .. he had a history of weed abuse and schizophrenia. He stopped taking his meds and in that state , suffered from this delusion.
For 22 days in Las Vegas , I would see him walking up and down the strip aimlessly , like a madman . I tried to reason with him , but all he said was - ‘Leave Las Vegas , Go Home … Go Home.’ . He slept on the pavements behind garbage dumps, in rat infested parking garages while I let begging him to come to the hotel where I was staying . I called the cops two times to talk to him and get him evaluated by Crisis Response Team which deals with mental health scenarios.
The cops would talk to him and he would speak normally to them . The cops would let him walk free saying he was an adult and had his rights . So we could not get him to the hospital .
After 22 days of trying , I am leaving Vegas and praying God will keep him safe . As somebody said above .. going forward , Grieving will be a daily process .. but life will have to go on for the sake of the younger one . Tears will flow every so often and life for us will never be the same .
But thanks to all those who posted above .
Thank you for sharing, I feel so alone right now and living one day at a time. If I think about the future too much I just cry. I check daily to make sure my son is alive and don’t want to leave him alone. It is so hard.
I grieve for my son who battled bravely for several years with schizoaffective disorder. He took his own life 3 months ago tomorrow. I as a mother felt so helpless that I wasn't able to help my son. All my love and support wasn't enough to help him with his brave fight. I miss you so much Ryan, You are such a loss to me. My heart is broken. I am so sad and sorry that I wasn't able to help you and protect you. Please forgive me. I love you Ryan.
I'm so sorry, Christina. I hope the people in your life can hold you and walk you through the worst of the pain. Please reach out to someone, even if it's just someone who will sit with you and let you cry. From one mother to another, I know you loved and did all you could.
Christina, I lost my son to suicide 2017. Two weeks after his 18th birthday he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Those 4 years I had with him he was in and out of API. You go through thru your days being thankful for the life you had with your child. The pain never goes away but we learn how to deal with it in different ways. My son would have not committed suicide if he did not have a mental illness and I try to find a way to ease a little of my pain thinking that. He was so outgoing and happy when he was growing up
I know we will all find peace someday. Not a day goes by I don’t think of him but I’ve learned that what if should if’s I could have doesn’t get us anywhere. Blaming ourself is the last thing we should do.
Christina, I'm truly sad to read about your son's death. I came across your article as I was trying to find something to help me grieve my daughter to Mental Illness. No one knows how you feel until you are in the situation, and I've found even being in the situation I don't know how I feel. As a mom, I relate with your feelings of helplessness, that my love and support isn't enough to make it all better and protect her. Broken heart....I'm sure more like shattered as mine is, and with each spiral downwards it shatters more. Grief....it is a daily occurrence.
I'm sure Christina, you did all you knew to do, to the best of your ability. It is a hideous illness and needs MORE attention....
God Bless you Christina.
Good to hear from you, Terri.
Thank you for reaching out, and I'm so sorry to hear about your loss. Even though I've never lost a child, I'm still a mom, so I can imagine the depths of your pain. I don't know if I could be as strong as you sound. I'm so happy this article could help you find a little connection.
Stay beautiful, and be kind to yourself.
I grieve for my son. He took his own life 1 month ago. He was only 13 years old. Too early to imagine, understand and come to the rescue. I did not know he was struggling. He had a lot of friends and seemed a happy child. School was a stressor, he did not like it, Guilt for not liking school and, in his mind, for not being the son we thought he was another stressor. I am experiencing grief attacks of such strength that I think I am going to loose my mind. It is like being swept away by a tornado. I could not help my child at all if not unconsciously. His suicidal thoughts started he was 10 years old he said in his last letter to us. That year I brought home two cats ( they relieve stress I thought), this random act brought me 3 more years with my child because he loved these cats very much. It was not enough. He kept a smily face to us even the evening before, when he knew he would depart, he did not show any signs that something was different, joked with his sister, cuddled on the sofa watching the evening movie with us, ordered tortellini for dinner for the next day. During the night he got out, rod his bike for a couple of miles to a 100 feet high bridge and jumped. I remain here wondering how I did not see, did not understand him, did a very poor job as a mother. I miss you and I am so sorry you could not trust me enough to tell me your troubles and I am so sorry I did not ask if you had any.
