In less than 5 minutes

Losing my son to suicide

The Grief Project

I attended my first Out of the Darkness Walk hosted by the Missouri Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) on Sept. 26, 2021, two weeks after losing my son, Ian, to suicide. Still in shock and consumed by grief, I was not ready for it. Not ready for the seeming celebratory mood of the walking groups; not ready for the bagpipes playing Amazing Grace. Not ready for the release of the doves or the quilts with the faces of the lost. I wasn’t ready to consider Ian’s face on a quilt or to believe he was really gone, that he wouldn’t be waiting for me when I got home to tell me it was all a mistake, it was someone else they found in his apartment, someone else I had identified at the morgue.

That feeling persisted for months. I left the porch light on night after night hoping he would come home. Then left it on hoping wherever he was it would guide him back to us. At eight months, when I finally tried turning it off, it felt like a betrayal. It felt like I was giving up on him, admitting he was gone and wasn’t coming back. It felt like losing him all over again.

I have struggled with depression for most of my adult life. After losing Ian, my grief and depression became one. I was sliding into a depression so dark it threatened to consume me. I knew where it would end. I knew I couldn’t put my family – my wife and daughters and Ian’s younger brother – through that again. I knew I couldn’t push through anymore, trying to busy myself with work that no longer mattered to me. I knew I wouldn’t survive – sleepless, barely eating, and drinking to get to sleep at night – if I didn’t get help. 

At the urging of my psychiatrist, my therapist and my wife, I checked myself into a four-week intensive outpatient program (IOP) at Mercy Hospital. I stayed for two months.

Ian suffered from depression, as I do. I’ve had suicidal thoughts and impulses, and have struggled to understand how I could have walked to that edge and made it back while Ian didn’t. My therapist has suggested it’s because I was tethered by a wife, children and obligations, whereas Ian at 22, though he loved his family and friends, didn’t have those same tethers holding him back. 

In Night Falls FastUnderstanding Suicide, Kay Redfield Jamison, co-director of the Mood Disorders Center and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at The John’s Hopkins School of Medicine, says the decision to end one’s life is usually sudden, frighteningly and frustratingly so.

“Although many suicidal patients have well-formulated plans for suicide, the ultimate timing and final decision to act are often determined by impulse,” Jamison says. “More than half of suicide attempts occur within the context of a premeditation period of less than five minutes.

“Were suicidal patients able or willing to articulate the severity of their suicidal thoughts and plans, little risk would exist,” Jamison notes. “But this is not the case. Patients determined to die may present a clinical picture greatly at variance with how they actually feel or what they intend to do…. Only too often the patients know how to conceal their suicidal intentions behind an apparently cheerful behaviorand then carefully prepare for the execution of their intention at a suitable moment.”

If you are in crisis, please call or text 988 to be connected with a mental health professional

Ian’s suicide dovetailed with our emergence from the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, with its impact on school, work and our ability to socialize with family and friends. 

It happened nearly a year after he witnessed a tragic and horrifying death when a car crashed through the front window of the Starbucks where he was working and killed a woman, a regular customer he was serving at the counter. Ian had been trying to reach her under the car as her husband ran into the store calling her name, but was forced to get out of the store for fear the gas leaking out of the car would explode. 

It coincided with his changing schools and majors, then changing majors again and becoming convinced he would never finish school or find a career. 

When someone dies by suicide, our natural inclination is to look for a singular reason, as though it were a question of simple math, A + B = C. I think suicide is more of an algebraic equation, X – Y = C, and nobody knows what is.

Ian had been struggling with depression since high school. Whatever factors led up to his decision all have to be considered in that light. He was seeing a therapist to cope with post-traumatic stress over what had happened to him and what he had seen at Starbucks. He was seeing a psychiatrist who prescribed Wellbutrin, an anti-depressant that frequently works but also carries an FDA black box warning because of its potential to increase suicidal thoughts and actions in some patients.

On Labor Day, four days before he left us, my wife and I and our youngest son went to the Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Garden, down the street from where Ian was living. It was, I recall, a beautiful day, and we urged Ian to come join us for lunch when he got off work. He declined, saying he was too tired, but we could come for a short visit when he got home.

When we pulled up at his apartment, he was taking his trash out to the dumpster. He looked tired. He looked more than tired. In the fog, guilt and rewriting of memories common to loss survivors, I think I remember saying “He looks more than tired” but I likely just commented that he looked tired. I should have grabbed him right then. Two times in the past year, I had driven to his apartment to bring him home when he called and said he was having thoughts of hurting himself and didn’t think he should be alone. That’s when I urged him to see my psychiatrist, encouraged him to talk with his therapist and begged him to stay with us until he felt better. He stayed with us twice, for a few days each time, but was always eager to return to his regular routines.

Despite everything that had happened, I allowed myself to believe what was easier to accept that day as he made us coffee in a French press and joked with his little brother, goading him into eating one of his homemade pickled onion slices. I allowed myself to think he was just tired. That he just needed some sleep. That he was okay.

When he told us he really wanted to take a nap and we got up to leave, I hugged him tight, told him I loved him, and told him to call me if he needed me.

Four days later he was gone.


Published by Tim Rowden

The Grief Project is dedicated to sharing the stories of suicide loss survivors as well as information and research on suicide, mental health, advocacy and prevention. I’m a suicide loss survivor, husband, father, writer and journalist, with 33 years experience as a reporter and editor. I believe sharing our stories can help help others who are struggling, whether they are loss survivors or struggling with depression or other mental health issues. We honor them and honor our loved ones by sharing our stories.

3 thoughts on “In less than 5 minutes

  1. Tim, this is meaningful work. When it comes to grief, too often we are told to get over it or work thru it. Writing for some serves as a form for walking beside one’s grief. When a parent loses a child, we need to help her/him by offering the assistance “s/he” needs…not what we want or think is appropriate. Our culture tends to place timelines on the healing of wounds. This cut is so deep that it is difficult to comprehend its severity…unless and until you have walked a mile in her/his shoes. And, for that, I hope you never have to!


  2. Good Morning Mr Rowden,

    I’ll not try to find adequate words to reply to your post; it’s one thing to know that a loved one is near the edge, another to know they’ve taken that running jump and will not climb back.

    I thought this post might speak to you, of how something could be done, is being done. It’s from Will Turnstone’s other site, Agnellusmirror, which publishes something every day. This post concerns a beautiful spot that is nonetheless the site of a tragedy.

    I hope to refer Agnellus’s readers to your site later in the year, if that’s ok?


    Maurice Billingsley.


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