How can I not feel guilty about a friend's suicide?
April 27, 2008 12:24 PM   Subscribe

How can I cope with feelings of guilt over a friend's recent suicide?

I found out a few hours ago that a friend, Joe, committed suicide yesterday. His father died about six months ago and which ate him up pretty bad, and I made an effort to call him everyday to see how he was doing. He told me he appreciated me checking in on him and that it made him feel better since I was just about the only one to do this. The last time I saw Joe was about a month ago and things seemed to be looking up for him. He had a new job he liked, and he had finally cleared all the details and paperwork associated with his deceased father's estate which I know was a relief. I kind of lost touch with him since then since this last month has been really busy for me. I actually thought about Joe the other day and had been meaning to call. I feel like if I had called him the other day, that this wouldn't have happened. I feel horrible right now, and I know this isn't my fault but I still can't help but feel that things could have been different if I had been more vigilant. I don't know how to cope with this.
posted by MaryDellamorte to Human Relations (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
First of all let me assure you that THIS WAS NOT YOUR FAULT. I say that as one who was once suicidal. And I can assure you your friend would not want you to blame yourself.

Having said that, I do understand....years ago, a neighbor kid came over to borrow a couple of video games from my son-they were going to swap games. I would only let them swap one game, not two.

later that afternoon that child borrowed a bike and promptly rolled out into the middle of a very busy road, and was struck by a car. He died the next day.

I struggled with the thought-if I had loaned both video games, would he have been safely in front of his mom's tv playing instead of on that bike?

No, his death was not my fault. But emotionally I did struggle with that for awhile.

None of us ever really knows how each of our actions do or do not affect far as your friend is concerned, if he was in that kind of pit, it might not have mattered if you did call.

I am so sorry you are having to deal with this.
posted by konolia at 12:35 PM on April 27, 2008

I still can't help but feel that things could have been different if I had been more vigilant.

I lost my best friend to suicide. I thought the same thing. Maybe if I had called that night, it would have been different. Maybe if I had not made a certain joke I had made. Maybe if I had been more verbal about how much I valued his friendship.

It just takes time to get over. But I had to understand, with the help of a counselor, that he died of his illness. Mental illness can be as deadly as physical illness, but in both cases, we can only offer support. We can't control behavior, nor can we prevent the results of illness.

At this point, just be willing to be open and talk to the other friends and family. The funeral and related activities should be helpful in bringing comfort to all involved. You've suffered a great loss, and to some degree you will always carry it with you. Don't add to your own pain by beating yourself up for something you had no control over.

Condolences on your loss.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 12:49 PM on April 27, 2008

I'm sorry you're going through this, and for the loss of your friend.

A relative of mine killed himself a few years ago and we only learned after he'd died about the extent of his drinking problem and that his life had spiralled so far out of control. I'm in recovery but didn't break my anonymity to him or that part of the family, and after his death I was wracked with guilt.

I thought that, if only I'd told him about how I used to drink, how miserable it made me, and how I found recovery, that I could have saved him. I played "what if" scenarios over and over in my mind, but there were no clues at all that he was going to kill himself, or that his life was in such a mess.

Please don't beat yourself up over this. What if you'd called him and he'd still done it? You'd be thinking that you were responsible for his death in a different way. If the guilty feelings persist, I'd suggest seeing a bereavement counsellor or finding a bereavement support group to help you work through these feelings.
posted by essexjan at 12:49 PM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Having coped with the aftermath of two friends' suicides, I can tell you that it is very common to feel guilty -- "If only I had done this, if only I had said this." Be prepared for other emotions -- all the stages of grief. Being angry at your lost friend for committing suicide will likely be the toughest part.

In the end you'll likely realize that your friend was intent of killing himself and there was little to nothing "you" could have done to dissuade him. Give it time. As they say, "time heals all wounds." But, not completely. As I type this post, I find myself thinking about my two friends: "If only..."
posted by ericb at 12:54 PM on April 27, 2008

So sorry for your loss MD. I am reminded of this poem, Rebuilding the Spirit, by Phyllis Zuccarello:

In many dark places I have lingered
Whimpering as a child,
Hiding from the world
A person, defiled.

Hurting from so much anger
My days were draining and cold.
Instead of feeling young
I was feeling very old.

The guilt I harbored within
Took away a happy soul.
To look for places to hide
Became my one and only goal.

Learning to pray
If ever in distress,
I humbled myself with words ...
Hard to express.

