feeling responsible for a friend's death
October 9, 2011 10:08 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with suicide when you feel (or are made to feel) partially responsible?

I just heard from a mutual friend that a former friend of mine took her life recently. We used to be close, but after some interpersonal issues we had a falling-out and she cut me out of her life. I had been away and did want to patch things up, but never had the opportunity to.

I feel that part of what led her to take her life was some loss of friendships she went through, including mine - part of why we got close was that she felt alienated from a group that she used to be very involved with and I was one of the few people she had left to talk to. In the past, when she felt bad, she'd call me over for cuddles or talk and it'd help us out (I'd do the same), and part of me feels that had we still been friends she would still be alive now. Mutual friends tell me that there were many other reasons, it's not my burden to bear, but I still feel terrible that I never got to fix things up with her in time.

The other problem is that there seems to be some friends of hers who are familiar with my online presence (part of our falling-out had to do with some misunderstanding over blogs) and are in a way blaming me for this. I posted a condolence note on my blog and I got a reply claiming to be from "[Friend's] Ghost" saying "You truly are horrible." Anyone that would pretend to be a deceased person just to troll someone else probably deserves to be considered "horrible" more than me, but at the same time it does feel like there are people who care about her so much to the point of considering me a bad guy and will forever haunt me for this.

I've already lost one other close person (my cousin) to suicide over New Years and had another family death. This is the most personal death I've had to experience in such a sort time, probably ever - my cousin was two years older than me and this former friend is about a year or two younger. I know ultimately I'm not responsible for her being dead, but I still can't help but feel that I didn't make things exactly good for her. How do I deal with the guilt and the pain, especially when there are people out there happily willing to thrust blame onto me?
posted by divabat to Human Relations (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
how do i deal with the guilt and pain, especially when there are people out there happilly wiling to thrust blame onto me?

answer: handle the guilt with dignity, accept that others may place the blame on you but trying to defend yourself is only going to backfire and create more tension based on the 'circumstances.' do not say anything, but internally accept that you were not responsible for your former friend's suicide. there's a saying (not popular at least not that i'm aware of), but it goes something like this: whatever you need to believe, and it's said to others when you know what is the truth and others keep making assumptions or implying certain things. of course, you shouldn't say that to the people that make these statements, but try to think this thought because you were not to blame for her suicide.

as for the feelings of guilt and pain, the reality is that you will never be able to make amends with this person. the best that you can do is make amends with yourself by becoming aware and more empathetic towards others and perhaps volunteering for an organization that is related to individuals committing suicide. you could even get training to help with a suicide or mental health hotline. this is not going to magically change things for you, but it can help you be there for other people that experienced something similar to your friend or advocating to stand up against bullies (just an example). point being, if you are looking to find closure because your friend's suicide then try to volunteer with an organization that advocates for others or directly helps others. meanwhile, accept what has happened, learn to recognize that both of you were equally to blame for the fall out, and that you can help change other people's lives through volunteering.
posted by sincerely-s at 10:26 PM on October 9, 2011

First of all, allow yourself to grieve over this if you need to. Part of the guilt might be feeling like you're not allowed to be sad about this happening if you could have (as if you could have!) prevented it.

People will always be jerks online and will always rip apart the words and intentions of others. Whatever online drama might have happened, that does not make it okay to be called a terrible person.

If most of this negativity is coming from the online world, maybe keep a low online-profile in communities she used to hang out in. It's not fair to you, but imagine the real-world correlation of going to a bar that she hung out in or her place of work and being around people who, for their own reasons, think you played a part.

Rememer the suicide is always ultimately a decision made by the person taking their own life. It's true that external influences can play a role, but if she'd alienated a lot of people aside from just you then it sounds like she was engaging in behaviors that made it difficult for anyone to maintain a friendship with her.

