To Anyone Blaming Themselves for a Loved One's Suicide
Someone asked me, “How do I stop blaming myself for my friend’s suicide?” I was able to respond based on my personal experience. I’ve lost a loved one to the same tragedy. Below, I am sharing my answer in hopes that my story can help someone dealing with similar pain.
I don’t know anything about the situation other than the details you have shared, so I will not make any assumptions or judgments about your friend. It is not my place to try to explain what they may or may not have been dealing with or why they chose to take their own life. I also have no right to tell you how you should or shouldn’t feel, or even try to tell you what is best for you.
What I can do is share my experience of losing my brother to suicide shortly after I graduated from high school. I also work in mental health and have learned a great deal advocating for individuals dealing with mental illness, including myself. I can share with you what did not work for me and how I caused myself a great deal of pain over the years, as well as what I have learned and how I came to deal with the loss.
In my case, I did not handle things the best way from the start. I remember I had this sort of mantra I would constantly repeat to myself: “Whatever happened happened. There’s nothing I can do to change it. I just need to move forward.” That’s when I joined the Army and began running away. I didn’t stop to look back for the next 15 years.
We grew up in a dysfunctional family and I never really learned how to feel emotions, especially the uncomfortable ones. I was the youngest with two older brothers. The middle brother is the one I am speaking about. He was my best friend, mentor and protector in many ways. I always blamed myself for his death. All the “what if’s” and “if only’s” got to me.
My mother was incredibly abusive, both physically and emotionally, but especially to him. I remember so many times he would get it worse because “he was supposed to be looking after me.” I carried a lot of guilt because I felt like he was abused more because of things I did and because I never spoke up to anyone outside the family. I blamed my mother more than anything and was convinced that she killed him through her treatment of him.
The truth I know today is that he did what he did, and I do not know what he was thinking or what led him to suicide. I cannot read minds and he didn’t leave an explanation.
Fueled by blame, shame, anger, fear and the unwillingness to forgive, I spent the next 15 years trying to “not feel.” I did this through drugs, sex, alcohol, relationships and anything else I could find to distract me from dealing with what was going on inside. I eventually accepted that all I was doing was going towards suicide myself, just at a much slower rate while destroying everything around me in the process.
By that point, I was homeless (literally on the street, sleeping outside), had been through several treatment programs (addiction and mental illness), in and out of jail, so many jobs that I lost count and I still couldn’t get it together. I was still miserable and scared all the time, had barely taken part in the lives of my two amazing, beautiful daughters and had no real friends or family around.
Obviously, I had to get clean, learn how to stay clean and start putting my life back together. This has been a continual, challenging process I have to work at every single day and I am far from perfect at it. In order to do this, I’ve had to do several other things. Continually.
This first thing I had to do was to stop blaming (period). That meant myself, my mom, him, God, anything or anyone. No one person was at fault. Chris was obviously in a great deal of pain. Chances are there was some undiagnosed mental illness. To my knowledge, there were no very obvious signs and, even if there were, I am not God nor can I control anybody else. My mother made some major mistakes, too, but I believe she was doing what she had learned and felt was right for whatever reason. Trying to make sense of it and hold someone responsible just left me continually reliving the trauma over and over.
I had to stop using his suicide as an excuse. No matter how good I was doing, how long I stayed clean or how well I pretended that everything was OK, I always used the excuse to go right back down the rabbit hole and back into the same self-destructive, “poor me” behaviors. I began to remember the good things about him and celebrate his life. I know that he would not want me to continue destroying myself and causing harm to others because of his actions. I was not doing his memory any justice.
I had to accept that I am human. He was human. My mother is human. We all make mistakes. I believe that generally we all do our best to do what we think will lead us to happiness and freedom from suffering. We all have different way of going about it and none of us have all the right answers.
I had to forgive my mother. It didn’t take long to realize that I couldn’t forgive her or anyone else before forgiving myself. As long as I hold myself to unrealistic expectations and standards, I’m going to hold others to the same. I also soon realized that forgiveness is not a one time deal. It would be really nice to be able to “forgive and forget,” but that’s just not reality.
Forgiveness is a practice and I now know there is no such thing as perfect. It is a process that needs regular maintenance if I am to remain free. I also know that forgiveness is not condoning someone’s actions or behavior. It has very little to do with the other person and everything to do with freeing myself from the pain that has been festering for so many years. It allows me to move forward in life with all that dead weight lifted.
Most importantly, I have to take really good care of myself on a daily basis. I have been able to find some positive in what happened, all of it, because for one, I am still here. I still have an opportunity to be a father (now a grandfather too!) I also have developed an strong sense of empathy and compassion for others. This has led me to become involved in mental health, advocacy and helping others.
Brené Brown, one of my favorite teachers, said something once that always stuck with me. I wasn’t able to find it quoted anywhere, but I will do my best to get it correct. It was (not exactly), “Look into your heart. Discover what causes you pain and vow, under any circumstances, not to inflict that pain on someone else.”
I try to take it a step further and vow to do my best to help others relieve their pain. Notice I say “help others… their pain.” I have had to learn (the hard way, of course) that I cannot take anyone’s pain away or relieve their suffering. Nor can I take responsibility for it. I can’t “make” anybody feel or not feel anything. I can be with them, share my experience and hopefully help them learn how to relieve their own. But, I cannot do it for them. Trust me, I wish I could.
So, if I can give you any suggestions, it would be to allow yourself to grieve. Take time to feel the pain, but don’t let it overwhelm you. I don’t believe we are expected to do this alone. You are already beginning by asking the question here and asking for help. That is huge! Many people don’t even come this far.
Continue asking for help and allowing others to be there for you. One of my biggest mistakes was not allowing others in on my pain. Trying to stuff it all in just slowly eroded my spirit, and even made me hurt others at times.
Realize that nobody is to blame and that’s OK. We don’t need a target. All blame does is allow us to deflect our pain onto someone or something else. It doesn’t help us work through it.
Forgive yourself for anything you’ve been holding onto. It doesn’t help us to carry pain from the past into our present.
Learn about mindfulness. This has been the single most important, vital and life-saving practice I have learned that has allowed me to get where I am today.
With mindfulness, I learn how to practice forgiveness, acceptance, tolerance, compassion and how to love myself and others. It is what allows me to remain free no matter what is going on around me.
As you get better, use your experience to help others. There are so many ways to do this. From the little things like just being available to listen to someone without judgment, to involving yourself in suicide prevention efforts or mental health advocacy. There are people out there who need help from someone just like you.
You have to put yourself first, though. I’ve learned that if I do not continually take care of myself, I end up not just being unavailable to others, but causing even more harm at times. You’re probably familiar with the “oxygen mask” analogy. I can’t help someone put on their oxygen mask if I can’t even breathe myself. And I risk both of us dying in the process.
I believe the best thing any of us can do with our trauma and tragedy is learn how to skillfully overcome it so that we are able to help others get through similar pain. This is a great purpose.
I really hope that something I have written here will help ease your pain and bring you some inspiration. I am grateful for the opportunity to share with you because every time I talk about my experience, it helps me a little more. So thank you. I wish you the best.
Peace and love,
Follow this journey on Freedom Is Free.
Photo by Artyom Kulikov on Unsplash