Thank you for sharing this, and I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm sure you did everything you could do for your son. It sounds like he stayed so strong and hid his pain so well that probably no one knew what he was going through.
I've never lost a child, but I am a mother. Trying to imagine the pain you're experiencing feels unbearable. I do believe, though, that if you give yourself some time, it will start to hurt less. I don't think a parent gets over that kind of loss COMPLETELY, but I think with time it can hurt LESS.
I hope you have a strong support system, too. There's no way you can do this by yourself. If you do feel alone, maybe a therapist could help.
And please feel free to talk more on this page if that's the outlet you need.
My son is named Ryan. He currently lives on the streets in NC. I grieve so because there is nothing I can do. He is very delusional. Substance abuse is where it started. He refuses help. I was a mental health counselor for 29 years but I haven’t been able to reach him.
I grieve daily as my sons schizoaffective disorder has continued to take a fierce grip on him and his life.
I pray and send him love and strength. These people fighting severe mental illness are my heroes. That definition has changed for me witnessing my sons struggle. And I will hurt forever for him and his horrific fight.
i have been on this trail of tears also. It is hard but we have learned to trust my son - high school age, when he says he is not going to do such and such. It may be the prom, it may be the end of the year soccer or ultimate banquet, it may be a party, all school rafting trip...the list goes on. All things that should be fun and the " normal kids" enjoy. Once he decides he is not going, that is it, end of dicussion. My response will be to him that it is no big deal. Like you though I will go and have a cry over all the things that he misses due to managing his bipolar. Last month he dropped the bomb that he was done with school. ( It wasn't really a big surprise, he had not done any
homework for months. The school has done everything in their ability to help him. )
That was a good two weeks of crying for me. I went through all the phases of grief. My husband was not as effected, he knew school was a stressor. Why go, if it makes him
feel worse? His Dr said there is nothing wrong with taking an alternative route. So
now that we are on the scenic route in life he is actually doing really well. I even admit
it was the right thing to do. He knows what he needs to do, we just have to keep
trusting him. In fact some really great opportunities lay ahead, but I always proceed
towards these with caution until they are passed and are actual feathers in the cap.
I really enjoy this blog, your experience has been very similar to mine.
Christina: Just happened on your post today. Since it was written, you've no doubt spoken with parents of basketball-loving kids representing a range talents and temperaments, so I may be repeating what you've already learned, but... On a completely practical level, I have a grown daughter who played bb through grade school and leaped enthusiastically into the sport in middle school. Prior to seventh grade, she had always loved bb's camaraderie and competition, but the court atmosphere changed drastically from sixth to seventh grade. Middle schoolers are heading for college and, suddenly, to all involved -- coaches, kids, parents, and scouts, everything in bb counts toward scholarships and stats. What had been fun for my daughter had turned highly competitive and, at times, down right cut throat. Your son may well have been responding to that shift, deciding his enjoyment of the sport wasn't worth the pains a high-competition game would require. Kids with bb talent, such as my daughter, sometimes opt out of high-stakes programs at that juncture, not because they're giving up or running away, but because they have an intuitive understanding of their own emotional economics. So, your son's compass is likely working wonderfully. Rather than lamenting the loss of basketball tournaments, encourage your son to trial debate, forensics, track and field... Connectedness, interaction, and success is the bottom line, in whatever healthy field kids discover it. My daughter went to state with shot put and on to college with a full-ride academic scholarship. My 26-year-old son has rapid cycling bipolar. "Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature's delight." (Marcus Aurelius)
Thank you for your comment. I agree my son made a good decision based on his own best interest. He knew the stress was more than he could handle. I am hopeful he will find the connectedness, interaction, and success you describe.