"FJC's Journal" is an occasional feature on the Grief after Suicide blog, in which editor and publisher Franklin Cook shares observations about suicide bereavement from his personal experience as a survivor of suicide loss.
I was consumed by excruciating feelings of guilt for a long, long time over my father's suicide (he died many years ago, in 1978). My guilt came from the fact that I thought I was helping him, but I did not understand the nature of his illness, so some of the things I did were actually harmful to him (like trying to talk him out of his delusions and trying to persuade him with emotional arguments that he ought to go on living). In addition, I assumed things about the situation that were entirely inaccurate (for instance, that he had the capacity to take corrective action and to solve his problems; that he would never actually kill himself no matter what; and that if I just kept attacking the problem intelligently, I'd figure it out and be able to help him elude whatever danger he might be in). Most importantly, I failed to recognize that he was in a life-or-death situation. To this day, it still seems unquestionably accurate for me to say that my father needed me, I engaged purposefully with him in order to help him, and my failure to help him clearly contributed to his death.
Over the years, my telling of that part of my story has changed (even though the facts have not changed, and they never will) in a way that has transformed my feelings of guilt into what I would call feelings of compassion. This blog post is about that changed story, which has been a vital part of my healing.
The definition of compassion is "a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering." I wanted my father to live, and I would never have done anything to contribute to or cause his death, but a horrible (and very complex) misfortune befell us. His mental and emotional pain overwhelmed him, and his dilemma overwhelmed me too. He did not know how to escape from his pain without taking his own life, and that's what he did. I did not know how to help him other than to do what I knew to do, and that's what I did. Neither he nor I were "bad" or "wrong" or "selfish": We were human beings overwhelmed by a calamity we could not handle other than how we handled it. Whatever failure exists in what each of us did or didn't do deserves understanding not judgment, for something more powerful than being "stricken by misfortune" was driving our decisions and our actions. In his case, a lifetime of untreated dysthymia and alcohol addiction were at work, and his pain was being fueled by a mental breakdown of such magnitude that the pain itself took on a deadly energy of its own. For my part, I knew only what I knew about mental illness and about taking care of someone who was suicidal, and although I was not aware of it until after the fact, my knowledge was woefully inadequate and even incorrect (and, most sadly of all to me, I did not know where or how to find out what I would have needed to know to be more helpful).
My compassionate retelling of the story includes that now I feel "deep sympathy and sorrow" about what happened, and I embrace a heartfelt yearning both that his suffering could have been alleviated some other way than by his suicide (yet I also accept that now there is nothing that can change the terminal outcome of the situation) and that my suffering about my "role" in his death will continue to be alleviated (which is now a reality, for my suffering continues to be transformed, and I am at peace with myself a great deal of the time).
I do not think that my compassionate view of "guilt" or "blame" over my father's death avoids or discounts questions of responsibility. I failed to see clearly -- even though I certainly "should" have seen it -- that he was in a life-or-death situation. That is one thread in the tapestry of what caused my father's suicide, and I will regret forever my lack of discernment (my not seeing clearly that he might die from his depression), but there is no way that my failure makes me inordinately responsible for his death. I am responsible for not seeing something as clearly as I should have, which is a terrible thing about which I still feel deep remorse, but the ultimate responsibility for his death is shared• by a healthcare system that failed to help him even though the caregivers knew his life was at risk;
• by a society that marginalized him as an expendable male and minimized (by ignoring and not offering assistance for) the pain he suffered during a lifetime of dysthymia and alcohol addiction; and
• by him as an individual who did not take care of himself over the course of his lifetime.
It is this final causal thread -- my father's own responsibility for his death -- that has prompted in me the most compassionate reaction, perhaps because this is where his and my experiences have the most in common with one another: Just as "I did not know where or how to find out what I would have needed to know to be more helpful" to him in the final months of his life, he truly "did not know where or how to find out what (he) would have needed to know to be more helpful" to himself during the entire course of his life, and that stirs in me the most enormous and pure "feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering."
This compassionate view has evolved over more than 30 years of struggling with guilt and blame (and for the first decade after my father died, also struggling with anger so severe -- anger at myself, at him, at the healthcare system, at society -- that it crippled me), and I wish I could communicate my point of view more clearly than I have in the rather complicated explanation I offer above. My experience has left me feeling that if there is anything I could do to encourage people about "retelling" their story* -- not to change the facts or to deny responsibility but to infuse compassion into their narrative of what happened -- I would do that. Those who have died by suicide deserve great compassion, and those of us who are left behind to mourn their deaths deserve great compassion.
To me, this is not just a "principle" or a "truth": It is a call to action which summons me to do everything that I can to apply great compassion to the actual stories and relationships involved in all instances of suicide and recovery from its aftermath.