Guilt After a Suicide by Brandy Lidbeck

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After a loved one’s suicide, survivors often feel an incredible amount of guilt for not preventing the suicide. The following excerpt is from The Gift of Second: Healing from the Impact of Suicide.

Guilt

Guilt is the belief we did not do enough to keep our loved ones here on Earth. Oftentimes, with guilt, we get stuck in ‘if/then’ thinking.

“If only I had known how he was feeling, then I could have helped him get the assistance he needed.”

“If only I had come home an hour earlier, then she might still be alive today.”

“If only I had paid more attention to the warning signs, then I could have prevented this.”

If/Then thinking is the false belief that we had the power to prevent the suicide, and, because we failed to keep the person alive, we are to blame. This belief is typically self-imposed and always inaccurate. Most survivors discuss the shock they felt after their loved one’s suicide. It’s shocking because we never saw it coming. We cannot prevent something we don’t see coming.

When my mom took her own life, my dad and brother were out of town, and my mom convinced me to go play elsewhere for the afternoon. She told me I could come home after 3:30. After I came home and discovered her lifeless body, I realized that evening that if I hadn’t left the house that day, my mom would still be alive. When my dad returned home, one of the first things he said to me was probably the wisest statement he ever could have spoken to a young girl, “This was not your fault because you left the house. If you had stayed home she could have killed herself the next day or the next week or the next month. You cannot blame yourself at all for this.” In that moment my dad spoke an incredible truth to me that, I believe, prevented any chance of guilt planting a seed in my mind. He didn’t blame me because I was not to blame. He was right. My mom was strategic in getting me out of our home, but if her attempts at achieving an empty house that day failed, it might only have prolonged her life a short while.

If I had known she was going to kill herself, I would never have left. And you wouldn’t have left either if you had known. Hear me on that one, friend; if we knew they were going to take their lives, we would have done everything possible to stop it. We cannot blame ourselves for unforeseeable events. Many survivors state they saw no signs their loved one was contemplating suicide but will often blame themselves for not doing more, saying more, or being more. Merriam-Webster defines ‘guilt’ as “feelings of culpability esp. for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy.” Survivors often carry an unrealistic and imagined sense of responsibility in the death of our loved one. In this imagined state of thinking, we believe we are to blame for not preventing another person from ending their life, an action which we knew nothing about beforehand.

I know some of you reading this are thinking, “I should have known though because my loved one had attempted suicide before,” or “They told me they were going to kill themselves, and I didn’t believe it, so I did nothing to stop it.” Still, some of you will say, “We had a fight right before he killed him- self; I am the reason he took his life.” I understand all of these sentiments, I do, but, honestly, we cannot take responsibility for another’s actions. In a survey I posted online, I received the following response from a fellow survivor who lost her child, “Do not shoulda, woulda, coulda. Remember that your child made a choice from free will. Remember that they died of mental illness.”

I think we sometimes hold on to the guilt as our last sort of connection to our loved one. We often have a false belief that if we stop feeling guilty for not preventing the suicide, then we, by default, consent to it. It is simply not true. In one of the most beautiful pieces I have read on the subject of loss to suicide, LaRita Archibald writes in Reinforcement in the Aftermath of Suicide:

“To assume responsibility for this death, or to place responsibility upon another, robs the one who died of their personhood and invalidates the enormity of their pain and their desperate need for relief.”

We cannot accept responsibility or assume guilt for our loved one’s decision to end their life.

30 Responses

  1. Mara Manzer
    | Reply

    This was the most amazing thing I have read about the topic of the guilt felt by survivors. I instantly wished I had read this back in 2005 when my stepdaughter took her own life. But I don’t know if it would have helped me back then. I had my own journey to travel and I think that this came to me exactly when I was supposed to read it. It immediately made so much sense to me and, this might sound weird, but warmed my heart.

    • brandylidbeck
      | Reply

      I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your stepdaughter. I am so glad you found the excerpt helpful. Check out the book as well. I wrote it for those of us who know this journey all too well.

  2. Rebecca Huff
    | Reply

    Thank you for sharing. Beautifully written and to the point. I could so relate. I go back and forth with this guilt. It will be two years June 1st since my son took his life. Reading this gave me validation . I know this journey will never be over but at least I have the tools to continue. Thank you again!

    • brandylidbeck
      | Reply

      Of course! I think “validation” is the right word. When we hear others have the same thoughts and feelings, it gives us hope that we are not alone and isolated as we so often feel. Check out the book if you haven’t, Rebecca. I definitely wrote it to speak to others who have all those same feelings I wrestled with for years and years!

  3. Jan Bassier
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    Good thoughts about the guilt we can feel. I also have found this quote to be helpful through the years.
    “Before assuming that guilt is the emotion being experienced, a grieving person should consider that the emotion might be regret. It is important to recognize the difference. For example, intentionally harming someone usually causes a feeling of guilt. On the other hand, regret carries no harmful intentions. It is the realization that something might have been done differently if there had been a second chance. So, instead of guilt, the feelings actually might be regret.”
    From Psychosocial Aspects of Death and Dying, by John D. Canine

    • Barb Powell
      | Reply

      Jan, I love that quote!! I have many “regrets”. I need to let go of the guilt. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Catherine Atkinson
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      Thank you for clarifying guilt and regret. So true.

  4. Kathleen Higgins
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    Thank you all so much. This site is invaluble. Others just dont get it.

  5. Diane Riddle
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    It was three years on April 1. Our son lived far away in New Orleans. Regret is what I feel and it still goes on almost every day. The shock of him taking his life does ease after time. We all loved him so much that we will never be able to end the regret. Life goes on and we enjoy what family we have left.

