Archive for the ‘guilt’ Category

img_0095-edit-2Late on a rainy night in April, 2002, my mother and I were driving home from a nearby town after watching my brother, George, perform there as “Brandy Bottle Bates” in Guys and Dolls. My extended family had finally begun to enjoy some of life’s pleasures even while mourning the suicide of my daughter Mary that had occurred seven years earlier. So as my mother and I chatted that night, I was also privately searching for answers about Mary as I had done every night: why did she intentionally overdose on her antidepressant medication? How could she do that to herself and to her family? How could she?

But then this: a white cat running across the road not ten feet from my front wheels. After a sickening bump under both front and back tires, I stopped on the road, windshield wipers clicking, wondering what to do.

“Drive on,” my mother said. “The cat’s dead, and the owner might live a mile away. I know you feel bad, but there’s nothing you can do.”

I did drive on, but the death of that cat troubled me for days. I visualized the owners finding the crushed body by the road and shouting, “How could you?” at faceless me just as I had shouted at Mary.

It finally dawned on me that those owners deserved an apology they would never get and that their not getting an apology made me something of a culprit. “I felt for them. I felt for Mary, as well. It wasn’t that I placed suicide and accidental animal slaughter in the same moral category; it was that my daughter and I had both done damage, and neither of us could apologize for it. However, merely imagining that Mary would want to apologize [as I wanted to] put an end to my ‘How could you?’ question and brought peace” (Marjorie Antus, My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope, CreateSpace, 2014, 198-9).

Then or now, I wouldn’t imagine Mary apologizing for the mental suffering she tried to end (and did end, I believe) with an intentional overdose. The agony of mental illness leading to suicide is described by psychologist Thomas Joiner as a “force of nature” nearly impossible for the rest of us to grasp or expect an apology for (2011 Suicide Prevention Conference: Myths About Suicide, YouTube, Google, Inc.).

Still, it’s restorative to imagine those who have died by suicide apologizing for the heartache, the bewilderment, the life disruption, and the chronic sorrow their deaths have brought. I’m also glad I was able to feel like a wrongdoer for a time. That feeling brought empathy, and empathy brought love.

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An earlier blog post, “Weathering the Seismic Event of Suicide,” briefly addressed the relationships we take for granted that tend to shatter when suicide occurs. Specifically, these are our relationships with the person who died, with ourselves, and with significant others.  “Suicide . . . can rock the foundations of a survivor’s personal world of meaning” and compel a person to try to make sense of that which makes no sense, write clinical researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh.

However, the researchers also point out the healing and new meaning that await a grieving person who can develop an “ongoing relationship with the deceased” by engaging in a three-part grief process. First is the “trying on the shoes (of the deceased),” or understanding our relationship with them; then comes “walking in the shoes,” or reconstructing our relationship; and finally there is “taking off the shoes,” or repositioning our relationship.

Though this three-part grief process does not necessarily follow a straight timeline, I was mostly trying on my daughter Mary’s shoes right after she overdosed on her antidepressants in 1995. In the early trying-on phase, that is, I attempted to decode whatever message I thought Mary’s suicide must have been sending. I also felt she’d betrayed me and that I’d never known her at all. Furthermore, I felt that she’d erased good memories of herself and our lives together. According to Jordan and McIntosh, those are all normal aspects of the grief process of trying on the shoes of the deceased and coming to a new understanding of who they were.

But there is more to the trying-on: a bereaved person must also deal with relationship to him or herself. In my experience it was certainly true, as Jordan and McIntosh state, that someone grieving a suicide focuses on “why” questions, agonizes about personal responsibility for the death, and experiences guilt and shame among several other negative features of raw grief.  Yet, Jordan and McIntosh maintain that wading through those difficulties ultimately contributes to a more accurate understanding of self.

Trying on the shoes of the deceased also leads to fresh understanding about relationships with significant others. To get to that place of enlightenment, however, a suicide survivor must first wade through the fear that suicide could recur with someone he or she loves; and a survivor must contend with the realities that stigma (real or imagined) is intruding, that other people could be blameworthy, and that talking about the suicide has been disallowed. I experienced most of those antagonisms, but only in early grief (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, New York: Routledge, 2011, 252, 249, 262, 263).

That’s the good news about trying on the shoes of the deceased and thus coming to improved understanding about relationships: a suicide survivor may have to wear the shoes for a while, but they lead somewhere and they can eventually be taken off. Future posts will explore the wearing and the taking off.