A voice spoke out saying,
"My child, you mustn't feel guilt."
Upon realizing this
My spirit was rebuilt.

I will never forget that moment.
It restored my dignity, my pride.
And now I lift up my head, instead
Of looking for dark places to hide.

MD, if we can look back at life with no regrets, we have gained wisdom. Moving on, appreciated by many whose lives made a difference, because we made ours matter. This is truly a great accomplishment.
posted by netbros at 12:58 PM on April 27, 2008

I think you already know that this is not your fault, and that you couldn't really have prevented it. A lot of what ifs pop up when people die. It's totally natural, and you're not going to be able to avoid thinking about them. The best you can do is acknowledge them and try not to dwell on them -- whenever you have a guilty thought, recognize it, and then will yourself to replace it with a good memory of your friend. You must have known him a long time, and the good times together are worth remembering; this is your opportunity to do so.

After a while, the guilt will fade, but the good memories will be reinforced.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:06 PM on April 27, 2008

The not your fault stuff is good and very important. After my mother killed herself, I remembered the what if stuff and from that day forward I tried to always do the what if stuff - telling my friends how much I valued them and so forth.

Doing that stuff has been good for me, good for my friends, and has helped me to remember to support my friends when they are ill, physically or mentally. You're not responsible, but whether it's cancer or depression, support is good for the immune system and for the spirit.
posted by By The Grace of God at 1:14 PM on April 27, 2008

What would happen if you turned your thinking around? You supported him, to the best of your ability, for quite a while. In a sense, you gave him more time on this earth than he might have had had you not been there.

In the end, though, most of us are not trained to stop a person from committing suicide. Most of the time, we can't even steer them to a trained professional, because the suicidal person is keeping their intentions away from us. And even trained therapists have clients who kill themselves.
posted by lleachie at 2:08 PM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've been where you are, and it's awful. I'm sorry for your loss.

The main thing that helped me was remembering the wonderful times my friend and I had together, rather than the might-have-beens. I try to think that in the midst of the terrible pain he was in perhaps the good times helped him stay around longer.

I don't know, there are no answers. But it's not your fault. You made his life better by being his friend, and you didn't fail him.
posted by miss tea at 2:14 PM on April 27, 2008

My best friend of over 25 years killed himself at the end of February, which I knew was always a bad month for him, I'd intended to call him a dozen times that month and just never did, and then he was gone. I'd talked him out of it at least once before, and I still think maybe I could have talked him out of it this time too (but what about the next time?). In my three o'clock in the morning times, I feel like I failed him, I feel like I let him down, I feel like I abandoned him, but then when I'm feeling more rational, I remind myself that my friend didn't kill himself because of me, and your friend didn't kill himself because of you. It is no more your fault than it would have been your fault if Joe died of cancer, or being hit by a bus. Mental illness is fatal for some people.

When the grief comes, lean into it, but when the guilt comes, try to accept that it was not about you, it was not your fault. We cannot give someone the will to live when they have lost it. It may not help you, but it helps me to try to understand and respect (yes, respect) the fact that my friend felt he had to make this decision, and made it. I will miss him forever, but I forgave him for this, and I am relieved that, if nothing else, at least he doesn't feel like that anymore. It was not your fault.
posted by biscotti at 3:27 PM on April 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

If this just happened hours ago, you need to give yourself some space to be in mourning.

There are lots of excellent answers above. I especially like biscotti's comment, "When the grief comes, lean into it, but when the guilt comes, try to accept that it was not about you

You may find helpful if you can be around other people who are also mourning your friend's death or at least talk with them on the phone. If his mother is still alive or there are others who were very close to him, it would wonderful if you could write them a letter sharing some of your good memories of your friend with them. Even better if there are examples of how he made a difference in your life. It can be very comforting to the family to know that the person who died made a difference in the world while they were alive and that there are others who miss him. You might also see if you have any good photos that you could share. (Looking for the photos might be therapeutic for you, too)

Also, depending on the situation, is there any way that you can help the family at this time? Contact friends that they wouldn't know to tell them about the death and funeral? Setting up a website for people to contribute memories? Picking up people at the airport? Of course, the traditional response (at least where I live) is to bring food so the family doesn't have to cook. These are just suggestions - please don't feel bad if they don't work for you or for this situation
posted by metahawk at 5:23 PM on April 27, 2008

i'm so sorry. it wasn't your fault. people who commit suicide are determined to do it--there's nothing you could have done. if only it were so easy as being there for other people. but it's not.

please consider seeing a grief counselor, religious leader, or joining a suicide survivors support group. you are not alone.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:26 PM on April 27, 2008

Not your fault. Repeat, not your fault.

