My friend died and I can't forgive myself
June 10, 2016 1:29 AM   Subscribe

I found out last week that someone I considered one of my closest friends had died. I feel incredibly guilty because, towards the end, I wasn't there for her.

My friend was an incredibly intelligent, talented, loving person who had a lot of mental illness problems and who dealt with them through drinking. I begged her so many times to get help but she didn't because she was afraid she would lose her medical license (she was a surgeon). About ten years ago her mother committed suicide. A few years later her husband left her. And then because she was incredibly lonely she got involved with a guy who was a druggie who stole from her to feed his habit. She was broke, estranged from most of her family, mentally ill (I believe she had borderline personality disorder inherited from her mother), abandoned by most of her friends...and she drank herself to death.

My friend and I were best friends in high school but she "broke up" with me because of some very wild and crazy behaviour on my part (at that time she was the "good girl"). I then found her again on Facebook in 2010 and it was as if no time had passed. By then she and I lived far apart (about ten hours by plane) but for several years we would keep in touch with phone calls, emails, etc, and I went to visit her once. Throughout these years she was very kind and generous with me and helped me with a problem I was having. She was also quite demanding of my time and attention and for the past few years I felt the friendship was too draining, too much for me to handle, and that she was taking away from the time I could spend keeping in touch with other friends and maintaining other relationships. I also struggled with her politics which I found distasteful (she was a far right republican and planning to vote for trump). I distanced myself, and for the past six months we weren't really in touch at all. During those months she reached out to me many times, sending me links on Facebook, asking me to play computer games with her, etc. I just didn't respond.

With retrospect, I should have realised she was going downhill fast. Since we had reconnected, she told me about her mother's suicide and even that her mother had sexually abused her. Then her husband left her, etc. etc. There was always a crisis. I had begun to doubt any of it was true but when she died, I connected with some of her estranged family members and friends and found out it was indeed all true.

I am devastated and feel incredibly guilty. I just keep thinking about how alone she must have felt, how desperately sad, and how many times she reached out to me and I ignored her. Apparently during the last few weeks she was bedridden. I wish so, so much I had responded even just to say thank you for the jokes and play a few measly games of scrabble or something. Even though I know I probably couldn't have saved her, I could have made her last months a little bit happier and less lonely. But I didn't. I loved her, but I abandoned her, and now I'll never have the chance to say I'm sorry.

My question is, how can I forgive myself for what I've done when the only person whose could forgive me is gone?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry that your friend is gone. Guilt is a common emotion after the death of someone you care about--there are always things left unsaid and undone. It's not healthy for you to allow yourself to be consumed by guilt for too long. It's ok to feel the emotion and acknowledge it, but I think the next step is to do something with all those feelings. Perhaps this will motivate you to make changes in some of your other relationships that aren't fully functional. Or you could volunteer or donate money in your friend's name to an addiction organization. Do what you can to turn this guilt and sadness into something positive and forward moving.
posted by xyzzy at 2:15 AM on June 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

It's one of those things that just takes time. A long time.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:42 AM on June 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

First of all, be kind to yourself. We are all flawed human beings who do the best we can do with what life brings us. You made some decisions that were healthy for you. So, be kind to yourself and keep saying to yourself that none of this is your fault.

Then, once the pain lessens, sit down and think about what you can do going forward. Do you want to plant a tree in your friend's memory? Do you want to volunteer once a week at a shelter? Do you want to fundraise for cancer? I find involving myself in projects where I know I am making a change in someone else's life is really good for my soul.

But bottomline: be kind to yourself and take plenty of time to reflect on the good times you had together. I am sorry for your loss and I am very sorry that you are so hard on yourself.
posted by kariebookish at 3:22 AM on June 10, 2016 [14 favorites]

I think learning from the experience can help bring closure and resolution. Today, think (and act) on treating people who you love differently. Make a list, and have one interaction with them per week (or per month) - call them, text them, play games online, go for walks with them, tell them you love them. And by doing that, you will honor her and her loss every day
posted by zia at 4:52 AM on June 10, 2016 [10 favorites]

Your friend is not the only person who can forgive you - you can forgive yourself. And you should forgive yourself. People make mistakes. You are human.

Sometimes, in order to forgive yourself, you need to atone. Pay it forward, as atonement for this mistake in your life. Their is no shortage of people in the world who have no one. Find some one to be there for, and be there for that person in honor of your friend. You can go to a nursing home, or join the big brothers / big sisters program, or lots of options. If you feel the need to atone, then do it, that often helps people to forgive themselves.