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For those bereaved by suicide, second-guessing is an expression of guilt that is especially prevalent among those whose child has died. Clinical scholars John Jordan and John McIntosh report that 92% of parents feel guilty for the suicide of their child and do, of course, call themselves into question repeatedly (Grief After Suicide. New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 49).

Self-accusation after my daughter Mary’s suicide followed the usual “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” pattern. I considered it a kind of penitential self-improvement project I had a right and obligation to undertake–one which I didn’t want to be talked out of. One day when an acquaintance told me in the grocery store I shouldn’t feel guilty for what happened to my daughter, I couldn’t help thinking how ridiculously out of touch with suicide bereavement she was.

Still, Father Ron Rolheiser offers a slightly different perspective about suicide second-guessing that seems helpful. He describes it as “myth” that the suicide of someone we love could have been prevented “if only I had done more, been more attentive, and been there at the right time. Rarely is this the issue. Most of the time, we weren’t there for the very reason that the person who fell victim to the disease [of unendurable emotional pain] did not want us to be there. He or she picked the moment, the spot, and the means precisely so that we wouldn’t be there” (“Suicide–Some Misconceptions,” http://www.ronrolheiser.com July 30, 2000).

My daughter began overdosing on her anti-depressant medication well after midnight behind the locked door of her bedroom. To rescue her, my husband and I would have had to find her in the middle of the night. That rescue was not likely to happen, and Mary knew it.

While it is essential to be clear about the warning signs of suicide and to ask whether a depressed person is thinking about suicide and has a plan, it is equally essential to make peace somehow with the “shabby, confused, agonized crisis which,” according to Alfredo Alvarez, “is the common reality of suicide” (The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1971, p. 12).

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“When asked to note the most distressing aspect of their grief, parents of children who had died by suicide most frequently listed guilt first, followed by feelings of loneliness,” write clinical scholars John Jordan and John McIntosh.

Fifty-four percent of suicide-bereaved parents experience “death causation” guilt stemming from actions they performed or failed to perform which they feel contributed to their child’s death. Half of all suicide-bereaved parents experience “childrearing guilt” either for a parenting style they think could have been more loving or for “negative or ambivalent” feelings toward their child. Twenty-eight percent of suicide-bereaved parents deal with “illness-related” guilt centering on their feelings of either not having provided the best possible medical care for their child or for having been absent when their child died (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, New York: Routledge, 2011, pp. 49-50).

Not only did I harbor all that guilt when my daughter Mary died by suicide in 1995, I believed that not feeling guilty would show I’d not loved her enough, that I’d been callous–even inhumane–toward her. In my mind, rejecting guilt would have been tantamount to saying, “Mary, I had nothing to do with your death and am not taking responsibility for it.” But in time, expending energy on guilt proved to be a waste. Mary’s death was so much more significant and mysterous than the mere assignment of blame could ever address. Her suicide called for admitting human frailty–hers and mine–and finding a way forward.

There was the Roman Catholic sacrament of reconciliation where I was able to confess the ways I’d willfully failed my daughter over the course of her life. It was healing at a depth which I couldn’t measure.

I was also recently helped by advice from the National Alliance on Mental Illness to people with mental illness in their families: “We forgive ourselves and reject guilt.” As America’s leading grass roots organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with severe mental illness, NAMI has my respect. If it advises family members living with mental illness to forgive themselves and reject guilt, I apply that wisdom to suicide bereavement, as well.

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One memorable comment the grief therapist made to my family after my daughter Mary’s suicide  was, “Guilt is a bear you’ll be wrestling for a long time.”

In Grief After Suicide, editors Jordan and McIntosh write that guilt results from what a survivor did, didn’t do, or imagined he or she might have done to prevent the suicide death (p.31).  In my experience, guilt usually showed up in “what-iffing” questions: what if I’d been home that day, what if Mary had seen another doctor, what if I’d gone into her bedroom and read one of her journals?  What if I’d been more attentive?

“What-iffing” questions waned only when, a couple years into the grief, I got tired of asking them. For one thing, I started giving myself credit for doing the best I could do with what I knew about Mary at the time of her death.  Yes, I had fallen tragically short; but whatever I did or failed to do was the best I could do at that time.

Our family grief therapist also said something to my husband and me one day that helped quell the what-iffing: “You’re just not that powerful.” John was lamenting his inability to protect our daughter, and I was admitting how little I had known her when she most needed to be known. We were both frustrated and sad and rattled by failure. “You’re just not that powerful,”  Jane told us.  Far from discouraging me, her words rang with truth.

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