Editor’s Note: If you or someone you love has lost a child to suicide, you may find some useful insights in “After My Son’s Suicide” by former Meridian author Darla Isackson, available from Audible.
Several years ago, my teenage daughter took her life on Thanksgiving. I was devastated, heartbroken and traumatized.
Just months before, I found out about my husband’s betrayals and thirty-year pornography use. I was alone in my suffering without support from the one person I wanted support from. He was still in denial about his issues and angry with me for finding out.
As difficult as my daughter’s death was, I was angrier and more distraught with my husband for his neglect of me and his other children and for his selfishness. Our daughter’s death didn’t seem to affect him.
I still grieved for my daughter over the course of months and years but why was so much more of my thoughts and trauma focused on my husband? Should my daughter’s death have been more prevalent in my thoughts?
I’m heartbroken to hear of the trauma, loss, and betrayal you’ve experienced in your family. Learning about your husband’s decades-long secret sexual life is disorienting enough without the additional and unthinkable shock of losing your daughter to suicide. Your dilemma about where to direct your grief is understandable as you try to sort through the rolling sea of emotions.
You’re wondering why your attention was more focused on your husband rather than your daughter. It’s easy to automatically assume that with something as traumatic and sudden as a child’s suicide, any concerns you had about your marriage would be sidelined while you deal with the loss of your daughter. However, that’s not how our primary attachments work.
Our primary attachments are the relationships we count on when things go wrong. They’re supposed to be firm and steady during the ever-changing landscape of life. If our secure base moves out from under us, we enter a terrifying free-fall state that leaves us feeling defenseless. Even though you are bonded to your daughter and your other children, they are not your primary attachment.
Your husband is your primary attachment. In other words, you don’t need your children to be there for you the same way you need your husband to be there for you. Losing your daughter is a significant loss, but when you have a secure base, you can find more easily regain your emotional balance. On the other hand, losing your secure base makes it difficult to gain that balance so you can properly grieve the loss of your daughter.
Before your daughter passed away, you had your secure base ripped out from under you when your husband’s secret life was revealed. From what you’ve written, it doesn’t sound like he was actively working to restore trust and security for you in the aftermath of the discovery. Consequently, you were likely trying to find stability in your marriage and personal life when your daughter took her life. You had active and unresolved trauma with what you believed was the secure base of your marriage when your daughter passed away. Again, when you’re already in a traumatic free-fall and then lose your daughter, your natural reflex is going to turn toward seeking a solid foundation with your husband.
Your anger toward him wasn’t a distraction from the death of your daughter. It was an instinctive protest of the abandonment you experienced when he revealed a life of secrecy and deception. Our priority when lost in the wilderness is to stop and build a shelter. Our priority when experiencing a relational crisis is to stop and look for the shelter of our primary attachment. When we’re little and we experience a crisis, we run to our parents. When we’re married, we run to our spouse. If our parent or our spouse are not a safe attachment for us, we protest through withdrawing, yelling, criticizing, and so on. We need shelter and protection when we’re exposed to the brutalities of life.
You’ve likely noticed the imagery used by our Savior in His invitations to rely on him as our primary attachment. For example, he’s described as a “firm foundation”[i], as a “hen who gathereth her chickens under her wings”[ii], and he invites us to “hide [in his] pavilion”[iii]. Even though we do bond to other humans as primary attachments, God is truly the only permanent safe attachment. Our hymns and scriptures are packed with reminders that we can count on our Heavenly Father and Savior to hold us when we are betrayed by others and by our fallen world.
There’s no wrong way to grieve the death of your daughter. You’re also grieving the losses in your marriage. It’s a lot to grieve all at the same time, especially when you experienced a serious betrayal from your husband that left you exposed and vulnerable in the moment when you needed him the most. I hope you can be gentle on yourself as you continue to grieve all of these losses while turning to the Savior for the ultimate foundation and shelter.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
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About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
The advice offered through Geoff Steurer’s column is educational and informational in nature and is provided only as general information. It is not meant to establish a therapist-patient relationship or offer therapeutic advice, opinion, diagnosis treatment or to establish a standard of care. Although Geoff Steurer is a trained psychotherapist, he is not functioning in the role of a licensed therapist by writing this column, but rather using his training to inform these responses. Thus, the content is not intended to replace independent professional judgment. The content is not intended to solicit clients and should not be relied upon as medical or psychological advice of any kind or nature whatsoever. The information provided through this content should not be used for diagnosing or treating a mental health problem or disease. The information contained in these communications is not comprehensive and does not include all the potential information regarding the subject matter, but is merely intended to serve as one resource for general and educational purposes.
[i] 1 Corinthians 3:11
[ii] 3 Nephi 10:6
[iii] Psalms 27:5