Post-suicide guilt is inevitable. Here’s how I’ve coped.
This entire column, not just this entry, contains a content warning. I will be writing about suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other serious topics. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone you trust, establish care with a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), or go to your nearest emergency room. Please stick around. We need you.
Suicide survivors are guaranteed to suffer from guilt. When I’m not distracted by work or leisure, it ranks close behind sad and numb as my default mental state.
My survivor guilt can be broken into micro and macro levels. On a small scale, the scene on rewind is my last interaction with Josh. Shortly after midnight September 12th, my wife Jessica and I discovered Josh had missed his shift at McDonald’s. As I tried to engage Josh around this—what happened tonight? have you missed other shifts?—he was completely silent. He avoided eye contact, sadly staring straight ahead. Realizing this attempt at dialogue was turning harmful, I put my hand on Josh’s shoulder, told him I wasn’t angry with him but merely wanted to understand and help him. We’d resume this conversation after we slept on it.
Minutes later, as I dropped off to sleep, a nagging voice in my head suggested going back to Josh, to say “I love you.” Rationalizing that he disliked shows of affection, I decided against it.
Three hours later, Josh was dead.
So, let’s hop aboard the guilt train for this final interaction. I’m not saying my ruminations are valid, but here’s a sampler. What if I’d gone back and told Josh I loved him, even given him a hug? What if I’d waited till morning to talk with him, period? Would he still be alive if I’d chosen one of those options? And what the hell was I thinking: when have I ever had a productive conversation on a fraught subject after midnight?
Now, let’s pull back to the macro level. Looking at photos of Josh across his lifespan, his mental decline is painfully obvious. The silly kid hamming it up for the camera transforms into a withdrawn young adult. The boy who started reading before he was three no longer lifted anything weightier than a manga. The snuggling 4th grader became touch-aversive. The junior high academic superstar was a first-semester college dropout.
How could I have missed all of this? Why didn’t I schedule weekly “dates” with him to counteract his isolation? Should I have pushed him harder to stay in therapy, or was I too pushy already? Did he feel I was irreparably disappointed in him?
Those are some of the greatest hits from my guilt trip playlist. The songs may change, but the motif stays the same. Day after friggin’ day.
Fortunately, my guilt is less intense now. An occasional earworm, not an overwhelming cacophony. So let me share a few things that have made it manageable.
First, I’ve come to recognize that survivor guilt is inevitable and universal. Whether you’re a combat veteran who watched a buddy die, a victim of child abuse whose sibling got it worse than you, or the father of a beautiful boy who took his life, you’re going to feel guilty. When an event is traumatic, the mental engines grasping for cause and effect are turbocharged. Frantic to make sense, we assign responsibility to the nearest target—ourselves.
In most suicide support groups I attend, guilt is a prominent theme. In the best book I’ve found on suicide survival, it warranted two out of 16 chapters. Ever since going public on my son’s cause of death, every person who’s messaged me with their survival narrative mentions guilt in the first three sentences.
But guess what: talking about it helps. That elephant in the room isn’t going anywhere. Whether it’s probing my guilt with my wife, my kids, my support group, or my therapist, I’ve discovered the elephant shrinks. When he’s reduced to Siberian Husky size, he’s less likely to crush my mental furniture.
It’s usually best to walk into my guilt. I’m not going to outrun it. The lone exception is when guilt creeps in at bedtime. Nocturnal ruminations solve nothing and disrupt my sleep. At these times, I tell myself “been there, done that” and distract myself with whatever is at hand. A good book. A dog to nuzzle.
But in daylight hours, as I rotate the guilt in my head with an attitude of nonjudgmental curiosity, I recognize that Josh’s choice to end his life was out of my control. I was powerless at this all-important moment. I would exchange my life for his in a nanosecond, but the will to live is not a transferrable resource.
Like most parents of children who suicide, I had no idea Josh was despondent. In our optimism and denial, moms and dads want to see the best in our kids. We assume what is unimaginable for us is inconceivable to them. (And remember, Josh had always, always denied suicidal ideation to me, his doctors, his therapists. Besides, troubleshooting conversations like my final attempt at dialogue weren’t new to us. Josh would tell me afterward that they were useful.)
Along those same lines, it’s essential to distinguish regret from responsibility. My love for Josh was imperfect. I wish I’d scheduled a weekly date with him, to play pub trivia or to grab a bowl of ramen together. If I could relive September 12th, I would return to Josh’s bedroom door, say “I love you,” and watch over him till daylight. But no one in Josh’s orbit is culpable for his decision to end his life, myself included. That responsibility belongs to him and his mental illness alone.
Lastly, I’ve learned to be kind to myself. For every thought that I should’ve nudged Josh harder toward more intensive professional help, I realize he was an adult who’d said no to structured therapy and peer support groups. When I blame myself for failing to express more affection, I remember Josh’s prickliness, that touch was more likely to provoke unease than connection.
I’m reassured in knowing I was one of three people with whom Josh was most at ease, along with his brother and sister. I find joy in remembering our conversations in the 36 hours before he died, the ones that involved actual dialogue. We made dinner plans for the following Wednesday. He smiled as we recounted his cat’s latest antics.
When I rewind to those moments, I know Josh felt my immense though imperfect love. In these grief-heavy months, that recognition lightens the weight of guilt on my chest.