On June 12th, my sister-in-law woke me up with a phone call that shattered my world as I knew it. Splintered in two with the fragments having such an emotional impact. Everything I thought I knew about my life and family changed. My brother had tried to commit suicide. Six weeks later, he tried again and was successful. My little brother. Husband. Father. Soccer Dad. Cheer Dad. Businessman. His life and the life I knew was and is over. As I dealt with the pain of my grieving, shocked, and shattered heart, the guilt was overwhelming and immediate. I searched my texts, emails, and relived conversations I had had with him, trying to find answers to my many questions.
As I thought back to our lunch four days before he died, I saw the deadness in his eyes – all hope was gone. The next day when he came over to kill my carpenter bees in my pergola, I recognized the frantic energy and pace that he was moving, but I didn’t know what to do. As I go over each minute of our conversations, could I have changed the outcome? Should I have recommended him to talk to my friend who had similar troubles – could that have triggered his suicide? When I asked him to come over last fall for a BBQ and he never responded, why did I blame it on his wife not wanting to be around us? Why didn’t I see him pushing away from us the last two years? When I learned he wasn’t sleeping and working 18 hours a day, why didn’t I recognize the signs of mental illness? The guilt was consuming as I pondered these questions with no answers.
As I work with a counselor trying to handle the guilt and to seek answers, I am learning that what I’m experiencing is survivor’s guilt. I’ve learned that “People who die by suicide don’t want to end their lives, they want to end their pain.” And the challenge is that my brother only showed us what he wanted us to see – he hid his pain very successfully from not only his wife, but also his children and me. So as I contemplate guilt and the many “what ifs” – I’m challenging myself to turn this pain into a positive call in my life to make it mean something. I want to turn it into what I’ll call “productive guilt”. Guilt by being consumed by things or emotions that really do not matter in the big scheme of life. Guilt when I miss the new budding of the fragrant jasmine vine in my backyard because I’m too wrapped up in my grieving thoughts to see that yes –spring will come again. Guilt when I’m impatient with the bagger at Kroger (he’s someone’s brother) who is enthralled with telling me about the newest Star Wars movie instead of enthusiastically bagging my lettuce and tomatoes. Guilt when I’m too busy being busy to throw the tennis ball to my bouncy energetic yellow lab and miss seeing the joy in her sweet brown eyes. Guilt over obsessing with the number on my scale that I miss seeing that spectacular sunrise that is painted in the sky. These are moments in my life that I can control as my broken heart begins to heal on this emotional journey of life.
While my heart has been shattered and I slowly pick up the pieces as I continue the grieving process, I’m learning so many lessons that I really did not want to learn. Yes, the guilt over the “what-if’s” is still there, but there is so much to learn about mental illness and suicide survivors. The fragments of grief are there still waiting to be picked up, but there is a sunrise and a sunset every day. The jasmine vine is starting to bloom and produces the gift of a heavenly fragrance. And the tennis ball is waiting to be thrown to my lovable, enthusiastic yellow lab that puts a smile on my face every day.