I'm afraid I can't remember if you're of the spiritual bent or not. If you are, it might help to imagine talking to her spirit/soul/whatever and telling her how sorry you are that you two never made amends. Imagine the two of you reconciling and putting away your differences. Honestly even if you don't believe it may help to work things through even so.

sincerely-s: "the best that you can do is make amends with yourself by becoming aware and more empathetic towards others and perhaps volunteering for an organization that is related to individuals committing suicide. you could even get training to help with a suicide or mental health hotline."

Personally I'd actually recommend against this if you're still hurting. It might be something you can plan to look into once the pain is gone. I imagine to be good at a support line like that you have to be able to keep your emotions separate when handling calls and that might not be as easy when this still weighs heavily on your mind.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:31 PM on October 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: avoiding hangouts may be tricky - the "trolls" usually gossip about me somewhere else and then come to my blog to dish out on things. I've put in some measures to curb trolls in general, but they're getting creative. Also it's a small city and we were into the same things (and knew a lot of the same people), and some of these people may intersect with the online crowd. I don't know.

I'm flying back home tomorrow and I dread turning on my phone and seeing a message from her asking to contact or meet - and I missing it just because I happen to be out of network range. oh for the love of a day.
posted by divabat at 10:43 PM on October 9, 2011

You can't make somebody give up drinking or drugs until they're ready, and you can't save a suicidal person by loving them or being friends with them, unless your version of love involves locking her in a soft room whenever you're not there and taking her shoelaces away. If you're to blame, so is every person who was still her friend (or family member) but wasn't there when she did it and every other person she ever liked or wanted before who didn't stick around and keep her happy so that she wouldn't do it. This terrible thing that happened very fundamentally had nothing to do with you. There are people who are surrounded by nothing but love who do this all the time. They are tormented on the inside, and you can't help them from the outside.
posted by Adventurer at 11:36 PM on October 9, 2011 [22 favorites]

No. Just no. You didn't do this.

She did this.

Read again what you wrote to us: "She cut me out of her life."

Your friendship with her had a rough patch, she did what she felt she needed to take care of herself at that time.

What exactly were you supposed to do? Were you supposed to sit outside her home with flowers in hopes she'd let you back in her life, when she'd decided you weren't in her life any longer?

Human relationships are hard, and confusing, and often lead to misunderstandings; seems that happened here. And yeah, to some degree we are responsible, to be kind to one another as best we can, to not intentionally hurt another deeply, or at all. But other than that, and honesty to the best that we're able to be honest, I don't know what else we owe to one another. She wasn't your wife, or your sister, or your mother, or your daughter.

Suicide, hey, a sick and/or confused person can do suicide "at" another person, to try to hurt them, and sometimes they're successful at it. You don't even know if this is what she was trying to do here but even if she was, you need not take that bait. You didn't do this. She did. You didn't make this choice -- she did.

As far as others blaming you, esp publicly -- they're just sick fucks stabbing at you. It's so damned easy to hide behind a keyboard and throw filth around online -- small people love it, unprincipled people. You're doing something right or at the very least you're doing something well, some vile bit of human garbage is trying to take you down a peg, trying to get you off your game, trying to get inside your head. Please don't buy in. Easy for me to say, not easy for you to do no doubt, but I wanted to make sure to say it.

Letting go of her when she insisted you do so, you did what she asked. It was the right choice. What else could you have done? You can try and try to find out what you "should" have done differently til the end of time. No matter what you come up with, well, it's not what happened, and it's all just a very human way of trying to make sense of things that are difficult to get our head around.

Let yourself off the hook. When you think of her think good thoughts, her kindnesses, her goodnesses. Cry if you're going to, grieve, don't cut yourself off from legitimate pain. You care about her, you're sorry it all came down as it did. Cry if and when you need to; it's very human, it hits (me anyways) at the damndest times, for the damndest reasons or none at all.

I'm real sorry you're in this, and the other losses also.

