The night before my mother’s suicide, I was alone in my apartment having a particularly sad and dramatic pity party for myself. I have no recollection of why or how I became so down that night, but whatever it was, I’m positive it was silly in comparison to the anguish my mother was experiencing just a few miles away.
Now when I think about that night, I feel an enormous amount of guilt.
If I had just been paying attention to something other than myself I might have realized the text I sent my mother earlier that day never received a response. If I had just thought about that text, maybe I could have prevented her suicide only a few hours later.
Survivor’s guilt is a doozy, let me tell you. Since my mother’s suicide, the guilt I feel makes me believe all kinds of lies that I am constantly battling.
Here are a few that are particularly exhausting.
This lie says that if you had just called her sooner . . . if you had just told her how much you loved her . . . if you had just seen the warning signs . . . if you had dot-dot-dot, pick your regret, you could have prevented this tragedy.
To make matters worse, the lie then tricks you into believing that you, and you alone, are now responsible for the health and happiness of all your loved ones. The response to this is often feeling like you must work insanely hard every second of every day to prevent the next tragedy.
What I’ve learned through my own healing process, is yes, you have influence, but that doesn’t mean you are responsible. We make choices that do impact others, and we have the ability to reach out to them with love and support. But they too make choices that we don’t have any control over. And when you factor in the mental health issues that surround suicide, we certainly do not have control over those.
“You will feel better in isolation.”
When you’re deep in the midst of grief, sometimes you feel the need to isolate. Guilt tells you that you don’t deserve the people who care and want to be supportive of you. Being alone can sometimes even start to feel safer than dealing with the responsibilities and pressures that come with complex relationships.
Many of us need alone time as part of our self-care, but in my experience, too much isolation is not healthy and can create space for other lies to fill the void that relationship and community are necessary for.
“You are less deserving of life than they were.”
Survivor guilt can cause so much pain that sometimes it makes you wish you had died and the loved one had lived. The pain of losing someone and feeling responsible can make life feel unlivable.
But I can tell you from experience, it is possible to live a full life while also living with grief. It’s a question often asked by recent suicide loss survivors: “when will the pain subside?” The answer is, painstakingly, “any day now.” It’s a daily struggle. But learning healthy ways to grieve and cope with the loss, and becoming okay with experiencing both, really does help.
“You are selfish for wanting to practice self-care.”
Another lie that guilt tells you, is you don’t deserve things that help you take care of yourself. That you’re being selfish for things like needing alone time, saying no to a request, or setting healthy boundaries.
The trauma associated with losing a loved one to suicide makes it so important for us to prioritize our health (mind, body, and spirit). If we don’t dedicate time to take care of our whole selves, we can’t fully heal, and in effect, we can’t be there for the people we love.
“You are wrong to feel guilt.”
Feeling guilt after loss or trauma is completely normal. Is it burdensome and painful? Heck yes. Is it full of lies? Absolutely. But it is a perfectly okay part of the grieving process and can be worked through just like every other stage or feeling often associated with loss.
Whatever lies survivor guilt has told you, just remember that the worst one is thinking you don’t have the space, or the right, to feel the emotions that are happening right now.
And from one survivor to another, there is no quick fix or prescription for relieving guilt. But when we work to acknowledge the lies that guilt tells us, they are usually much less effective.
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