In a previous post, I wrote about the Stages of Grief after suicide and how they relate to survivors (click here to revisit the post). I challenged the notion that these stages apply to a survivor in the same manner that they apply to someone who loses a loved one “naturally.” As a psychotherapist, I understand that the stages are a blueprint to be used to help others understand their grief journey. However, as a survivor I continue to question whether these stages are relevant to those who have lost a loved one to suicide. I believe there is a missing link; a link that can impact one’s ability to effectively navigate their way through the stages. What is the link? Guilt.
If you are a survivor, you might now be familiar with “the signs” of suicide, in hindsight. Signs such as: giving away possessions, saying goodbye, talking about death, withdrawal, a sudden sense of calm, etc. Some may even tell their loved ones that they are feeling suicidal. Whether you did or did not see the signs, as a survivor, you go back to those final days with your loved one and reexamine every minute. All of a sudden, something so small appears to be so big. You begin to ask yourself question after question, which often leads to blame. You wonder whether you could have changed the outcome. If you would have seen these signs, or acted on them sooner, would your loved one still be alive? Wow. How can you not feel an overwhelming sense of guilt? This certainly does not apply to everyone and some survivors might feel as if there were no signs at all. Many in our LOSS group have shared they felt their loved one even went out of their way to hide the signs so they couldn’t be stopped. And, likely, there was nothing we could have done. However, I can relate to the guilt and this is why I continue to believe that the Stages of Grief are different for a survivor of suicide than a person who lost a loved one to natural causes. Sure, if your loved one died of cancer, you may still have feelings of guilt. Guilt that you did not tell them you loved them one last time, or apologized for any wrong doing. As a survivor of suicide, you carry this guilt along with one other question, “Could I have prevented their death?”
I write this post today, in hopes that it helps you feel less alone if you do feel any sense of guilt. I want to acknowledge the overwhelming sense of this guilt you may experience as a survivor. A notion that you truly cannot understand unless you are a survivor yourself. In future posts, I will break down each stage independently and discuss how I think it is different for survivors. I would love to hear from you as well. Do you feel that guilt has impacted your grief journey? Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to gain perspective on how other survivors grieve.