It sucks, it is tragic, and you are going to hurt for some time over this, but it was not your fault, not even a tiny little bit.
posted by caddis at 5:34 PM on April 27, 2008

I'm sorry about your friend.

Deep down, you probably know it wasn't your fault. Seek out reassurance of this because it's true. Consider this one more person telling you so.
posted by lacedback at 5:50 PM on April 27, 2008

The Samaritans is a 24-7 suicide/crisis hotline whose volunteers are trained in issues faced by both people who are feeling suicidal and by people who have lost loved ones to suicide. I call it "suicide/crisis" because, while their primary mission is to reduce suicide, they are there for anyone who needs to talk. They are a great organization and can be a great resource for folks who are dealing with such a loss. (I have volunteered with them for a number of years.)

I hope it's ok to leave the number here: it's toll-free at 1-877-870-HOPE (4673). Be gentle with yourself.
posted by tentacle at 7:44 PM on April 27, 2008

Oh hun. There was nothing you could have done. Some people have low moments and that's all just left to the whims of chance. There are others who do things like say their goodbyes, tie up loose ends and wait until the time is right. Like they were moving house or going on holidays or something.
I don't know, I just look at it like they must've been hurting so bad... That doesn't help your pain :) I know, but for me, as it sinks in - the fact that they aren't hurting is of great comfort to me.
It hurts but is sweet relief such a bad thing.
(I'm sorry if this seems insensitive, it's just based on my experiences).

But one thing I hope you take to heart is that everything has a domino effect. You can let this be the begining of positive things or you can let it create more sorrow.
Sadness is given a great meaning when it leads to great beauty.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 9:03 PM on April 27, 2008

I'm going to go orthogonal to grain here--and say outright, that there is no such thing as absolute morality. That is, in life there are moments when our best intentions don't shape outcomes as we planned. Equally, there are times when we intend harm, but ignore our intents and do nothing. Which is the moral superior? Intent or action? There really isn't a way to know.

On a philosophical level, moral uncertainties haunt me sometimes... to know that right vs. wrong is somehow all together irrelevant or impossible to know. Sometimes, there can be no answer. What I've learned about myself is that knowing that there is moral uncertainty is not enough for me as a coping mechanism.

I'm really sorry about your loss. I do agree with others that choosing to blame yourself isn't productive and is the part that needs to stop. Now is the time to get closer to the ones you love. Because there is no ambiguity in that. Use it as a time to become a better, stronger person--and when you look back at your friend's life, attribute that added strength to him. That's one way it can become a part of you in a positive way. Look for those ways.
posted by |n$eCur3 at 9:28 PM on April 27, 2008

In high school, a guy who had been my best friend through most of it committed suicide. I hadn't seen him in a while (had had moved to another school), and I kept thinking that if I had made the effort to go visit him and see how he was doing, he might not have taken such a step. Also I had been meanting to invite him to stay with me for the upcoming long weekend, and had procrastinated about it. I worried that if I had just asked him around he might still be alive. I felt very bad about this for a long time.

The only thing that really got me over it was time. It gave me some distance to see that he had taken this action himself. His girlfriend saw him all the time and had no idea was was feeling self destructive, I couldn't have known this was coming (it was a total surprise to all).

If I had called him sooner and invited him around, he might have decided to live for another week, or he might have just done it anyway. I think that what ever was inside him that he couldn't cope with would have expressed itself eventually.

In short : time will get you past this. Don't be afraid to talk it over with people, don't be afraid to cry in front of others, don't be afraid if your emotions sneak up on you from time to time. If it gets too much for you, see a professional and talk it through with them. I wish you the best, this is so very hard.
posted by tomble at 11:30 PM on April 27, 2008

Thanks to everyone for the responses. I still don't know how to feel about the whole situation. I oscillate between sadness and anger. And there's a part of me that feels maybe he is better off if he was suffering with so much pain.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:54 PM on April 28, 2008

As someone who's pretty much at the end of his rope there's not a day that goes by that I wish for someone that I can feel safe to reach out to or who could come and try to help me. People like you help a lot when you're at the breaking point.

Is it your fault though? God no.
posted by Talez at 3:59 AM on April 29, 2008

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