Dealing with Guilt After Suicide
August 11, 2021
Guilt and Suicide
But you don't understand, I could have (should have / would have) saved my loved one from suicide, but I didn't... It's my fault.
One of the most common feelings that suicide loss survivors have is guilt. It is so common for people to feel like they did not do enough or that they did too much and it led to their loved ones death. It is so easy to find fault with your own actions. Many people will fault themselves for missing clues or for not understanding what was going on inside of someone else's head.
Rarely do suicide victims stop their attempt and seek help. At the last moment they could have called 911, they could have called the suicide hotline, they could have called their doctor or therapist, they could have called a friend, they could have called you, but frequently they don't. That is the difference between a suicide attempt and a suicide, they did not stop what they were doing, they were trying to end their pain. They were not thinking about you or ways to stop.
The desire to end their emotional or physical pain exceeds their ability to live. They had made a plan, sometimes well thought out and sometimes it was a hastily thought out plan. They used whatever means were available. They had thought about it and that is one of the hard parts to accept.
Rarely is suicide totally impulsive, generally there were underlying issues present. They may have shared their pain in generalities to us, or they may have been specific about the pain they felt. They may have expressed that they had thoughts of suicide. In fact suicidal thoughts are not uncommon, it is the depth of their pain that converted those thoughts into a plan.
So how could I not be guilty? How could I have missed all of those clues? How could I have failed them?
People who die by suicide often hide the innermost pain they feel. They frequently self medicate with alcohol or drugs. They spend their time being great friends to others and helping others because they can't seem to help themselves. They put on a mask and show that to the world. They only share a small window into their lives and thoughts to each person they talk to. It is a giant jigsaw puzzle that they have only given us a few small pieces.
People die by suicide not because of what you have or have not done for them, they die because of their pain. It was not the words we said or did not say. They die by suicide and take with them many of the answers we seek. Without those answers, it is much easier to point the finger at yourself. It is much easier to blame yourself. Even if you understood their pain, you blame yourself for what you did or did not do. Unfortunately this is what many suicide loss survivors do.
Guilt is often caused by the answers we are missing. We tend to use hindsight bias and fill in the blanks with us as the villain. It is hard to blame the person who died by suicide for their death, it must have been caused by us? Or was it? We unfairly blame ourselves and guilt is the result. Without all of the facts, we assume the worst. We believe that we have superhuman powers that could have stopped them. It is impossible to control another human 24 hours a day, to remove every potential means of suicide, to get them to share their innermost thoughts. While we like to believe that we could have done so much more or that others could have done so much more, the reality is that it did not happen. It could not have happened. The reality is even if we had changed things, it may not have changed the circumstances. In reality, there is nothing you can do after the fact.
There is a big difference between guilt and responsibility. You may feel guilt for their suicide, but you are not responsible for their suicide. That often take suicide loss survivors a long time to accept. It is so much easier to fall back into the mode of guilt. We live in a world where everyone wants to blame someone or something when bad things happen, so we frequently blame ourselves. Guilt has a way of controlling survivors in the early days after the loss.
Most of the survivors we have spoken with through the years at some point or another feel some sense of guilt. But it is worth repeating again: You may feel guilt for their suicide, but you are not responsible for their suicide.
Here are some additional articles to read to help you understand guilt and responsibility:
You Can't Do Everything, Limitations in Helping a Suicidal Person