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Excerpted from: "Understanding Your Suicide Grief" by Alan D. Wolfert, PhD


This constellation of potential feeling may be a part of the emotional rollercoaster of your grief experience. Again, allow me to remind you–some of these feelings may apply to you while others may not. Also, a very important warning: Some people will project onto you that you SHOULD feel guilty. I've always found it interesting that we don't automatically prescribe guilt in other circumstances of death (cancer, accidents, etc.), yet I often hear people say to survivors of suicide, "I bet you feel guilty.” Well, some survivors do and some survivors don't, so we should not make this assumption.

Allow me to be very direct: You are not responsible for anyone's decision to complete suicide. The simple reality is that only one person is responsible for the completion of suicide: the person who did so.

Sadly, our society tends to teach us that suicide is always caused by problems and that it is always someone's fault. The thought gets projected that the death was not beyond control. And yet, if your experience is anything like my experience with my friend Ken's death, if you could have prevented the death, you would have!

Yes, when someone you care about takes his or her own life, it's natural to think about actions you could or could not have taken to prevent the death. As one observer noted, "Human nature subconsciously resists so strongly the idea that we cannot control all the events of one's life that we would rather fault ourselves for a tragic occurrence than accept our inability to prevent it." In other words, we do not like acknowledging to ourselves that we are only human, so we blame ourselves instead. But of course, you are not to blame! Again, you are not to blame!

Yes, the tragic, self-inflicted death of someone you care about invites you to explore your "if onlys” and "what ifs." But while potential feelings of guilt, regret, and self-blame are only human (you are trying to go backward and control what you could not control) and some people may inappropriately encourage you to feel guilty, others may try to quickly take any guilt or regret away from you. If you do express guilt or regret, someone might say to you, "There is nothing you could have done about it” (essentially saying, "Don't feel what you are feeling."). In part, whether you actually could have prevented the suicide is not the point. The point is that you are feeling like you could have or should have and you need to express those feelings, however illogical. If you find yourself expressing some “if onlys" and "what ifs," be compassionate with yourself. What a genuine and human response in the face of the self-inflicted death of someone you cared deeply about!

I cannot emphasize enough that it will be vitally important to work through any and all aspects of guilt, regret, and self-blame you might have. Why? Because guilt can become a way of life built upon a belief of your own personal unworthiness. Then you risk becoming among the living dead. Because as long as you judge yourself as unworthy, you will never be able to fully integrate this grief into your life and discover renewed meaning and purpose.

As long as you judge yourself as being guilty, you will feel shame. Shame is, in part, feeling sorry for who you are. Shame is a feeling that makes you want to avoid people and withdraw from the world around you. Shame can also make you want to keep the reality of a suicide death a secret. The problem with that is that secrecy feeds shame. After shame comes an unconscious tendency to self-punish.

So, at times when you most need unconditional love and self-compassion, you may be at risk for administering a course of personal abuse and self-neglect. In refusing to be self-compassionate, you end up punishing yourself, living out your guilt, and creating the self-fulfilling prophecy of "getting what you deserve." Sadly, I have witnessed this unfolding process with way too many suicide survivors, and I don't want you to be one of them.

If you shroud the reality of this suicide death in secrecy, realize that where there is shame, there will be chronic pain. In effect, you will experience as much unhappiness and chronic sadness as

you believe you deserve.

By being honest about the suicide and embracing the reality that only one person is responsible for the suicide (the person who did it), the pain you feel can begin to soften. Opening yourself to any of your internalized shame, the pain and sadness you carry begin to melt and you discover you are no longer alone and help is just waiting for you.

Some suicide survivors have taught me that intense feelings of embarrassment are a big part of their journey through grief. Embarrassment, a close cousin to shame, may result from imagined (and sometimes actual) gossip about the suicide among neighbors, faith groups, colleagues, and other social circles. What are others saying, wondering, or surmising about the person who died and the circumstances of the death–and how does that make you feel?

Harbored embarrassment may make you feel that you owe an explanation to the curious who want to know what went wrong. You may fear that stories are being twisted and untruths told.

In truth, much of your embarrassment may be self-imposed. You are not responsible for the choice your loved one made, and the gossip-mongering you suppose may be taking place may not be happening at all. You also do not owe anyone an explanation, but you can set the tone for others by talking as openly and honestly as you can about the death. Just as your grief is natural, so is their curiosity and their concern for you. Keep in mind that they may simply be wondering what happened and how they can help you. Assume the best of others and you just might receive their best back.

The potential shame and embarrassment you are at risk for experiencing is naturally complex. Some of it has to do with how our society has viewed suicide over the years. There is still some

legacy from the time when suicide was considered a crime and the person was forbidden a proper burial because taking one's life was considered a sin.

Despite the good fortune that there has been some movement away from official stigmatizing of suicide death (burial can been occur in cemeteries as for everyone else; suicide is no longer

Considered a sin by mainstream religion), as a survivor you will probably still experience some shame that comes from friends, neighbors, and other segments of society. Sadly, many people continue to make hurtful judgments about those who complete suicide and project that something must be wrong in a family where suicide occurs.

Obviously, it is not only people from the outside who might make these judgments. Sometimes they come from within yourself, making your mourning more complicated. The potential result of external or internal shame is that you may tell yourself, "This is something I'm not going to talk about,” which your emotions will translate into, "'This is something I have to feel ashamed about.” Then, you begin to hide feelings and keep secrets, which never works well. When the reality of suicide becomes unspeakable, your family begins to shut down and feels like a pressure-cooker. The results of hiding, obscuring, or denying the truth are almost always worse than the feared responses when the truth is revealed. In addition, unless you acknowledge the reality openly and honestly, it is easy to feel entirely alone and isolated, as if no one has any idea what you are going through.

pp. 157-159. Excerpted from: "Understanding Your Suicide Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart" by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. Posted by permission from the publisher. Published by Companion Press, copyright 2009.

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