  6. Diane Serra
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    I keep the “gift of second” next to my bed. Losing my son to suicide was the hardest thing that I ever faced and continue to face. I try to tell myself that my mission now is not only to help our family but to help the next person who travels this terrible journey due to a loved ones suicide.

    • brandylidbeck
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      I am so sorry for the loss of your son. Yes, it is so necessary to help each other! Thank you!

  7. Tara Teague
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    I’ve been struggling a lot lately (the anniversary of my nephew’s death in February, his birthday earlier this month) and this is very enlightening. Thank you so much!

  8. LLH
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    I was on the phone with my husband in an argument and didn’t answer one of his ultimatum questions quickly enough and he pulled the trigger. There has been unbearable guilt at times. However, I am learning to let go and accept he was on his own path. It’s a long and painful process and sadly there are so many of us on the same journey, but supporting one another is very healing.

  9. Wendy Faust
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    This was meant for me to read I think I will let go of guilt and think regret instead this is a very isolating to go through the grief of loosing a child I feel that nobody gets it and it’s very hard to explain to any one that has not been through this ! Holding on to good memories will out weigh the sad ones at some point I hope !

    • Catherine Atkinson
      | Reply

      Wendy, I agree about the isolation. I’ve never been so lonely as in the aftermath of my son’s death 14 years ago then my father’s suicide 10 months later. I hold their deaths inside rather than introducing myself as “Hello. My name is Cathy Atkinson, my son committed suicide.”
      Yes, it is very isolating and lonely. Even after 14 years.

      • Jan Bassier
        | Reply

        Cathy, please try to find a support group for people who have lost a loved one to suicide. Finding out that you are not alone in this painful journey can make so much difference. Look on afsp.org for resources and a group near you. It’s hard enough dealing with the death by suicide – doing it without support is much harder. I hope you find some encouragement and some relief. Take care ~

  10. Leanne
    | Reply

    Your so right the if’s the why’s .My brother took his life in 2015.2 years on and I still blame myself and feel guilty that I couldnt save him.
    But as a family we are slowly moving on and birthdays and his Anniversary are still the hardest.

  11. Rebekah
    | Reply

    Thank you for sharing your story. My son took his life January 7, 2015. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t go through the shoulda, woulda, coulda. It’s still very hard for me to look at pictures of him and not think I could have done something. I want to think of all the good times we had but my heart is still broken. I hope in time it will get better.

  12. Jean MacDonald
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    Thank you for this article. I attempted suicide many years ago. As a survivor guilt flows both ways however in saying this when I was at my lowest and I felt I had no other alternative but to in my mind find peace I never thought of others I couldn’t. Neither could my loved ones at that time.

  13. Jaci Chitwood
    | Reply

    Thank you. Reading this helped me feel better. My brother ended his life in November and we were all so shocked and hurt. We had a family get together the day before and no one knew that he had planned this. We’re still shocked and hurt and I’m sure I’m not the only family member that feels guilty. Like, why didn’t I see the pain in his eyes that day? Why didn’t I tell him how much everyone loves him. Needless to say, our family will never be the same. But reading this helped me extinguish some feelings of guilt, not all.

  14. ASM826
    | Reply

    “To assume responsibility for this death, or to place responsibility upon another, robs the one who died of their personhood and invalidates the enormity of their pain and their desperate need for relief.”

    Now that is a quote!

    • Kathy
      | Reply

      That’s exactly my problem, my guilt of not trying to help in removing the enormity of their pain and their desperate need for relief. To now realize my brother was in that bad shape and I did not do everything in my power to reach out to him is more than I can bare. I know I did not do enough. I can’t forgive myself. I hope to learn to regret his death and not blame myself.

      • Kelley
        | Reply

        Kathy, I lost my sister in November. I feel the same as you. It’s unbearable loving someone so much and feeling you let them down so badly. I often ask myself “what was wrong with me? It was right in front of me.”

        • Kathy
          | Reply

          Exactly. It was right in front of me. You nailed it. Thank you.

  15. Anastasia Hinojosa
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    My brain knows this and I still can’t let the guilt go. We lost my son, Frankie, on 10/15/2013. 16 forever and he didn’t need to be. You’re right. Had we known, we would’ve have moved heaven an earth to help them. I also have guilt for my daughter, 12 at the time, being the one to find him. I was supposed to stay home that day. Ugh! Suicide leaves behind a train wreck. I hate it. Thank you for writing this. I hope to get here one day….where I can let it all go.

  16. Joy
    | Reply

    I recently lost my best friend and love of my life. It is so hard. Wished I could of, would of been able to save him. What gets me by day by day is God. And I know he loved me. He told me before that I did not understand what was going on his head. And I hope you never do. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. My brother said say it again and again until you feel it.

  17. Alisha Dzikonski
    | Reply

    By far one of the best articles I have read since losing my daughter on March 9th of last year. She was 14. The constant guilt I feel, her friends, other family members too. I shared on my Facebook and have had many comments. Thank you❤️

  18. Lisa
    | Reply

    Thank you so much for posting this. Suicide leaves a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of guilt. Thank you God Bless

  19. Claire
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    Thank you for helping me to feel a little less alone.

    The guilt is very raw for me – less than 4 months. I am slowly starting to recognize it as regret, as well as a measure of my love for my sister. The knowledge that I would have done anything for her and didn’t realize it was my last chance to help her so did less than I could have is very tough.

  20. Molly Hunt
    | Reply

    Thank you so much for your perspective-
    It helped me realize that each person who loved my brother probably blamed themselves. I still think I noticed less and did less to comfort him, but I see that I’m part of a bigger community. Thank you and God Bless!

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