Making Your Way Beyond the Ruins: Surviving the Guilt of a Loss by Suicide

0 comments Posted on November 1, 2021

by Rita Schulte, LPC

The death of a loved one by suicide is sudden, unexpected, and violent. Survivors of suicide loss are left to figure out what it was that their loved one saw as so unbearable that it could never be fixed. Most survivors will confront three areas of impact vulnerability from such a traumatic loss.

  • A traumatized brain
  • Guilt and/or shame leading to complicated grief
  • Existential shattering: a crisis of belief/faith

For the purposes of this article, we’ll explore the guilt and shame that often leads suicide loss survivors to be swallowed whole.

Let’s begin by defining the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt says I did something bad (a behavior), and shame says I am bad (my intrinsic worth). This is where things can get dangerous for survivors who are already at high risk for suicide themselves after losing a loved one traumatically.

When people experience intense guilt /shame for something they did or failed to do, a sense of isolation and loneliness, and the fear and permanence that losing a loved one to suicide can engender, it can be a dangerous triad.

When I’m working with someone who is experiencing shame, I’m curious about several things:

1) How is shame connected to the suicide?

2) How does shame affect the way the person is living?

3) How is it affecting their connection to others?

4) What conclusions has this person drawn about himself?

Additionally, I’m interested in how shame shows up in the body. I might ask, “What happens to you when you feel shame?” They may say, “I can’t speak, I want to shrink and become invisible, or I disconnect from others.” Then I want to be curious how that helps them, or if it has helped them survive.

I may ask the client, “What part of you believes you’re a terrible person? How does it help you to believe that? Did it help in the past?” Many times, these beliefs serve a defensive function. I’m curious if they still do.

What Makes THIS Loss Different for Survivors?
A death by suicide causes fundamental beliefs to be challenged. It’s not like a normal death where someone is sick and expected to die. When losses are premature, sudden, and violent, the assault on an individual’s assumptive world can be especially severe and protracted.

Grief can be complex if the person witnessed the death or found the body, leaving the survivor to suffer with Post Traumatic Stress, flashbacks, and nightmares. This can also happen even if the person did not see their loved one but cannot stop imagining what happened.

Death by suicide, even more than other types of bereavement, makes people uncomfortable and uncertain of how to react. This makes it more isolating for the survivors.

There is still a huge amount of stigma attached to suicide, rooted in centuries of history, and this generates misplaced associations of weakness, blame, shame, and even sin.

There can also be unfinished business with a loved one, causing survivors to carry blame, feeling somehow responsible for their loved one’s death. They are left with the “why’s” and the loose ends for a lifetime, because there is no closure to a loss by suicide.

Telling the Story

As a clinician, and most importantly as a survivor of suicide loss, I believe the most important thing to understand is the meaning the survivor has attached to the suicide. When I’m working with a client, that’s where I want to go because that’s where he or she is living life from. I want to know what he or she believes about self, God, and others, now.

When a tragedy of this enormity hits, all the explanatory styles we have about life, God, and the world around us aren’t going to work anymore, because a bomb’s gone off in the survivor’s life and everything he believes is going to come into question. He is going to be struggling with his beliefs systems.

A loss by suicide challenges all the tacit assumptions we have about a safe and somewhat predictable world, and a safe and predictable God. To recover, we must do the hard work of meaning-making reconstruction. In all of life’s disruptions, familiar meanings are up for grabs, so we are left with the task of reaffirming or rebuilding a world of meaning that has been challenged by our loss. This is slow work.

There are one of two paths a survivor can take here. We either move to assimilate the loss into our previously held beliefs, or we must reconstruct or recreate a different set of beliefs about the world and God to incorporate our loss experience into our current self-narrative. This is what therapists call accommodation.

For example, I had a very strong faith before my husband died. If after the suicide, I said, “You know what, I don’t believe all that anymore. A good God would never allow something so horrible to come into my life.” I would then have to build another self-narrative to accommodate those newly acquired beliefs.

Assessing Our Self-Talk

The stories we tell ourselves are everything, and negative self-defeating stories keep grievers stuck in guilt/shame. Clients may not even notice how much negative self-talk they are doing, and they can’t change what they don’t notice, so I’m always teaching people to become noticers of their internal monologues.

The other thing people need to notice is the myths they’ve bought into about how to handle grief. For example, if you grew up in a home where you were taught not to talk about difficult things, you may have learned to suck it up and keep silent. Be curious if the messages you received were wrong.

We don’t do grief well in our culture. We’re taught to “get over it” quickly, and just “move on.” Contrary to what others tell you, this is not normal. The normal response to loss is sadness, and the normal response to sadness is grief.

Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is another key piece to ameliorating guilt. Survivors often find it difficult to do this. When guilt has you in a vice grip, it’s hard to feel anything but self-loathing for any mistakes you feel you made with your loved one. You genuinely believe your mistake caused your loved one’s death. But if we can embrace the idea that being human means being subject to limitations, that we did the best we could, it can help to assuage the guilt.

After I’ve spent time processing difficult emotions with a client, challenging irrational beliefs, and talking about guilt, I often ask, “Is it possible that the suicide wasn’t your fault?” I ask them to sit with that thought and see what comes up in the body. That’s where I start, that’s planting a seed. Then, if they can consider it, I ask, “What would it mean if you could hold on to the idea that there was nothing you could have done to stop it?”

For survivors, there will always be things we will look back on and regret. Things we did or failed to do that we believe would have changed the outcome. The truth is, we have no real evidence to support our belief that if we had just done this one thing, they wouldn’t have completed the act.

If Only I Had . . .

To illustrate, let me leave you with a story I read in a booklet I got from the American Association of Suicidology. It’s a story of two mothers. The story is titled “‘If I only had . . .’ A true tale of two mothers.” You’ll notice in my summary that both the mothers in the story did very different things with their daughters who were suicidal, yet neither had a chance to make any kind of repair in the aftermath. See what the story brings up for you:

There were two young women who died by suicide, both were around the same age, and both had struggled with depression for many years. They refused professional help and stopped taking their meds when things seemed to be getting a little better. Fearing for her daughter’s life, one mother had her committed against her wishes for psychiatric care. She asphyxiated herself with her bedsheets.

The second girl’s mother constantly urged her daughter to get help but refused to force her into any institution for psychiatric care, fearing it would only worsen her daughter’s depression. One day, she took her life with an overdose of pills. Afterward, both mothers blamed themselves for their children’s suicides. The irony is that each blamed themselves for not doing what the other did!

The point is this, even if we could go back and do what we blame ourselves for doing or not doing, it may not have changed the outcome. It took me so long to breathe in this truth and own it, and I pray in time you too will be able to do the same. Freedom will come as we accept what we cannot change and realize we did the best we could at the time.

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