The Burden of Grief: Navigating Guilt After the Loss of a Child to Suicide
Why Do We Blame Ourselves?
According to Jeffrey Jackson of the American Association of Suicidology, “psychiatrists theorize that human nature subconciously resists so strongly the idea that we cannot control all the events of our lives that we would rather fault ourselves for a tragic occurrence than accept our inability to prevent it.”
And blame typically belongs just to the one believing that he or she could have saved their loved one from suicide. I know that as a mother, I have always felt responsible for my son. When Dylan died by suicide in June of 2012, he still lived at home. He still seemed very much “my kid.” In truth, though, he will always be 19 years old to me, always “my kid,” always my beloved son who didn’t seem really grown up yet.
Blame is a “Solo Trip”
One of the most unusual aspects of survivor guilt is that it is usually a solo trip—each survivor tends to blame primarily themselves. Try asking another person who is also mourning your lost loved one about any guilt feelings that are haunting them. Chances are you will find that each per-Jeffrey Jackson, American Association of Suicidology
son—no matter how close or removed they were from the suicide victim—willingly takes the lion’s share of blame on themselves.
What More Could I Have Done?
“What’s Your Grief” is one of the best blogs out there about all things related to grief. The excerpt below is from the blog post, “Grieving After a Suicide Death” by Eleanor Haley.
It is not uncommon for themes of personal blame to arise, as the person questions their role in their loved one’s suicide and what they could have done to prevent their death. Unfortunately, the bereaved may vastly overestimate their role and others’ role[s] (i.e., what family and friends did or didn’t do).
Whether rational or not, grieving family and friends may struggle with distressing thoughts like:
Grieving After a Suicide Death, Eleanor Haley
- I never really knew [them]
- [They] didn’t feel comfortable confiding in me.
- [They] were in intense pain.
- I’m to blame. I should have done more to prevent [their] death.
- They didn’t love me enough to live.
Understanding Grief / What’s Your Grief?
What Did I Miss?
What if? Why didn’t I? What did I miss? (Read Coping with Guilt After Losing a Child to Suicide: Strategies and Support). Why didn’t I see the signs? How could I not have known this was coming? If only. . . .
It’s taken me all of these past 11 years since my son’s suicide to recognize and believe I wasn’t responsible for his death. Suicide seems like a choice. One with options, as in “opt out” if only the right person intervenes. One with choices as in “now that I think about it, I’ve decided I won’t take my life.” But suicide is not a choice.
Where Did I Go Wrong? A Poem About Guilt in Grief After Losing a Child to Suicide
That All of Love Could Sweep Time Back: A Poem of Guilt in Grief
I write poems about the difficult emotions that come after a suicide loss, and for me especially, the suicide of my son. The poem below, “That All of Love Could Sweep Time Back,” is a poem of regret and guilt in grief. (Read more about the “That All of Love Could Sweep Time Back)
But “That All of Love Could Sweep Time Back” is also a poem about letting go of guilt in grief and acknowledging my limitations. I couldn’t possibly have seen and known everything about what was going on in my son’s life.
But parents need to remind themselves that, while they have great influence over their children’s lives, they do not personally create every aspect of their children’s being, as a sculptor carves a statue. From their earliest years, children are shaped by an assortment of outside influencesJeffrey Jackson, SoS-A Handbook for Suicide Survivors, AAOS
beyond the control of parents. Even children and teenagers have to bear responsibility for their actions.
That All of Love Could Sweep Time Back Should've, would've, could've, If I'd only come to see, That might I future forward live To see all eternity. That I might know when and where somehow, And here and now then see, To erase the dark and stay the day, To bring back you to me. If only and what if now child, And why couldn't I just see, To hold you close forever, Rewind time, just you and me. That darkness might not permeate My heart now and yours then, That all of love could sweep time back To bring back you again. ©Beth Brown, 2021 Find Hope Here: Poems About Losing a Child to Suicide
You Are Not Alone: Connect to Support
The American Association of Suicidology
(202) 237-2280 www.suicidology.org
The American Foundation for Suicide Preventio
(888) 333-AFSP (2377) www.afsp.org
(877) 969-0010 www.compassionatefriends.org
Living with Loss, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Living with Suicide Loss Video Series
Learn the Facts About Suicide, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Where Are You in Your Grief?
Three Questions to think About when you think about Guilt
I belong to an online support group for Parents of Suicides (read more about parents of suicides) that posts questions each day that parents can choose to respond to if they wish. The questions spur thinking out loud and a chance to be heard by other parents who have lost their child to suicide. The questions below were in a daily email, and my answers to the questions follow below.
Question 1. Do you believe you have done anything wrong that caused the death of your son or daughter by suicide?
For the first time in 4 years (as of Saturday, June 25th, Dylan’s memorial date), I can answer this question “NO!!!!—only if adoring, loving, cherishing and sacrificing oh so much can kill.
NO!!!!—only if death is something I can control, only if I had failed in letting my son become the amazing, beautiful, and extraordinary young man he was and in the process, become independent in who he was.
NO!!!—only if I can control illness around the world, for all children everywhere; only if I can conjure up cures for all disease including illnesses that we cannot see: sadness, mental illness, addiction, depression, alcoholism, and the list goes on.
Question 2. Have you forgiven yourself for anything you believe you did or did not do wrong? If so, what?
Yes. I raised Dylan much of his life as a single mom. Society can blame single parents in harsh ways (hence the “stigma” of suicide). It’s helped to learn there are no guarantees in life. It’s also helped to be part of an international community of parents who have lost their child to suicide.
I am not alone. In speaking with other bereaved parents, I see that while we come from all walks of life, we all share a deep love of our child. Heartache and questioning are universal: Guilt felt by a parent who loses a child to suicide does not abide by international borders.
Yes. Mental illness is illness, doctors don’t yet have answers, let alone “cures,” disease ebbs and flows across all borders—be they physical or mental illness. For a long time, I believed I made Dylan this way, that all my creativity and brilliance of a life lived in extremes, not by choice, but because of illness, destroyed him. But Dylan’s depression, fueled by a reckless coming-of-age youth, drove him to a despair over which I had no control.
Question 3. If you have not forgiven yourself, will you accept compassion even if you cannot forgive yourself?
Yes, and I think we must sit with one another in grief, rocking, holding, bearing up those who cannot even remember to breathe. From love comes love. From heart connection comes whatever healing might be possible here. From holding on to one another, we walk courageously together towards living in memory and honor–and with love–for our children.
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