Last month, my beloved cat Tiki died after fifteen years by my side. I jokingly referred to her as my appendage, because she wanted to be as close to me as possible at all times. In the end, I had to make the gut-wrenching decision to end her suffering. After I left the vet’s office, I went directly to a friend’s house, and as I struggled aloud with whether or not I had made the right decision, my friend said, “You did what you thought was best. She was sick. It’s not your fault.”
It’s not your fault.
I had heard those same powerful words a few days prior, when I asked my mom what she most wished someone had told her when she first found out I had a mental illness.
“I needed someone to tell me I didn’t cause it,” she said. “The messages were so mixed. Some people said it was a disease; others said your parents caused it. I didn’t know which one was true, but I knew it couldn’t be both.”
I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder in Arkansas in the 1980s. Fortunately, mental health care has come a long way since then, and I recovered with the help of dialectical behavior therapy. However, in my work as a member of the Active Minds Speakers’ Bureau, I still find that, “It’s not your fault” are the words parents most long to hear. They truly are the most comforting words I can say.
When you find out someone you love is sick, the first thing you want to do is fix it. But one of the most heartbreaking truths of being on this planet is that when it comes to your child’s mental illness, you can’t fix what you didn’t break. You didn’t choose for your child to suffer. You didn’t ask for them to binge, purge, cut, burn, rage, hallucinate, attempt (or, god forbid, die by) suicide. These were not the things you wished for them. They simply are, and it’s not your fault.
Parents can exacerbate symptoms by invalidating their child’s suffering, so here’s what you can do right now: hold them, if they’ll let you, and tell them they don’t deserve it. Repeat it over and over: you do not deserve to hurt. And then fight the thing that has them in its grip, and invite them to join the fight, and never stop reminding them that you will fight always. Let them see you do it; let them see that you will become an activist for them. Activism doesn’t have to be big and loud and public – advocating for even one person counts.
I do not have a human child, but I’m writing this post at the end of the first week in 15 years in which my tiny, furry best friend doesn’t exist. Still, as horrible as her death was, there is no way I can comprehend the suffering of a parent of a suicidal child. Your pain is mine times a million, and the other half of my currently battered heart belongs to you. It is in your honor that I, a suicide attempt survivor, stand up in front of people, tell this story, and fight this fight. You are the ones I live to serve.
All I care about today is this: what can I do to help lessen the suffering and death of other beings? And the answer, besides saving more small, furry creatures, is to keep listening. I am on your side; I care about your story. Because really – really – it’s not your fault. And when you spread that message to your children, you’re spreading it to the world.
Stacy Pershall is a member of the Active Minds Speakers Bureau and author of “Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl.” Want to learn more about bringing Stacy to speak at your school or organization? Check out our website.