By Jessica Hutchison, of www.OurSideofSuicide.com
One question that I have been asked by many survivors is, “When will the guilt end?” I see the desperation in their eyes, and remember the overwhelming weight that I carried on my own shoulders following the loss of my father. We question what we could have done differently to prevent the tragic outcome that has become our reality. I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the element of guilt. I have written many posts on the topic, because I believe the magnitude of our guilt often prevents us from grieving the loss of the loved one we lost to suicide. While I cannot speak for others, I can share my own thoughts in hopes that it resonates with someone else that may be struggling to release their own guilt.
I have learned a lot about guilt in the years following the loss of my father. I think the biggest lesson and the one that brought me my own peace is acknowledging that guilt cannot be taken away from us. It must be RELEASED by us. It is up to us to let go, and forgive not only our loved one, but ourselves. Why do we hold on to our guilt? I held on tightly to my own guilt, not allowing anyone’s words of encouragement to break through. “There is nothing you could have done,” I was told. “It was his choice, not yours.” I heard it, but I didn’t believe it. This is difficult for those who have not experienced a loss by suicide to understand. To others it seems so clear; it was their actions, not yours. Others do not understand why we can’t just “let it go.” Here is why. Because, letting go of our guilt often feels like we are letting go of the person we lost. How can you let go of someone whose life ended so tragically? It just doesn’t seem right. How can you move forward knowing that your loved one was in so much pain, that death appeared to be the only option. This belief is what impacted my own ability to release the guilt.
I truly believe that we have to release our own guilt. Nobody could convince me that nothing I could have done would have prevented his death. I had to convince myself. That is how I released my own guilt. I had to acknowledge that letting go of the guilt did not mean that I was letting go of my dad. While I have let go of the guilt, I still continue to hold on tightly to my dad. I always will. I have forgiven myself for not preventing his death, by acknowledging that more “I love yous,” more phone calls, more visits; etc. would not have prevented his death. Why? Because just like nobody else could take away my guilt, I could not have taken away his pain.
I like to think that I have redirected my guilt. I am open and honest when someone asks how my dad died. When people ask what I do, I tell them about my blog and the counseling services I provide. It is not always easy and is sometimes met with that infamous “deer in headlights” look. I was once asked if I ever fear that people will be “turned off” when I reveal so much about myself. My response is simple. If you are turned away by my story, than you are turned away by me. It is part of who I am, and the person I am today. Unfortunately suicide carries a stigma. What others do not understand is that we, the survivors, are the ones that feel the weight of that stigma. The stigma often prevents us from releasing our guilt. I talk to help end the stigma. I know that my father did not choose to die that day. He chose the only option that he felt would take away his pain. I know this now.
As I do not want anyone else to suffer a loss like mine, I continue to talk about the signs of suicide. Did my Dad elicit anyone of these warning signs? Yes, he did. Do I feel guilty that I did not pick up on them? No. I did the best I could with the information I had at the time. The true signs of his unhappiness evolved many years prior to his death. I am more aware of the emotions and behaviors as a result of my father’s death. While it won’t bring my father back, it may save the life of another.
Warning Signs (from AFSP.org website):
People who die by suicide often exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do. The more warning signs, the greater the risk.
How they Talk:
If a person talks about:
How they Behave:
A person’s suicide risk is greater if a behavior is new or has increased, especially if it’s related to a painful event, loss, or change.
How they Act:
People who are considering suicide often display one or more of the following moods.
If someone you know exhibits these symptoms, offer help!