You didn't do this. You are not on the hook for this. Please don't take it on.
posted by dancestoblue at 11:50 PM on October 9, 2011 [16 favorites]

"How do you deal with suicide when you feel (or are made to feel) partially responsible?"

Answer: Do exactly what you've done. Post to AskMe where everyone will tell you that you're not to blame for someone else's selfish, senseless, wasteful actions. And they will all be right. Then keep reminding yourself that this wasn't your fault, despite what any other idiot claims.

This is so not your fault. Please, whatever else, remember that, always.
posted by Effigy2000 at 12:42 AM on October 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I also have major, major, major regret around things I wish I had done for someone who died, and maybe I always will.

But at the same time, I feel like I always need to remember that because I can't change what happened, I am actually wasting my usefulness by continuing to dwell on it. Every moment and bit of energy I spend wallowing on the past, is being taken away from someone or something else, who is actually still here in the present and could still be affected by something I do. Unlike the one who died who won't be affected by it at all no matter how much wallowing I do.
posted by Ashley801 at 1:38 AM on October 10, 2011

Response by poster: Oh great, now someone else has gotten onto my case for using her first name (no other identifying details) on a grieving post. I changed it but that's still not good enough because we weren't on good terms and I'm being selfish & disrespectful & self-serving yadda yadda. I swear, whether offline or online, I don't think I can mourn any which way without pissing someone off.

Thankfully I seem to have a couple of friends that I can talk to about her without them being annoyed, people who remember the good times and who were there when things went bad, but now I feel like by the time I get back, if I ever so much as hint about this my reaction will be judged - be sad and I'm selfish, not be sad and I'm coldhearted. I just want to be able to mourn and grieve however I need to, selfish or otherwise.

posted by divabat at 2:20 AM on October 10, 2011

I'm sorry you are having such a difficult time. If most of the problems are happening online, you might consider spending a week unplugged. Might have several good outcomes, actually.
posted by Houstonian at 2:30 AM on October 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Please remember, as all the nice folks above have said, you are NOT responsible for another person's actions. SHE chose to do what she did.

As for the trolls on your blog, can you set comments so they're only posted after moderation? Then if you get any from specific troll names (like the rude jerk who used 'Friend's Ghost'!),just delete without reading. (And anybody who choses to do that kind of thing anonymously IS a troll).
posted by easily confused at 2:45 AM on October 10, 2011

Really sorry for your loss. I know it might be hard if you are active online, but given the nasty responses and the fact it's upsetting you and feeding into your feelings of guilt (and this really isn't your fault) I would not post anywhere where you're going to see comments on the post. That might mean radio silence, in which case maybe you could journal it privately somewhere, or talk to a real friend in person about how you feel.
posted by crocomancer at 2:53 AM on October 10, 2011

Response by poster: Oh they're seeking me out on my profiles elsewhere, it's not just comments. But I might consider the time-offline thing (though it will be hard as it is how I keep in touch with most people anyhow). And I will definitely find some non-toxic people to hang with, lucky for me I have a very supportive partner...I just wish the toxic folk aren't honing in on me so much! Even on my own space they're trying to intrude! X_X
posted by divabat at 3:10 AM on October 10, 2011

Guilt and blame are emotions which come up very frequently after the death of someone close. From this article:

The widower laments, "I didn't pay attention when she told me she was not feeling well. She went through her illness alone."

The young accountant speculates that planning a trip with her older sister would have given her something to look forward to; that she wouldn't have given up.

The child believes that his wishing mommy dead during a fit of anger caused mommy to die.

The mother of three regrets the complaints she made about her husband's selfishness prior to his sudden death.

And, from a Survivors of Suicide website:

•Anger may be part of the grief response, whether directed towards the deceased, another family member, a therapist, or oneself.
•Guilt often surfaces as the feeling, "If only I had done.", "If only I had said or not said."


•You may need to feel guilty for a while before you can accept that you are not to blame and that you are only human, with human limitations.