But you must find a way to forgive yourself. Living with the burden of guilty is unhealthy and self-destructive. Destroying yourself over this mistake is NOT the way to honor the memory of your friend.
posted by Flood at 5:05 AM on June 10, 2016 [9 favorites]

If you had posted here a few months ago saying something like:

My friend I really care about has a problem with drinking. I've begged her to get help but she won't because she fears professional consequences. She contacts me frequently and if I respond or engage every time she contacts me I won't have time for other things that are important to me.

You would likely have gotten several answers recommending that you do pretty much exactly what you did - take a step back, this friendship isn't healthy for you. Also, the computer games on Facebook may or may not have been sent from her, some of them are just how spammy games try to get new players.

I'm so sorry for your loss.
posted by bunderful at 5:22 AM on June 10, 2016 [15 favorites]

This may not help much, but I, an Internet stranger forgive you. You are a good person (that's why this bothers you so acutely). You did the best you could with the information you had. Grieve your loss and then, as others have suggested, move forward by using this experience to help you help others. Good things can come from this sad thing. That is the balance and the gift that keeps the world from despair. I am so sorry for your loss, I wish you peace with this.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 5:23 AM on June 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

From an anonymous mefite:
So, a similar thing happened to me some years ago. One of my closest friends, who lived far away, was struggling with serious mental illness. He became more and more demanding of my time and energy as he got sicker. At first, I tried to engage 110%, hoping I could help him somehow from a distance. After a while, it became too much for me to handle, and it was clear I wasn't actually helping him. While I didn't cut him off, I did distance myself -- answering him less and less promptly, reaching out less and less. This was despite the fact that I considered myself one of his closest friends. Eventually the news came that he had killed himself.

I can't tell you exactly how your experience is going to be -- I think we all go through these things a bit differently -- but I can tell you something about what I experienced.

I struggled with intense grief for a few years. Sometimes this felt like sadness, sometimes it felt like guilt, sometimes it felt like anger, sometimes it felt like a desire to withdraw from the world and other people, sometimes it just felt like an inescapable wordless confusing pain.

I did try to let my rational brain help me through this, and sometimes that was helpful. At the times when I felt up to it, I did find it useful to logically take it apart and understand that:
- It truly wasn't my fault. I hadn't made the choice for him to die; I had wanted only good things for him.
- It was unreasonable for me to have expected myself to handle my friend's ever-escalating demands perfectly. I am only human.
- I've distanced myself from many people who weren't healthy for me, and he's the only one who ever killed himself -- this was something that had more to do with him than me. He was very ill and that was not my fault.
- What happened to my friend wasn't under my control -- I couldn't have prevented what happened whether I distanced myself or not.
- I have a right to my own boundaries, and I made the best choices I could to keep myself healthy and safe. It's my responsibility for me to do that for myself, and I did it as best as I could.

That said, there were other times when logical thinking didn't help at all and the only thing I could do was just to try to be present with the pain that I was feeling. I don't know any shortcuts here -- it's going to hurt and you just have to get through it. When you jolt awake in middle of the night with your heart pounding and tears streaming down your face, you can't necessarily talk yourself down with logic -- you might just have to get through it. It may help for you to know that, though it takes time, these feelings will get less intense eventually. It may also help for you to engage with any mindfulness practice you feel comfortable with (whether that is meditation, counting your breaths, prayer, taking walks, or anything else that works for you). As Emily Nagoski says, "Feelings are like tunnels. You have to go all the way through them to get to the peaceful, calm light at the end." This tunnel might be a long one, but it will have an end.

The other thing you should know is that this experience made it WAY harder for me to reach out to other people or trust anyone during that grieving time. I developed a whole bunch of very intense social anxiety and an overpowering desire to withdraw from other people. It's understandable, I guess, after such a painful experience with someone I cared about. It also doesn't help that the world doesn't always acknowledge how important friends are -- people have a script for how to react if you've had a death in the family, but may not know how seriously a friend's death can impact you unless they've gone through it themselves. I don't know quite what advice to give you about that except to say that, if you do have anybody in your life that you trust, reach out to them -- it helps. A therapist can help, too. This feeling, too, will pass with time.

I'm so sorry about your friend, and I hope you take the time you need to get through this grief. I wish you the best.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 7:02 AM on June 10, 2016 [17 favorites]

Almost 25 years ago I had a good friend stay with me for a year. I ended up having to petition my university to write off the year, as apparently "my roommate was suicidal and I had to take him to the ER and wait around all night" is a common lie for people with missed lectures and late papers &c, and my marks were terrible (save for one class with an A; I had to explain to the committee that that was the only one where the prof and TA spoke to me enough to believe me, and gave me extra time).

