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Parents of suicide find 'immediate bond' in each other

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN

Editor's note: Pastor Rick Warren’s youngest son Matthew Warren, 27, took his own life April 5, 2013, his family said. CNN Health is republishing this piece about how parents of suicide cope and bond with each other. It was written in the wake of the suicide of Marie Osmond’s son in 2010.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NIMH: There are about 33,000 suicides per year in the United States
  • Marie Osmond's son, Michael, 18, apparently took his life last week in Los Angeles, California
  • Survivors say support groups, online networks, keeping busy help
  • Guilt often plays role in lives of parents of suicides, expert says
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(CNN) -- Margaret Pelleriti's son Michael was a straight-A student in 11th grade. His mother didn't know anything was wrong the day he took a gun to the train tracks and shot himself in the head.

More than 16 years have passed since then, but she would not say she has "moved on." She has found comfort in counseling and participating in outreach activities, but still mentally beats herself up sometimes.

"You do take those steps forward, but something will always stop you, and you'll go back to remembering," said Pelleriti, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

"When I had heard about Marie Osmond's son, I was like, 'Whether it's from the top of the pinnacle or to the average Joe, the circle goes around,' " she said. Pelleriti shared her story with CNN's iReport

Some suicide survivors said they feel sorry that Marie Osmond, whose 18-year-old son, Michael, apparently took his life last week in Los Angeles, California, does not have the luxury of privacy that they did while grieving.

"I would hate to have to go through all of that with everybody looking at me," said Diane Kasselhut of Louisville, Kentucky, whose son Chris died at age 23. Read her iReport

There are about 33,000 suicides per year in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Parents whose children have taken their own lives say regardless of how much time goes by, they still feel guilty for continuing to live, or for being happy when their loved one is gone. The feeling of "What could I have done?" perpetuates this guilt, Kasselhut said.

Health.com: How to spot the warning signs of suicide

Survivors, while they naturally grieve, should remember their child would have wanted them to have a meaningful life with minimal suffering, said Dr. Alan Manevitz, psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian/ Weil Cornell Medical Center.

"It's important that they understand that the memory of the child lives on in the purpose of their life," he said.

Surviving parents say they feel a special connection to others who have lost children to suicide. "It is such an immediate bond when you meet another person whose child took their life," said Patricia Pedigo-Dunn, whose son Allen passed away in October 2009. Pedigo-Dunn participates in the online groups Parents of Suicide and Survivors of Suicide. Suicide "adds another dimension to the grief," she said.

Read Pedigo-Dunn's iReport

Kasselhut has found comfort in sharing her thoughts and feelings about her son Chris, who died September 9, with support groups in person and online.

"Writing about Chris and talking to others about Chris, it helps keep him alive, even though I couldn't do that," she said.

Online groups such as Parents of Suicide have also helped Kasselhut see she is not alone in what she thought was "crazy" thinking, as survivors in the group have often had similar chains of thought.

"Things like calling our child's cell phone, and hoping [they will] pick up, or sending Facebook messages and expecting an answer, even though we know, of course, we're not going to get one," she said. "Someone else will say, 'Yes, I've felt exactly the same thing.' "

A parent's reaction to suicide is distinct from homicide in which parents can direct anger at the perpetrator, or accidents and illness in which parents can focus on the randomness and unfairness of the world, Manevitz said. In suicide guilt plays a greater role. Parents question their role in their child's death and try to find meaning in that, he said.

There is also still stigma involved in suicide. Joanne Mazzotta -- who has written an unpublished book about her son Danny called "Why Whisper?" -- knows of parents who lie and say that it was a heart attack.

"It's a very, very big quandary of shame and silence and people are dying because of it," she said. "I almost killed my own self."

Read Mazzotta's iReport

Linda Lafferty, who lost her son Mark in 2008, said going back to work -- she works in a California state prison -- was her salvation.

"All you can do is keep busy, because if you let your mind think too hardly, or too sadly, it will drive you crazy," she said.

Lafferty said she hasn't tried counseling yet, but has found great comfort in the online The Suicide Grief Support Forum. Pelleriti, on the other hand, believes counseling saved her life, and made her a more positive person.

Read Lafferty's iReport

Mazzotta said it's important to have the first year to process and reconcile what happened. After Danny died in 2001, she started a restaurant in his honor, but later sold it because it was premature -- "I wasn't completely healed yet," she said.

Moving forward after a child takes his or her own life is sometimes less difficult for parents who have other children, Manevitz said. Devoting themselves to the surviving children may help parents cope with the trauma, he said.

Pelleriti said she and daughter Marlo bonded over the loss of Michael, and that Marlo helped her move forward.

"I always feel that I had to go on for her. It didn't matter for me, but I had to get out of bed for her," Pelleriti said.

It took her about 10 years to accept that her son is gone, and she still has moments of guilt. Still, her life has not stopped -- she attained a master's degree and is working on a Ph.D. in teen suicide. She also participates in suicide awareness and outreach activities.

"If anyone is thinking, 'Oh, I want to kill myself, I don't want to live,' I wanted to try to use myself as a block," she said. "Look at me, this is what is left, to let someone realize that you're leaving behind a real person that will grieve for the rest of their life," she said.

Visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for more information on coping with the death of a loved one.

 
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