And from this website on sudden death/suicide and the emotions they bring up:

When deaths are perceived as preventable, there may be a strong sense of the "What if’s." Preventable deaths are likely to increase a sense of guilt, especially if one feels responsible or a sense of anger or if one holds others at fault.

Feelings of guilt, self-blame and blaming and shaming others seem almost inevitable when someone dies. In any relationship, whether it is in your past or your present, there is always room for "better" on both people's part - more understanding, more effort, more empathising, more time invested, more attention given etc, and, conversly, less snappishness, less point-scoring, less meanness, less usperficiality etc. And when the dialogue with somebody is interrupted in a sudden way, all those potential future reparation oportunities vanish as well. So you are left with a lot you would want to make amends for, and no opportunity to do so. This happens after every death, but more so after a death you feel you might have contributed to, even ever so slightly - and it is not rational. I'll give you an example: I was in my 30s when my grandmother died. She suddenly went into a coma and died after a week. Throughout that week, I clutched to the belief that she was going to get better - each time she showed some eye-movement, each time I could conceivably interpret some intentionality into her twitches etc. I was convinced she would come round. And then she died. And for a couple of months I had this completely irratinal feeling that I had jinxed it - and she had died because of me.

In your case, your guilt (and others blaming you) seems more reasonable. But I don't think this is the case (or that it ever is the case in similar situations). I think why suicides happen, and what the full process is that brings someone to kill themselves will always remain a mystery - I know a few people who have attempted it and were only just rescued, and have spoken a few times with a couple of them - the decision is unfathomable to them, too, once enough time passes. But my feeling is that it is not one thing, or even a cummulation of negative things which leads to that. It seems to be some internal psychological mechanism giving out after living under huge strain for a very long period of time, becoming worn out little by little over many years. This is probably unnoticeable to begin with even for the sufferer, then the increasingly destabelised psychological state is naturalised and becomes the norm, and so on, until a full erosion of whatever keeps us alive takes place. Given that your fall-out has not been very recent when she took her life, I doubt you were even the last drop in a very complex and prolonged series of badly processed life-events. It seems much more likely to me that your fall-out and her final act have the same source: a mind in disarray, that was going through upheaval which is much larger than any one thing, including you.

As for the people blaming it on you: quite probably it is their way of dealing with their grief. The blaming may well stop once they are past this stage. My suggestion is that you tell them once (maybe in private, if this is a possibility - by email? in person if you can?) that you had a fall-out, that being away has given you time to think about it and that you had come to the conclusion that you miss her too much as a friend to let whatever led to said fall-out come between you - and you had intended to patch things up. You really wish you hadn't waited to return before doing that.

And this is pretty much all you can say to them. They will probably not relent for as long as their own pain is fresh, but the more mature of them will, in time, realise that blaming you was just a way of avoiding feeling the grief, and that you yourself are grieving, too. As for the rest - forget about them. I'd just council you against defending yourself by giving too many details - you'll end up feeling worse if in the heat of the argument you say something which throws a bad light on her. And by not doing that, you're also doing a last service to her: you are standing up for her (even if noone else knows this), and you are bearing the brunt of other people's anger in order to shield her in her vulnerability from the scrutiny of others.

I also suggest you find a good support network for yourself - maybe people who are not caught up in the whole grief-guilt-anger-blame scenario. You need support, you need someone to whom you can cry about your loss, your feelings of guilt, someone you can tell the "What-ifs" to, someone who listens but also sets your head straight on occasion.

Here and here and here are some more resources.

I'm very sorry for your loss, and wish you well navigating this.
posted by miorita at 3:27 AM on October 10, 2011 [7 favorites]

It sounds as though you're surrounded by some very toxic people. Is there a way you can ban them from commenting on your blog? Because I really can't fathom how sick a person would have to be to leave that kind of comment in that way.

