Guilt and sadness
August 21, 2016 6:53 PM   Subscribe

About six weeks ago, a friend/ex-fwb wrote a facebook message to me that made me uncomfortable - it sexualized our friendship and didn't respect the boundaries I had set for it. This was after a few times when I had told him he was going too far, and I finally laid into him. 4 weeks later, he committed suicide. I have so many weird feelings about this, and I want advice about processing the death of someone and the guilt I feel about my last interactions with him.

I graduated from college 9 years ago, and our romantic relationship was limited to the time during college - we hooked up about 4 times over the course of two years. Since graduating, he had attempted to reinitiate a romantic relationship with me a few times - he would email me and start telling me about how special I was and how much our time together had meant to him. I would let him know that I was not interested in a romantic relationship. He lived across the country from me in addition to just not being someone who I felt romantically compatible with. I have been in relationships for most of the time since I have graduated (several different long-term ones), and I have always made certain he knew about my romantic relationships and that I was committed and monogamous. Recently, he had started this pattern again, and I let him know that I was in a long-term partnership with someone and interested in friendship, but nothing more. He followed those guidelines for a while, and then he flouted them - he said he was going to get me porn for my birthday, completely out of left field. I told him that it was wildly inappropriate, and that him consistently disrespecting my wishes was disappointing and to not contact me again.

A few weeks later, I found out he had committed suicide. I guess I just feel sad that my last interaction with him was so crappy, but I also feel like he was perhaps reaching out because he was so socially isolated, and I couldn't see it. I was so angry with him, and I was probably harsher than I needed to be. Any help I can get processing grief for someone I have really complicated feelings toward would be appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You likely will be well served by a short course of therapy. Your situation may enter into what is known as "complicated grief" and having professional help to sort some of these (very normal! You're totally normal!!!) feelings out is often found to be helpful in the speed and fullness of recovery for this kind of grief.

That said, there is no timeline. You have my permission to reject advice from anyone about your grieving.

I'm so sorry for your loss. This is not your fault, but it is a loss.
posted by bilabial at 6:57 PM on August 21, 2016 [23 favorites]

Not your fault. It's not your fault that he chose to act in an inappropriate manner towards you, repeatedly, over the course of years. It's not you fault you weren't a better friend. Indeed, it's impossible to be a friend to someone who disrespects your boundaries over and over again. Not your fault he was socially isolated. Not your fault you couldn't fix him, and 100% not your fault he committed suicide.

Honestly, he was more of an unpleasant acquaintance from your distant past than a friend. You only feel guilty because he kept reaching out to you for sex. Do NOT think this is your fault.
posted by tippy at 7:17 PM on August 21, 2016 [45 favorites]

I would probably chalk this up to, 'Oh, so that's why he was acting so strange, he had a mental illness,' and then let yourself off the hook.

You reacted in a way that was appropriate to respond to someone who was acting poorly, you had no idea what was going on in his life.

You could make peace with it, and forgive his actions in the light of this new information, if it makes you feel better. You can also forgive any feelings of guilt you might have. Your responses were the right ones, with the info you had at the time.

(My husband took his own life a few years back, and I can vouch for the fact that in that situation, he acted very strangely, and did things that I no longer hold him accountable for, which has helped my own recovery process.)
posted by Youremyworld at 7:59 PM on August 21, 2016 [43 favorites]

You weren't in a position to see any signs. If anyone could based on limited online interactions, and people miss things when they're face to face. I think it's not unusual at all to feel annoyed or irritated when someone's not only got an attraction to you that you don't share (which on its own, can be sort of unpleasant), but is pushing your boundaries, repeatedly, over time. I think it would be hard to get past that, even if more detailed information were made available to you. And it doesn't sound like he gave you a chance to see much else of his life, because (sounds like) most of his communication with you was around this attempt to push your boundaries. You behaved in a way that is appropriately self-protective when dealing with someone who's doing that.

It's very unfortunate that this happened, but it's not your fault.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:59 PM on August 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

You had no responsibility to accept or ignore this man's inappropriate and upsetting sexual advances in order to keep him from committing suicide. After a series of youthful one-night stands, you turned him down gently FOR A DECADE. You showed him a more than generous amount of compassion and care.

Honestly, this kind of obsessive sexual behavior is so common in heterosexual men that I would assume your rejection and his suicide were not connected at all and that if he were still alive, he would still be sending you inappropriate come-ons on Facebook. I would also assume that even if he had confided in you about his troubles, he would have used any help or support you offered him as a way to further pressure you for sex, meaning you were not and could never have been the person who would get him the help he really needed. You did exactly the right thing by removing yourself from his life.

Of course you will miss someone you considered a friend, and it's natural to feel sadness at his untimely death, but I would not beat yourself up trying to figure out how you could have refused sex with an unstable person in such a way that they did not kill someone several weeks later. It's an absurd and horrifying premise and you should not torture yourself with it.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 8:22 PM on August 21, 2016 [27 favorites]

One way to look at this would be: "He was in pain so he was acting inappropriately toward you. He was in pain so he ultimately committed suicide." Your response sounds like an appropriate reaction to his behavior, and that's all it was, a fast-forgotten response to something that he probably knew was inappropriate. His pain probably caused him to act oddly or inappropriately in dozens of ways, and dozens of people probably reacted to that. In general, though it's possible that those reactions cumulatively became a lot to bear, those were all best considered reactions, not causes, of whatever turmoil he was experiencing.