After a year of his bouncing back and forth between the mental hospital and my pull-out sofa he was in the hospital for a good long stint, and when he was released I said I could not do it anymore. He needed 24 hour care, which I could not possibly provide. I had come home to razors and blood on my bathroom floor. Once I had five very pleasant and sad cops in my little apartment waiting for a fax to come through from the hospital when he left without permission and I rang them while he was showering. He was in need of far more help than I could provide. No, I said, to the hospital committee deliberating on him, he could not stay with me.

So he went to stay with a family who had, I think, little understanding of the gravity of the situation -- he could have had 24/7 care there, but -- and he killed himself in their garage via carbon monoxide within a week or two. I rather callously blamed them and did not exchange a word with them at the funeral, despite having gone to high school with one of the family members.

It took me a really, really long time to come to terms with: there was nothing else I could have done, and I did the best I knew how to do under the circumstances. Please take that to heart and do not waste time beating yourself up: you did not kill her, you did not act in malice at any point, and, quite likely, you could have lost a year of school or a job in a bid to "help" and had the same end result you have now. This is just simply not the result of any of your actions, not your fault, not on you, and you would not have succeeded where all the professional mental health/addiction resources available to a physician had failed.

It will take time to process your grief as it would with any death of anyone who played any positive role in your life at any time. But you must get rid of the idea that you have done something that needs forgiving -- it's almost the easy way out, to dwell on oneself -- "I should have done something" -- but there were things going on much larger than one person could have made a difference over. Try to celebrate the happy memories, mourn the bad as you would a person's final days with a fatal disease, and view it as such: this is no more on you than it would be if she had died quickly by accident or fast-moving disease in a year you happened to be on sabbatical out of the country. She is not the only person who can grant you forgiveness: you can, too.

One odd bit of advice: ask whomever is handling the estate if you might have some small memento from her life; tuck it away and forget about it for a while. You can throw it out later if it causes pain, but the few trivial things I have from my friend from way back when are now reminders of a happier time with him rather than the bad stuff.
posted by kmennie at 7:13 AM on June 10, 2016 [9 favorites]

Even though I know I probably couldn't have saved her,

In other words, deep down, you think if you had just really, really tried, you could have saved her. Thus, the guilt.

Reality: You could not have saved her. There is no probably about it.

Me saying that will probably be insufficient to convince you. You will need to process this in your own time, in your own way.

You can try to up your savvy so that you are better equipped to deal constructively should you run into someone so needy again. That can at least turn this into a growth experience so it doesn't feel so wasted. Learning more about the kinds of issues she had may also help you come to terms with the reality that, no, you could not have saved her.
posted by Michele in California at 8:21 AM on June 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

As someone else said, we all feel guilt when someone dies. I feel like I could have been more actively involved in my father's care; maybe it would have prolonged his life. But those feelings are only helpful in the sense that maybe it makes us more present for people who are still in our lives. Direct these feelings in a positive direction.

You weren't actually physically in her life and lived very far away, so you had no way of knowing how bad her health had become. You feel like you should have known, but how could you? This isn't anyone's fault. She had an addiction and mental health issues, and she was unwilling/unable to get help for them. It's very sad.

Friends of mine have benefited from grief support groups. Perhaps try something like that, hear other people's stories, let them hear yours. But there isn't anything that you did that needs forgiving. I am very sorry for your loss!
posted by clone boulevard at 8:50 AM on June 10, 2016

First of all, be kind to yourself. We are all flawed human beings who do the best we can do with what life brings us. You made some decisions that were healthy for you. So, be kind to yourself and keep saying to yourself that none of this is your fault.

Yep. Ultimately whether you could or couldn't have saved them (and I'm with everyone else, the answer is likely no), it's an question that is unknowable forever and needs to be let be.

I had a family member with an addiction problem die a while ago and went through similar feelings. These feelings were exacerbated by other family members basically implying that we all knew the family member needed help and why didn't we do more? Which, honestly, is a normal part of grieving in these conflicted grief situations but not ultimately constructive. My family member died because of a lot of choices he made (either intentionally or as the result of his addiction) and he'd structured his life so that it would require one entire other life to keep him alive. So I made a choice that I wasn't willing to give up my life to save his. And I'm okay with that. It sounds callous when you write it out but flat out that is the trade off. Parents might occasionally do that for their children, or partners with a spouse, but I feel like otherwise that is not a choice that should be made for someone who needs that level of care and attention, if they're not meeting you partway. Or if you're contemplating such a choice, you need to go into it with eyes wide open and be very very critical of why you're doing it.