It sounds like she was enmeshed in a number of very unhealthy relationships and you also sound very reasonable and sensitive, insofar as it's possible to tell that about you from here. Avoiding these harassers is probably the best you can do for now. Other than that, I would suggest that you publicly do nothing. You didn't cause this if you respond directly to the harassers it draws you into a fight which will be fought on their terms. In other words: pouring petrol on a fire.

Sorry, it sucks. Bless you and may you be comforted in your grief.
posted by tel3path at 4:10 AM on October 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

deathalicious, you are absolutely right. OP, sorry for any confusion, but i would also advise against doing something like volunteering during the grieving stage. i would only recommend something like that if a) you were ready and b) you wanted to.
posted by sincerely-s at 5:41 AM on October 10, 2011

Oh honey, I am so sorry. I have been exactly where you are now (my best friend killed himself in 2008), please memail me if you need help getting through this.

But really, it is normal for people to look for a reason and somewhere to put the blame for the grief they feel. This doesn't make it your fault. You are not responsible for your friend's death. You really aren't, it wasn't about you. Depression is a life-threatening and sometimes fatal illness, her death is no more your fault than if she'd died of cancer or been hit by a bus.

It can take a while to get over something like this, be gentle with yourself.
posted by biscotti at 5:59 AM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Please memail me too. I don't want to write too much about my experience here, except that my friend died shortly after an argument with me.

People do crazy shit when they grieve, including lashing out at people like yourself. My two-part suggestion is:

a) Therapy for support.
b) Get away, as far as you can, from those who are blaming you.

Hang in there, and for serious, memail me for any reason.
posted by angrycat at 7:19 AM on October 10, 2011

only a partial answer here: maybe the troll is just a random troll and has nothing to do with the situation.
posted by chinabound at 7:27 AM on October 10, 2011

If they can blame you, they don't have to blame themselves. If they're angry at you, they don't have to be angry at themselves, or at her. I'm not being flip, I think that's a big part of it.

That doesn't mean any of you are actually to blame, or responsible - it was her choice, and she based it on how she personally experienced a whole bunch of different things in her life. Obviously I didn't know her, but that's my truth, if you will.

Maybe time will give these people some perspective, maybe not. To the extent that you can, try to remember that they are probably doing their best to muddle through their own grief and anger and confusion, and while it is kind of shitty of them to do that by taking it out on you maybe that's the only way that they can handle it. Couple that with the group mentalilty and some measure of online "unreality" and lack of accountability, and that's not so good. They may also be kind of horrible.

I hope that you are able to grieve in a way that's best for you, because no one else deserves to be able to take that away from you. You deserve to grieve exactly how you would if they weren't trying to bully you. No matter how many awful tings they say or how they try to act out, none of that makes what they're doing or saying true or okay. Hang in there.
posted by mrs. taters at 8:07 AM on October 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Perhaps it would help you to write your friend a letter in which you can tell her about all of this. About your guilt and your mixed feelings and her terrible friends and your anger.
It will help you sort through your feelings and perhaps it will help you say good bye.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:08 PM on October 10, 2011

Not much to add as many have spoken warmly and eloquently already. I had a similar experience with a close friend. It has been now 11 years so I have perspective and maybe these words can give you a bit of peace.

Often individuals who are thinking of and preparing for suicide will push those they care about away before they do it. Individuals who do actually want to die may do this consciously and/or subconsciously to create a distance-1) in an effort to protect loved ones, and 2) so that the suicide is won't be stopped. Maybe your friend was doing this. Give this some thought to see if it might apply to your situation.

You can learn more about signs and signals of suicide so that you can be prepared in case it comes up later with loved ones. I did this, and it gave me comfort. It gave me an action--when there is nothing to be done pro-actively after a suicide. It may allow you to look at others ' actions, future actions, with more benevolence, when you see someone in pain pushing you away. Despite the pain you are feeling now, sadly you will learn much from this experience. You will know the pain of suicide and how it affects those left behind. I know that I've used my friend's suicide and his family (and my) experience when talking with suicidal friends and family members. I'd like to hope it made a difference. Most suicidal individuals have tunnel vision and can only feel their own pain but don't generally want to inflict the devestaing aftermath of a suicide on those they love.

