How To Resolve The Guilt of a Suicide Survivor

No one can know the depth of despair to which a person may sink upon contemplation of suicide. Possibly, the black hole in which one finds him/herself gets deeper and darker as the days go by. Soon, even the smallest sliver of light is blocked from view. And then, instead of being frightening, the darkness becomes comforting and safe. It cradles and protects the person from all outside forces – from life and all the decisions to be made, both large and small. Eternal sleep and “supposed” freedom from worry beckon the suicide until he/she can no longer resist, and life is snuffed out.

Unfortunately, for the person who just took his life, death is not sleep. Instead, from a spiritual point of view, death is to be wide awake and suffer the pain one’s passing instills in others. After all, death is all about the survivor and the loss and sorrow that must be addressed.

From a worldlier vantage point, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Moreover, while over time problems may dissipate, there are no do-overs when it comes to taking your own life.

Suicide is a very egocentric act. Any thought of others, and the subsequent pain that will be inflicted on those left behind, is brushed aside because the suicide can not see past his/her own pain. Ironically, the suicide survivor also acts egocentrically because after the death, he/she immediately wants to shoulder the blame and make it all about him or her. Accordingly, the following “I” statements are commonly heard.

-- "Why didn’t I see this coming?”
-- “If I had just been paying attention, I would have seen the signs and stopped this tragedy.”
-- “It’s my fault; I refused to listen and answer the cry for help.”
-- “Why did I have to start an argument over something so inconsequential?”

These questions, and similar ones, are asked in the quest for the survivor to make sense of this irrational act. He/she attempts to apply logic to the situation, or look for a cause-and-effect, because that is how we, as humans, understand and bring order to our world.

Herein lies the dilemma, and the root of the guilt, of a suicide survivor. It is virtually impossible to successfully apply logic to an illogical situation and expect to arrive at a satisfactory answer. In truth, there are very few good explanations why someone would choose death as a solution to a problem, with the exception being the case of euthanasia.

When logic fails to supply any answers, guilt and self-blame are always there as alternatives. The survivor continues to berate him/herself for missing the signs and stopping the fatal act. Keep in mind, it is very easy to recognize clues in retrospect, but life can only be lived going forward. Thus, we must try to make the best decisions with the information that is in front of us at the moment, along with what we have learned from our experiences.

The survivor’s guilt is compounded by the fact that a person’s emotional and rational minds do not travel along parallel highways. Here is a perfect example.

At bedtime, two nights before my husband took his own life, he said, “I’m so weary.” To myself, I thought, “Of course he is weary. He works 24/7, never takes a vacation, and is under incredible stress.” Aloud, I said to him, “Well, I hope you get a good night’s rest.” Two days later, in retrospect, I’m beating myself up because now I know he wasn’t saying he was tired; he was just weary of the everyday struggle.

Looking at the situation rationally, I couldn’t have been expected to put his comment in the context that he was ready to kill himself. We are not programmed to think that way, and, if we were, we would be second guessing every word that emanated from our mouths.

However, emotionally, I blamed myself for not catching the nuance of his words. After all, how could I know him so well and not at all?

One of the greatest tasks of the survivor is to work towards having these two pathways of emotionality and rationality travel more concurrently and eventually merge to come to a resolution.

In order for a survivor to move forward, he/she must accept that responsibility for the act lies solely on the shoulders of the person who completed the suicide. The only person for whom one can be responsible is him or herself.

No matter how much we wish we could go back and respond differently, it is impossible to change the facts of one’s life and erase this terrible tragedy. It is, however, possible to take charge vigorously of one’s own life in the wake of misfortune and chaos.

If every event in life is truly neutral, and we merely empower a situation by assigning a positive or negative emotion to it, then, sometimes, the only control we have over a situation is how we decide to handle it. In this way, it is possible for a seemingly bad situation to be an opportunity. Instead of simply reflexively reacting, one has the choice to decide how he/she will, instead, reflectively respond to the situation, and how the lessons learned can be utilized to move forward in a new life.

Ellen Gerst, a Life Coach who specializes in grief and relationships, is the author of A Practical Guide to Widow/erhood. Born out of Ellen’s own experiences as a young widow, A Practical Guide provides suggestions to help a griever re-adjust each aspect of his/her life without his/her loved one. Her newest book, 101 Tips and Thoughts on Coping with Grief, is an easy-to-read reference guide for everyday suggestions for moving forward on the grief journey. Ellen has also written Love After Loss: Writing The Rest of Your Story, a step-by-step guide on how to redesign your life to include a new love connection after the loss of a mate due to death or divorce.

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Comment by Michelle Helms on November 7, 2012 at 9:33am

My daugther, 15 years old, lost her lifelong best friend - more like a brother to her - on June 29th of this year.  He shot and killed himself just hours after they had been talking to each other on Skype.  She has taken it very hard.  She has gone through the usual emotions of anger and sadness.  She remains in the guilt phase.  An otherwise solid A (an occassional B) student in an Engineering Specialty High School - she is currently failing her core classes.  The work is not too hard, but she does not do turn in the homework.  I am very worried that she is punishing herself for him taking his life.  What can I do to help her?  At this rate, she will not be able to catch-up if I don't intervene.

Comment by Ellen Sigman on May 11, 2010 at 5:48pm
Actually this concerns my friend of 50 years in ME who lost her husband 1 1/2 yrs. ago. I've been trying to get her help, listen to her, talk to her and all the questions that you ask are all the ones she feels so guilty about. I would like to have you e-mail her or send this book to her. She is so guilt ridden, & he left her in such financial dispair, she has lost a family business, her home, and her life as she knew it. I've almost given up on her and I don't want to but nothing I say helps. She thinks groups are for losers, she doesn't know how to get "out from under". If you can e-mail me with suggestions or do you think I should just send the book to her? Ellen Sigman
Comment by gypsymama2009 on November 30, 2009 at 11:54am
I found this article amazing. It helps put a perspective on the way I am dealing with the lose of a loved one too suicide right now. I am the type of person who always trys to help others, so when something like this happens, as it did, I feel i have lost control and continue to ask the question of why, and what if. This does help give a perspective of outside the box and I am so greatful that you were thoughtful enough to share this.

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