Emotions & Challenges:

Guilt, Blame & Forgiveness

After a suicide, some survivors ruminate on what they could have or should have done to prevent the death. Those closest are often tormented by guilt. Even those peripherally associated with the deceased, often wonder about their role. Sometimes, survivors feel a deep sense of frustration with or anger toward others who they believe mistreated their loved one, blaming them for what happened.

When new survivors regret they “missed the warning signs” of suicide, others who are further down the grief path, often remind them that there are limits to what any of us can do to fix another’s pain. Sometimes, there are no signs or the signs become clear only in hindsight.

On the Alliance of Hope forum, one survivor expressed it this way:

We experience so much guilt in our loss. Discussion of warning signs only increases the feeling that we should have been able to prevent the tragedy. We replay our last conversations and interactions with our loved ones over and over in our minds, looking for answers that do not come. We conclude we are guilty in some way, but I believe that is false guilt. In the end perhaps we must realize we do not have the ability to control others’ decisions and release ourselves from the guilt of thinking we could have prevented their suicides. It hurts me to even admit that.
~Bluerunner

In conversations about suicide, some survivors also raise concerns about stigma. The stigma that accompanied suicide for centuries has lessened substantially, yet many still fear they or their loved ones will be judged as defective or lacking in character. Some say they fear for the souls of the deceased. As society has begun to understand the nature of mental illness, many members of the clergy have spoken up with compassion and reassurance. Father Ron Rolheiser, for example, has written about suicide for many years. Here is an excerpt from one of his essays:

What needs to be said about all of this: First of all, that suicide is a disease and the most misunderstood of all sicknesses. It takes a person out of life against his or her will, the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke, or a heart attack. Second, those left behind need not spend undue energy second-guessing as to how we might have failed that person, what we should have noticed, and what we might still have done to prevent the suicide. Suicide is an illness and, as with any sickness, we can love someone and still not be able to save that person from death. God loved this person, too, and, like us, could not, this side of eternity, do anything either. Finally, we shouldn’t worry too much about how God meets this person on the other side. God’s love, unlike ours, can go through locked doors and touch what will not allow itself to be touched by us.

In the course of grieving the suicide of a loved one, most survivors eventually come to terms with a profound sense of their own limitations–realizing that none of us are able to control the actions of another. Though we try our best, no one is a perfect parent, spouse, sibling or friend. None of us are all seeing and none of us are able to fix another’s pain. Hopefully, we learn to treat ourselves with as much compassion and forgiveness, as we would our families and friends.