A Parent’s Grief, Disbelief, Readjustment, and Discovery (teen suicide/only child)

by Carolyn Zahnow

Cameron Stephenson

My only child died by suicide in 2005. That sentence alone is enough to make me, as well as you the reader, stop in their tracks. Yet I have learned how to cope with my grief as well as the facts of how my son died but it was no cakewalk, I can tell you that!

Cameron died as a result of many factors which is true for most people who kill themselves. I feel the first factor was when his birth dad died. Cameron was 14, almost 15, years old. He was there when his dad took his last breath.

His father and I divorced when Cameron was two but I felt the pain of his death as well since I then lost the ability to call and ask what to do about Cameron when he was acting like a teenager. I had my husband to help during trying times, but as Cameron was close to his dad, I could call and ask him to talk sense into his son.

Cameron’s grief, I felt, spiraled into depression which manifested into major depression. I took him to mental health professionals for help, but he usually outmaneuvered them as teens will do.

I now feel that perhaps I should have sought grief counseling for him which might have alleviated the need for therapists, psychologists, and a psychiatrist. Unfortunately, no one suggested this.

A year after his dad died, it was evident that Cameron was using drugs to self-medicate. The drugs turned into an addiction. His drug of choice, meth, lead him to become paranoid and thinking that his own death was the answer to all his problems.

I found my son early in the morning on Thursday August 11, 2005 – he had hung himself from a rafter in our attic. It’s been fifteen years now on this road of grief, disbelief, readjustment, and discovery for me.

The reality of what had happened sent me running to a support group for others who had lost someone they cherished to suicide. After attending a couple of sessions, I learned I needed to deal with the death of my son first and tackle the issue of suicide afterward.

My husband and I attended a six-week Hospice grief group. This group helped me tremendously and made me accept some hard, cold facts. Such as my future had forever changed. I would never be neither a grandmother nor mother of the groom nor see my son graduate from college. I cried freely at one of the meetings when I realized these facts. It still saddens me especially in the spring when graduations and weddings are in abundance.

The disbelief of finding my son was overbearing. I had a difficult time understanding why my son, who was at the highpoint of his life, would want to end it suddenly. I remember my teenage years with fondness as I had a great time with friends and had many wonderful experiences. I knew he suffered from depression and was using drugs, both of which I tried to help him overcome. But I failed and the drug of his choice won over. Meth had its mighty claws in my son and its effects overrode his logic system. He no longer cared about his family, friends, anything. He just wanted to do more meth. I hate this drug!

I found I had to readjust after his death. If I no longer had my son to provide the future I had hoped for, like most parents, with proudness in my heart and grandchildren to spoil, I had to learn to be a new me. I had to force myself to find something to live for because, quite frankly, after Cameron died I had the desire to do the same (die).

Daffodils make me smile in the spring so that was one thing. I also love one of my sisters very much so I found her to be another reason to stay around. She is childless as well so I knew she would help with this journey of loss. My husband still needed me, so I stay for him. And our sweet little rescue dog, Sheila, that we adopted the year before Cameron died, has become our little ray of sunshine. We adore her.

During my rediscovery process, I discovered my love for writing return and an urge to help others in some way. I journaled every morning to release the demons that occupied my mind asking me “why?” “what if?” over and over. I encourage others to try journaling as a release for pent-up emotions as well.

I was also compelled to research all the topics that concerned the loss of my son: suicide, depression, mental illness, drug addiction, and methamphetamine. I poured over various books on mental illness and disorders and websites learning more and more until finally, I determined I had enough information for a book.

So no matter where you are along your journey of grief, know that hope follows and is within your reach. Think of hope as low-hanging fruit tempting you to grab it. It’s okay, take a bite out of life and enjoy it to the best of your ability.

About the author: Carolyn Zahnow lost her only son, Cameron, to suicide in 2005 while living in North Texas with her husband, Dan. Following this dreadful loss, Carolyn started a nonprofit organization in North Carolina to help other parents who experienced the death of a child as well as other grief support groups. She led this organization for 11 years and finally felt she was ready to move onto her own happiness.

Carolyn now is the owner and creator of Shore Soap. Being able to create items of beauty that smell wonderful and are awe-inspiring, brings her great happiness. She also creates soaps for children which many soap makers forget. Carolyn travels throughout the southeast selling her soaps at craft fairs. She also sells online.

Carolyn has written two books following Cameron’s death, Save the Teens and Beautiful Disasters. She spoke extensively following the release of both books. Carolyn was able to help other parents with her findings and experience surrounding teens, drug addiction, and depression.

Carolyn lives in Youngsville, NC with her husband Dan (undergoing treatment for Acute Myeloid Leukemia) and their senior dog, Sheila (18 years old).  She is happy to be back home with family and childhood friends.

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