PTSD After Losing a Child to Suicide – How Treatment Heals

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 34. Too many parents have experienced the loss of a child in this unexpected and tragic way. In addition to the expected grief, if you lose a child to suicide, you may also be at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder. If you struggle with difficult symptoms that are beyond normal grief, get a mental health diagnosis. Effective treatments for this condition are available and can help you heal and learn to enjoy life again.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a serious mental illness caused by traumatic experiences. The death of a child, especially a violent or unexpected suicide, can be considered traumatic for the parent.

If you lost your child this way and are struggling months after to resume normal functioning, and if you have other symptoms like intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and a depressed mood and outlook, you could be diagnosed with PTSD.

The good news is that treatment can help you heal, and although you will never be over this loss, there is hope for a better future.

Do I Have PTSD?


In the middle of grief and after such a huge tragedy, it can be difficult to impossible to know if your feelings and behaviors are healthy and typical or if you have developed the symptoms of a mental illness. It’s important to listen to those closest to you at this time. If they are concerned and want you to be evaluated, give it serious consideration.

And if you’re wondering about PTSD, it helps to know more about this condition. It follows trauma, although not necessarily immediately after, and causes four main types of symptoms:

  1. Intrusive thoughts. You may relive finding your child after suicide, over and over, even if you want to stop thinking about it. Nightmares about the trauma are also typical. You may even have flashbacks to your child’s death that feel real.
  2. Avoidance. With PTSD, you will try to avoid anything that reminds you of the trauma and strongly resist talking about it.
  3. Negative emotions and thoughts. It’s typical to have intense negative feelings of shame, guilt, or fear. You may feel depressed and as if the world is a terrible place. You’ll lose interest in normal activities and feel detached from other people.
  4. Reactive behaviors. PTSD can cause you to be on edge all the time, as if you are expecting something bad to happen. You may get angry or startled easily and struggle to concentrate on tasks or to sleep at night.

PTSD symptoms tend to be debilitating, meaning they are severe enough that you struggle to function normally. Complications and ripple effects of the symptoms may include difficulties at work, strained relationships and isolation, depression or anxiety, substance use, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts.

Developing PTSD After Death of Child


Grief is a normal and expected reaction to the loss of a loved one. It can be a little bit different for everyone, but with time the negative feelings begin to lessen. While the loss is never forgotten, and there may even be emotional pain for years, eventually you should be able to function normally again and find joy and laughter in your life.

Some people struggle more than others to move on after a loss and may be at risk for a mental illness, like PTSD. The risk is greater when there is a close personal relationship and when the individual dies suddenly, violently, or unexpectedly. The suicide of an adult child is an example of a situation in which the parent may be at an increased risk for PTSD. If you witnessed the death or found your child after the suicide, the risk may be even greater.

If you have developed PTSD after the trauma of losing a child to suicide, you are not alone. One study found that 35 percent of parents who lost a young child unexpectedly met the criteria for PTSD. While losing an adult child may be less shocking, it still has the potential to trigger symptoms.

Another study found that five years after a child’s suicide, 28 percent of mothers still had symptoms of PTSD, while 12.5 percent of fathers did. This highlights the importance of getting treatment to manage and recover from PTSD. You shouldn’t have to live with this devastating condition for five years or longer.

Seeking a PTSD Diagnosis


Treatment can help you recover from PTSD, but only if you get a diagnosis. A mental health professional can evaluate your symptoms and your medical history to determine if you have PTSD and any other mental illnesses or a substance use disorder. There are several conditions with symptoms that overlap, so a differential diagnosis by an experienced professional is essential.

The diagnosis is also crucial in determining if you have co-occurring disorders. If you do have PTSD you are at a greater risk of also having a mood disorder, like depression, or of developing a substance use disorder. The most effective way to treat co-occurring conditions is together, with an integrated approach.

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Treatment for PTSD after Death of Child


If you do get a diagnosis of PTSD, you are now in a position to do something about it. What you may have thought was normal grief in such a tragic situation is actually a treatable mental condition. Consider engaging in residential treatment. A residential facility can provide you with an individualized treatment plan and a team of experts to provide the different types of care you need.

Treatment for PTSD is specialized, so make sure you choose a facility that has experience with this condition. Some of the therapies used to help you face and process the trauma to eliminate symptoms include:

  • Exposure therapy. A therapist guides you through safely facing the traumatic loss of your child so you can learn healthy coping strategies.
  • Cognitive processing therapy. This trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) involves action-oriented treatment to help you change negative thoughts and manage damaging emotions like shame and guilt.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). This type of therapy helps you go through difficult memories along with specific eye and other movements to desensitize them.

Support for Parents With PTSD


Another way treatment can help you heal from PTSD is through social support from other survivors. A residential facility may provide you with support groups or group therapy, but you can also seek this kind of help on your own.

Research indicates that survivors of suicide get benefits from joining support groups that are specific to suicide, as opposed to general grief groups. Look for groups with parents of children lost to suicide to get important social support. It can be a safe way to continue to remember your child and to share your feelings and experiences.

You can overcome PTSD. You will never get over the loss of a child to suicide, but you can manage symptoms, relinquish your worst negative feelings, and find joy in life again. Treatments for PTSD are effective and social support helps heal as well, but only if you reach out for help and get a diagnosis.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.