Sometimes taking on guilt feels better than accepting our powerlessness. Guilt can protect us from how small we really are in the face of nature, life and death. Guilt holds us accountable for our freedom to do willful harm and make mistakes. Guilt is supposed to remind us we’ve trespassed our own values and ethics, so we can learn and do better, make amends and love better. Guilt is a measure of our recognition of having autonomy and self-control and choosing to act badly. Owning my guilt should serve my learning and healing, reconciling and forgiving, and seeking forgiveness. If it doesn’t, perhaps what’s happened is, I’ve moved from guilt for not doing enough, to shame, that debilitating sense of not being enough. Guilt cannot be taken on for things we have no control over: this induces shame.
It is important for those who’ve lost someone to suicide, that we examine the awful guilt we take on. We feel guilt when those we tried so hard to protect manage to escape our efforts to manage their depression, addiction or self-hate and despair. We feel guilt for what we could not control: their inability to keep themselves safe and have hope, for perhaps years of suffering. Sometimes we know we could have ‘been there’ to prevent suicide in a particular moment or bad day. More often, we mistakenly assume we could have ‘stayed there’ for all such moments and every difficult day of their suffering, and could have prevented their suicides.
When I was learning to become a psychotherapist, I heard a famous therapist tell a family of a suicidal teen, to make sure a parent stayed with him every moment of the day, even sleeping in his room on the floor, or keeping the bathroom door a bit ajar. Therapist Jay Haley didn’t mean to make the parents ultimately responsible and knew they could not be that powerful day in and out for weeks and months. At most, he figured that in a crisis, parental love would be communicated in these powerful actions to the depressed teen and would inspire hope in that teen, hope of being lovable and valuable and held in safety until the emotional storms passed. Haley was an idealist whose methods were for those with considerable inner and external resources, stamina, and self-control. But didn’t the parents have to sleep too? Go to jobs? Tend to their other children?
How much guilt occurs when we think we could have been …super-human? Inappropriate guilt is the price we pay for being human while expecting ourselves to be gods.
I like this passage from George Howe Colt, author of the book “November of the Soul: the Enigma of Suicide”:
“Guilt is a way of bringing control back into a situation that seems out of control…It comes ftom the perception that you could have done something to prevent it. There’s something narcissistic about that because it suggests that you could single-handedly have changed the outcome. It’s not rational because you don’t take that kind of responsibility for anyone’s life while he is alive—otherwise, you don’t allow him to be a person. But when someone kills himself, you feel you should have been around him every waking minute. Everyone does. Everyone suddenly takes one hundred percent responsibility for that person’s life.”
I have lost loved ones to suicide. I know what suicide loss feels like and how essential it is for me to carefully self-monitor for the guilt that gives no quarter for daring to live on. In this time of COVID, I am reminded of how little power I have over the suffering of those I love. How humble this should make me, and how able it should help me to let go of guilt! So far, the best I can do to be compassionate to myself and to those in my life, is to make the efforts I can make, as imperfect as that is, to lovingly tell someone I care, to help with the material resources I have, to stay up all night with someone if needed, and to recognize I cannot stay up all night forever. It takes a village to help keep someone safe, and I am but one villager. I am not made of infinite endurance. They are not made of infinite endurance. That is the tragedy of suicide. For that, I have to ask, in prayer or meditation or ritual, for their forgiveness. And I must forgive myself. I have to give myself permission to move forward, not move on, not away from them and the love I bear for them, but forward, carrying that love into the life I am given to live.