Self-Blame and Guilt: I Couldn’t Save My Son
It’s been nearly 10 years since I lost my only son to suicide. Had someone suggested in my first year of grief that I could “heal” from the heavy, leaden weight of guilt, I would not have believed them. My world that first year was upside down and spinning. Engulfed by grief, I struggled to make sense of what I know now will never make sense. Guilt swept in, and my heart wept for my son. I had somehow let him down. Not been there for him. Not kept him safe and out of harm’s way.
Nearly a decade later, there are still some days I carry the heaviness of guilt of losing my only child. Below are passages and stories that have helped me cope with grief. Perhaps they will help you too.
So What Can You Do to Move Forward?
“A Record of Your Love”
So what can you do to move forward? Instead of imprisoning yourself in a cell of self-recrimination, you can start by opening a space for all that you did give your son. You might want to make a list of things you did to try to help over the course of decades, even if you didn’t feel that they were helpful. In other words, make a list with no “but”s or caveats such as I could have used different words in that conversation or I could have put him in a different school or I could have chosen a different treatment provider or rehab or I could have flown to see him when he called and asked me to come that time I was working or what have you. I want you to have a record of your love.Lori Gottlieb, “I Blame Myself for My Son’s Death,” The Atlantic, September 7, 2020
“Painful New Reality”
“More than 10 years have passed since our eldest son died by suicide. As I reflect on the first year after his death, I remember how it felt impossible to accept the painful new reality.
For years afterward, my husband and I tried to come to terms with our excruciating loss and all that led to our son’s final, desperate act. Mired in grief and guilt, we agonized over the now-obvious warning signs: his social angst and anxiety through adolescence, the inner demons that continued to plague him in college, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
My inability to heal him, to make him feel safe and whole — what feels like my failure to help him in any “real,” significant way — has haunted me. After all, isn’t a mother’s primary job to make sure her young survive?
The path to healing from this loss has not been straightforward. It has required honest introspection, radical acceptance, true forgiveness and unrelenting strength.Susan Wight, NAMI, National Alliance for Mental Illness
Remembering the Love
Finding a Way Forward with Forgiveness
Our family was thrown into a pit of despair by this loss. As you might expect, climbing our way out has taken effort and time. Experts call this recovery process “grief work,” for it feels like hard labor, both physically and emotionally.
There is no hurrying through the pain, guilt, confusion and desperation. My husband and I struggled with sadness and guilt over losing our son and not being able to get him the support he needed. However, with time, we were able to recognize the ways we had showed up for him.
Another stage of the healing process required admitting and coming to terms with our feelings of anger toward our child for what he did. Through honest discussion, we discovered that we didn’t see our son as just the victim of a violent act, but the perpetrator who ultimately murdered someone we loved. We felt that head not only robbed himself of his future, but also robbed his family of a future with him in it. However, as we learned to forgive ourselves for his death, we learned to accept and forgive him, too.Susan Wight, NAMI, September 2021, “Healing After My Son’s Suicide”
Accepting Our Scars and Celebrating our Strength
Susan Wight, NAMI, September 2021, “Healing After My Son’s Suicide”
…A core piece of my life that was once there is missing — yet sometimes I can still see, feel and hear my son like he’s a phantom limb.
What lies beneath your self-blame are the terrible facts that you cannot control: Suicidal forces overtook your loved one. You have suffered an unfathomable loss. You cannot turn back time, do it over, do it differently. Each of these is a loss. Mourning these losses is the essence of grief. Your grief deserves your compassion.”Susan Auerbach,”Tips from Survivors: To a Mom Who Blames Herself,” I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’s Quest for Comfort, Courage and Clarity After Suicide Loss
Self-Blame and Guilt: I Couldn’t Keep My Son Safe
What Else Can I Do?
…you can join a support group for parents whose adult children have died from an overdose—intentional or otherwise—so you can meet others who have experienced feelings of self-blame and regret similar to yours. In this group, you’ll find a whole community of people who understand that you have been fundamentally changed by your experience of having been your son’s parent, and they will do for you what you did so beautifully for your son: They will bear witness to your pain, even if they can’t take it away.Lori Gottlieb, “I Blame Myself for My Son’s Death,” The Atlantic, September 7, 2020
It’s the part of the story that might be even more painful to contemplate than your enduring self-blame—the part about your enduring love.
What I hear in your letter is a deep, ferocious, and complicated love for your son. And it’s in this love—more than in the blame—that your grief resides.
— Lori Gottlieb, “I Blame Myself for My Son’s Death,” The Atlantic, September 7, 2020
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