I'm sorry for the other people's actions. Grief works in mysterious ways and suicide can be the most bewildering. Remember, that this is not your fault. I say this kindly: you did not have that much affect on her nor do you have that power. Whether you had been active friends, argument or not, her actions would have been the same. One unique situation with suicide is there are so many questions about the suicide--the guilt, the reasonings, the questions-is that you also have just regular old grief too. I am sorry for the loss of your friend. You have my sympathies.
posted by Kitty Cornered at 7:31 PM on October 10, 2011

One thing about mental illness in general is that it tends to self-reinforcing by definition. Non-depressed people feel down, too, but a combination of their brain chemistry, attitudes, and surroundings cause them to eventually deal with and overcome that feeling. Severely depressed people are the opposite. They react to sadness by spiraling further down into sadness. Like an alcoholic, it's very hard to help someone who feels that they deserve to be sad. Even someone with no previous history of depression can get into a bad, self-reinforcing combination of brain, thoughts, and surroundings and be unable to recover. Roughly as many people kill themselves each year as are murdered, so it's pretty common, unfortunately.
posted by wnissen at 7:35 PM on October 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm quite familiar with mental illness and depression...I've been suicidal too, and this former friend had been there for me when I was feeling down, a few months before things went downhill for her rapidly. It stings me that things went especially bad for us just as I was about to go on a long trip, and I had to go away again, and before I even had the chance to return for long enough she's gone. Just...gone.
posted by divabat at 8:44 PM on October 10, 2011

I believe in your ability to shut out the asshole idiots looking to make you the locus of their pain. This is more about your own, internal feelings of responsibility.

I've been where you are; in many ways I'm still there. You have to trust that you were as present as you could have been. It's easy in hindsight to say, oh, I should have said this, done that. It's harder in hindsight to remember that you had good reasons for the choices you made, and that you made the best choices you could at the time. Time and events have given you perspective, but the choices you would have made, had you had the perspective of this time, still wouldn't be better ones. They'd just be different ones, and they wouldn't have saved her.

When people die, we want to know the story of what happened. Most of the time it's a heart attack or a truck or a random, unforeseeable thing. Suicide seems different, because it seems so avoidable and preventable. But it's still a random, unforeseeable thing. You've been suicidal; you know that some days you can manage it, other days it's harder, and you don't know if or when the crisis moment will come. Even if you'd been there, you probably wouldn't have stopped this. Even if you weren't there, on another night she would have made a different choice without you, just like she did all those other times.

You were the best friend you could be to her, for as long as you could be. I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by Errant at 9:32 PM on October 10, 2011

I'm sorry to hear about your loss. It's very common for people to feel guilt after losing a friend to suicide. I had something similar happen in middle school. Having a neutral sounding board in therapy has helped a lot. It takes a lot of time for the emotional side of your brain to catch up to the intellectual side. You know that this wasn't your fault. It will take time for that feeling to sink in, so be gentle with yourself.

One intellectual fact that may be helpful is the fact that interviews with survivors of suicide have shown that the actual decision is usually very impulsive. Often down to the scale of mere minutes. To me, that makes a very fine point about double guessing what could have been. In a very real way, suicide is more of an accident, like lightning, than a coherent narrative of cause and effect.

The people trolling you are either straight up trolls or they are trying subconsciously to create a narrative that alleviates their own "why wasn't I there?!?" survivor's guilt. To that end, maybe they will seem more bearable even if there's no good solution for that other than time as well.
posted by Skwirl at 11:38 AM on October 11, 2011

« Older Baked potato skins: Who eats them?   |   Not particularly enthusiastic about rolling my own... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.