I can still understand feeling guilty. It makes sense to look back and question how you treated him. Had you known his mental state, you would have treated him with the greatest gentleness and concern. The truth, of course, is that we all go through life interacting with hundreds of people, never knowing who among them is particularly sensitive -- be they suicidally depressed, recently diagnosed with an illness, grieving the recent loss of a loved one, on the brink of divorce or bankruptcy, in great physical pain, or otherwise suffering. We would all do well to seek to treat everyone with the utmost gentleness and concern. But of course, we also all continuously fall short. We'll sometimes be having a bad day ourselves. We'll put our foot in it sometimes. Even on the best day, our sense of what "gentleness" means may not match the kind of sensitivity they need. (Walk around with any intense pain or grief, and see if you don't encounter five insensitive people for every one who manages to see your pain and treat you in the way that is most useful.) So we all also rely upon those we encounter to have a certain amount of resiliency, to have skin that's thick to a certain degree, and if they don't, it's not necessarily on us. If someone on the bus has a splitting migraine, is it our fault that the noise of us putting our coins into the fare slot worsens their pain? We go through life not knowing all of the hidden pain around us nor how we inadvertently worsen it. All we can do is continue to try our best.

And then there's the issue of the last interaction simply being crappy. It's sad to lose someone abruptly after a crappy interaction. Any of our loved ones could die at any time, but it's impossible for each and every one of our conversations to convey (explicitly or implicitly) how much we value them as a person. All we can do is try, and to hope that they know the warmth we feel for them deep down.

I'm sorry that the last conversation you had with him was so crappy. That can bring hard feelings to sit with. One thing that helped me in a similar situation was writing the person a letter. I'm so sorry for your loss.
posted by salvia at 10:52 PM on August 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

Based on the information available to you at the time, What else could you have done?

He made extraordinarily inappropriate advances. You shut that down. Any other response could have, and mostly likely would have, been construed as leading him on. It would have been dangerous for you, and confusing for him.

You were absolutely not in any position to have helped him.

You are no way, shape, or form responsible for any of his actions.
posted by Neekee at 12:37 AM on August 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Side note: feeling guilty after a tragedy is a way to help us gain back the feeling of control in a seemingly chaotic world.
posted by Neekee at 12:40 AM on August 22, 2016 [12 favorites]

I am sorry to be the one to have to say this, but even shitty people kill themselves.

Had you known his mental state, you would have treated him with the greatest gentleness and concern.

Or not. I have a pretty shitty and very dear ex who is also mentally ill. My love for him does not change the fact that when I get explicit email from him which he knows is unwelcome -- and dude, no I am not flying to Berlin to fuck you on your way through town -- I shut down the contact completely. Love and compassion do not mean acquiescing to sexual harassment.

Suicide is always shocking and painful for those left behind. Please understand that the self-blame you are feeling is par for the course. But it is also not your fault. And it being hard to deal with, even for a long time, still doesn't make it your fault.

I'm sorry you're left struggling with this and I wish you well.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:45 AM on August 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

I am so sorry that this person has put you through this. This is not your fault, not matter how harsh you were to him. Even if you were unfairly harsh, or mean, or intentionally cruel -- it still wouldn't have been your fault: he is the one who made this choice for himself.

I also feel like he was perhaps reaching out because he was so socially isolated, and I couldn't see it.

You couldn't see it because he wasn't showing it. He was being extremely disrespectful to you, in a way that he knew for years was unwelcome. If something was different *this time*, if he needed help/support/connection, *this time*, it was up to him to ask for it, not to slide up in your inbox with the perv talk again.

Any help I can get processing grief for someone I have really complicated feelings toward would be appreciated.

Remember, it's ok to be annoyed/angry with him for his actions towards you, because they were wrong. It's also ok to be angry at him for doing what was most likely a very selfish thing (he decided that it was more important to end his own pain than to avoid causing pain to others).

If you believe in an afterlife, it might help for you to write him a letter, send him a prayer, etc. etc. to send him the message that you are sorry for being harsh, and you will miss him.

If you don't believe in life after death, you might find strength in knowing that whatever pain he was in is over now, and your last conversation with him doesn't matter to anyone but you.
posted by toe-up, afterthought heel at 9:06 AM on August 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

He is (was) a grown-up. No matter what his level of depression, he knew that if he needed to ask someone for help, saying "I am in a rough place and could use someone to talk to" will generally work better than "I am thinking about sending you porn for your birthday."

He chose not to ask you for help, even when he was in active contact with you. I can understand how you, as a caring, kind person, can use hindsight to twist his actual interactions with you into a cry to you for help. And maybe deep down they may have been. But on the level he chose to engage with you, he was not asking you for help. He was asking you for sexual contact which you were unable and unwilling to provide. For whatever reason, even when he was hurting, he still did not see you in the friend role.

You can't blame yourself for this one.

It might help for you to write him a letter telling him how you feel, all of it, and how you would have liked the interaction to have gone differently. Not to send, but just to express to him everything you still feel needs to be said. And it may help you regain some sense of control -- because you had no control in any of this, and that is really unsettling under any circumstances.
posted by Mchelly at 9:45 AM on August 22, 2016

It's hard. His behavior may have been the reason he was socially isolated -- you were probably not the only one he behaved uncoolly with. I had a friend like this -- he had a good heart but would say crummy, cutting things without provocation and take undue advantage of any kindness I showed him because he felt like the world was usually unkind to him. Maybe I mostly stayed around because his rages over losing at cards were great performance art. Eventually, I cut him off and would only see him when our mutual friend came to town. A few weeks after I saw him last, he killed himself. (Completely in keeping with his MO, he sent little packages to his friends before he did it, which was incredibly upsetting to those who received them.)

After the memorial service, mutual friends had me over for a drink to process what a spectacular asshole he was and how we missed him anyway, which I found enormously helpful, as weird as that sounds. They cared for him too, but felt he pushed people away with his behavior. Maybe you can connect with mutual friends to debrief? I hope you find peace.
posted by *s at 9:48 AM on August 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

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