In the past, I wrote this blog post about the Stages of Grief and how guilt impacted our ability to move through each stage successfully. Recent conversation with a family member after the loss of Blackhawk’s assistant equipment manager, Clint Reif, motivated me to revisit the topic of guilt after suicide as many questioned, “How did his family not know?”
If you are a survivor, you have likely become very familiar with guilt after suicide. It plays a strong role in our grief process and can often hinder our ability to move forward. Guilt keeps us in the past as we consistently question our actions and the actions of the person we lost. It is amazing to me how my own guilt after my dad’s suicide altered my memories. Small things that I often would not remember all of a sudden became big things; things that I questioned, tore apart, and often obsessed about. We try anything and everything to lessen the guilt after suicide. Questions like, “How did you not know?” can make guilt that much stronger as you blame yourself for not preventing the actions of the person you lost.
I think this is a very common misconception of those who have never been touched by suicide. While there are those who did communicate their thoughts, their are certainly those who did not. And to be honest, questions like “How did you not know?” make me a little angry because it just contributes to the overwhelming sense of guilt you are already experiencing. I do not fault people who may have this perception. It is not necessarily their fault that they do not understand why often times there aren’t any clear signs. It goes back to this perception that society has of people who die by suicide. The depth of one’s pain isn’t always as obvious to those on the outside. I think we survivors need to sometimes cut ourselves a break and acknowledge that maybe the signs weren’t as clear as we thought.
I have compared everyday depression and anxiety to an addiction in an effort to help people understand. Not every alcoholic or drug addict is homeless, unemployed or violent. In fact, most are working Americans just like the rest of us. Someone with an addiction is by far one of the best actors I have ever seen. Day after day they put on this show for the world, pretending they do not have a problem. Many are fooled by their act, and are surprised to find out that they have this addiction. Someone battling depression and anxiety can be exactly like someone battling an addiction. They put on this mask every single day trying not to expose their true self to the world. An addict or alcoholic often wears this mask until they hit their “rock bottom.” A person battling anxiety and depression often wears their mask until the day they hit theirs, which all too often is the day they die.
I provide this comparison in an effort to give someone out there a little comfort in knowing that maybe the signs weren’t as clear as one would hope. Maybe the person you lost to suicide wore a mask and didn’t have the ability to take it off, exposing their true self to the world. I often think that I never truly knew my dad, only the person he wanted me to see. While sometimes I do still feel guilty, I also feel a strange sense of peace that maybe he has finally found a place where he can remove the mask and just be.