Recently, friends of mine lost their 20-year-old son to suicide. The loss was as devastating as it was unexpected, as the young man has a loving family and a good home. And although the parents are exemplary people and this pain is undeserved, it is likely they will face the rest of their lives wondering where things went wrong and what part they played.
What did the parents do wrong? It's the question that comes up when children die in ways of which society disapproves. Last year I wrote several articles about parents who lost children to drug overdose. The mothers and fathers I interviewed spoke of neighbors erecting fences between their houses after they heard the news; grief groups where parents whose children had died of "sympathetic" causes ostracized other parents; the conspicuous absence of condolence cards and words of sympathy.
When tragedy strikes, it is often our first response to look for someone to blame. The parents. The school system. Even the victim. But arguably, when society scapegoats the parents and family of someone who has died, we lose not only the victim, but the family as well, at least in spirit. Stigma serves no purpose. It is often misdirected and counterproductive, keeping the focus away from more important matters like prevention. Blaming the parents for a child's drug overdose takes attention away from the appalling lack of access to treatment for people who do seek help. Blaming parents for a suicide detracts from recovery efforts for people with depression, mental health issues or unresolved pain. I think we are all a little bit at fault for every tragedy, even when it doesn't hit our family -- and someday, it might.
Having recently become a parent myself, I am trying to come to terms with the fact that there are many misfortunes I can't prevent no matter how much I love and support my child. I can just do my best. That's what all parents do, even ones who lose their children to drug overdose or suicide. So we can stop asking ourselves who is to blame, stop pointing fingers and use that energy instead to create change, like investing in addiction treatment centers, opiate substitution therapy, drug overdose prevention, mental health services and support for families who are suffering from unimaginable loss.
The "why" will always haunt, though it may go unanswered. But tragedy is the one thing that never discriminates.