It's hard when you're a capable and competent person living life on a lower difficulty setting to not think that the capacity you have should be spent partly in helping others. And my feeling for me was that I could help this one person who needed intensive constant help, or I could help the larger world and I could not do both. Turning grief inward is a thing that we do because dealing with messy lives is hard and it's easier for a lot of us to be critical of ourselves than to the people we love who were hurting. But people can hurt and still be messy complicated human beings, like your friend was, and having boundaries and making choices is also part of being a messy human being. I am sorry that you are hurting and I am sorry you felt put in such a bad place.
posted by jessamyn at 9:07 AM on June 10, 2016 [9 favorites]

Being close to someone who struggles with severe illness of this nature is hard. It is just draining, difficult - it takes a physical toll, to take in that energy, those demands and needs.

Knowing what to make of their behaviour and the reasons for it is difficult, even for people who specialize in mental health. We have a baked-in belief in personal agency, free will. Mental illness fundamentally challenges this view, sometimes in a way that might be seen as harmful to our own sense of agency, because we need to feel we are or can be effective in determining our lives, in order to do it.

Healthy people want to discount negative events and hope for the best. The actual awfulness of the world can be so implausible.

All that's to say that caring about or for someone with a severe mental illness involves radically upturning the cognitive and emotional mechanisms our species has developed for psychological survival. It would be easier to do that if there were more support available - because it is so costly, on many levels; more people helping would lessen the load - and if our culture really understood behaviour to be brain-based. But that's not where we are.

I'm very sorry.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:16 AM on June 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

how can I forgive myself for what I've done when the only person whose could forgive me is gone?


You're grieving. It's hard. But it will fade; one day it will occur to you that you feel like you again. Until that happens, nobody has the right to tell you you're doing it wrong.

Big hugs from another Internet stranger.
posted by flabdablet at 9:26 AM on June 10, 2016

And what I meant by that is, both mental illness itself and dealing with it are deeply counterintuitive. And painful for everyone. It is usually just too much for any one person to manage without help, without a broader network of actual helpers (and cultural beliefs). You can't be expected to be better at it than most of us. And definitely not all the time. Reiterating others - you did what you could at the time.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:38 AM on June 10, 2016

You say you'll never have the chance to say you're sorry, but what's more true is that you'll never have the chance to see if she forgives you. I do believe that saying you're sorry will really help, even though she can't hear it.

Write her a letter. Tell her everything, apologize for letting those minor annoyances come between you. Tell her how much you wish you had handled this past year differently. Tell her you wish you'd paid more attention. Tell her how sad you are that you won't be able to patch things up now. Tell her you'll miss her. Tell her you're sorry.

Put that letter in an envelope and put it with all the mementos you have of her or of high school. Take a deep breath.
posted by aimedwander at 10:08 AM on June 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry for your loss. On the off chance the following might ring true for you - I have found in my own past that guilt - especially associated with a death - can be a feeling that is masking a deeper emotion, such as profound grief, sadness, loss, love, maybe even anger.

If you can, look inward, look deeper, to see if there is another emotion there. Guilt for me is an easier feeling to feel than profound sadness. It is easier for me to beat myself up about something, place blame on myself, rather than acknowledge the deep loss and sadness or even anger that I can't control. It's ok to feel all of those feelings. See if you can focus on experiencing a deeper emotion, no matter how painful. Experiencing it may help dissipate some of the feelings of guilt.

Please reach out to others in your life for support. And if you find it still difficult as time goes on, you can reach out to a therapist to work through some of these very complex emotions. Best of luck to you in a difficult time.
posted by Uncle Glendinning at 11:30 AM on June 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I second the suggestion to write her a letter.

Also, try to talk with others in her life. It's easy to build a me-centered model of guilt. But when you get many perspectives, you start to see how she was at the center of a web of relationships. A more well-rounded picture may be less painful.
posted by salvia at 12:36 PM on June 10, 2016

How can I forgive myself for what I've done when the only person whose could forgive me is gone?

If your friend was here, right now, and you asked for their forgiveness, would they forgive you?

I'd say there's a pretty good chance the answer is 'yes, of course they would, what kind of friend would want somebody to be miserable?' Would you? Would anybody?

So accept that they would have forgiven you, and take this as forgiveness. The difference is just an inconvenient ordering of space-time.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:55 PM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

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