Layers of Grief After Suicide Loss

Author: Cheryl Fischer

Grief is complicated and layered. It takes and it gives. It changes a person forever and whittles you down to who you really are and have always been. It becomes a part of you even as you desperately wish it would go away and stay away.

SSG Ethan Farrell Fischer

I lost my Army son almost two years ago to suicide. No one, myself included, ever saw it coming. He always presented as happy-go-lucky, high-energy, and funny. He had a family who loved him. He liked his job, and he liked spending his off time at the gym and socializing with friends.

There must have been a dark side to him, but none of us saw it. In hindsight, we did, but there’s nothing like lost chances to make you regret not recognizing one when it pops up. Instead of reaching out for help, he gave up. His decision to turn away from anyone who could have offered a hand is the biggest blow of all because it means he didn’t think anyone would care.

That’s what I tell myself.

Really, I have no idea because I wasn’t there when he died. I wasn’t there when he made that awful, permanent decision out of…fear? Loneliness? Panic?

This grief I carry around with me every minute of every day will be with me for the rest of my life.  The internal conversations I have with myself and with my son are now part of my daily routine.  I was always busy before, but now my days are filled with imagined recriminations that I try to answer silently.

I miss my son, and I think of him constantly. His absence has never been louder than when I am remembering him — as a baby, a toddler, a teen, and a young man. Twenty-nine years of memories are vivid, even as his presence becomes vague. I make myself remember his laugh, his smile, and his voice while I’m met with silence when I try to talk to him.

When I think of his loneliness, I reach out more to his siblings. I’m terrified they are lonely and won’t tell me. We do a kind of dance where we assure each other we’re doing fine, but little ripples of sadness say otherwise. I can’t bear the thought that any of my other children would think I don’t care, so I constantly vacillate between smothering them with concern and phone calls and giving them space to live their own lives. It’s a balancing act that’s exhausting.

I resent that the world only had him for 29 years and barely got to see his brightness. So I offer all kinds of questions and suggestions to my other children in the hopes they will understand the importance of leaving their mark on the world. I’m a stage mother in a family production that’s missing one actor.

I think financial difficulties were part of what my son was struggling with. So I give money frequently to my other children, terrified they’ll keep from me their struggles. Whatever I didn’t give my son, I want to give his brother and sisters. I want his losses to be their gains.

Sometimes I raise my arms and reach up into an embrace with my son. I did this the last time I saw him — and every time I saw him — and I can still remember the feel of him. Now when I do it, my arms close around nothing. The solidness of him, the heft of his muscular frame, it’s all gone. So when I meet my other children I hug plenty. I gather and store the physical feel of them for future reference.


Mountains against sunset through clouds

My son seemed to me to want his space. He didn’t stay in touch with his family like I wanted him to, and various people assured me he was just busy with his life. They were wrong. Now, I tell my other children what’s going on with the whole family. I respect the privacy of others, but I let them know who’s struggling, who’s enjoying some success, and who might appreciate a phone call or text. I have become the social director for the family. I can’t risk any of them losing touch with each other.

My son’s death has created a hole in me, and I am frantically filling that hole with ways to celebrate his life. What his death took from me, I am putting back into myself and others.

I hope someday I will be whole again.

Suicide Loss and Mental Health Support

If you have lost a military or veteran loved one to suicide, you are not alone. TAPS’ specialized suicide-loss support can be accessed any time or by calling the TAPS National Military Survivor Helpline at 800-959-TAPS (8277).

If you or someone you know is experiencing behaviors or thoughts of suicide, help is available. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Veterans press 1 for the Military and Veterans Crisis Line.

Cheryl Fischer is the surviving mother of Staff Sergeant Ethan Farrell Fischer, U.S. Army.

Photos: Cheryl Fischer and