This week I spoke with two survivors of suicide, one dealing with the suicide of a colleague, the other dealing with a family member. This is a silent often overlooked population, sadly becoming more common these days. The suicide of a loved one is such an unimaginable tragedy that many don’t want to be reminded. And so survivors of suicide often find themselves on their own when it comes to trying to heal.
I believe we should all look upon those who have committed suicide with great compassion, not judgment. And yet there is the hard reality that suicide leaves a terrible legacy. I have dealt with and continue to deal with many survivors of suicide. Without exception, they are left with guilt and with unanswered questions.
The guilt centers around either “I should have recognized the signs” and/or “If I had only done/not done X they’d still be alive. The burden is especially heavy on parents. We all make mistakes as parents but parent survivors look at each of those mistakes and wonder “what if” –what if I had not said/done that, often looking back years. The burden of guilt can be unbearable.
Similarly, survivors are left with many unanswered questions, the main one being “Why?” Professional can give explanations about intransigent depression, devastating trauma, etc., but such explanations are rarely a comfort for the “why?” questions centers around a desire to understand and to deal with the exquisitely painful reality that sometimes love is not enough.
Survivors of suicide often feel anger toward the suicide victim yet also feel great guilt about feeling angry. Yet anger is a likely emotion when any of our loved ones does something that makes no sense and hurts us.
Survivors of suicide may also struggle with spiritual questions such as “Why did God allow this to happen?” Again there are no simple answers. Similarly, some may fear for a loved one in the afterlife. I have indeed been asked “Do you think my loved one is in hell?” What I believe at this point is that the afterlife is a place of healing and that those who commit suicide suffered enough in this life.
If you are a survivor of suicide, seek help. Two Internet resources that are worthwhile can be found at <survivorsofsuicide.com> and at <suicidology.com>
If you are friend or loved one to a survivor of suicide, understand that the desire to talk about the loved one doesn’t go away over time. Survivors for suicide often don’t want to burden friends and often recognize the discomfort others may feel when the survivor talks about the tragedy. Taking the time to listen and not to provide pat answers matters. Knowing that someone remembers and recognizes that loss to suicide is not a tragedy that goes away can be a source of comfort.
I recognize as a therapist that words don’t make guilt evaporate. I wish they did. But I believe there is value in letting a survivor know that someone remains aware of the burden the survivor will carry for the rest of their days. I will leave you with this clip from the film Wind River. I have shared this clip in an earlier piece. Both fathers in this scene have lost children. Jeremy Renner’s words to his friend could easily be spoken to anyone surviving the suicide of a loved one.