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 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.