It seems that sometimes suicide takes on an air of romance. Make no mistake, suicide is ugly. In my profession it was expected that I would deal with it on a regular basis. I used to treat young servicemen who either wanted to end their life or wanted out of the military. It was a regular occurrence for these Marines and Sailors to talk about suicide. However, to complete a suicide was a rare occurrence and to personally know someone was not expected.
When my supervisor, a Navy Captain who was a Psychiatrist shot himself, the entire hospital, especially our mental health unit was devastated. We were overseas, in Puerto Rico at the time, so losing Captain Floyd was like losing family. Several of the Corpsmen were like sons and his suicide changed their lives.
Suicide does that, it changes people’s lives. While all of the markers for prolonged grief can be found in most suicide survivors (those who had a close relationship with a person who commits suicide), the situation is clearly unique and certainly more intense. The two areas that are often the most intense are guilt and anger.
Research has shown that unnatural and unexpected deaths are more devastating than natural or prolonged death. Death by suicide is often more devastating particularly because of the questions left unanswered. It is particularly troubling to those closest to the suicide victim. The feelings they should have done more, they should have known, and they should have prevented it looms large. Survivor guilt plays a big role. It seems that the person closest to the suicide victim is the one who feels the worse. They feel most responsible.
Yet in reality because they did the most for the person, logically they should feel the best. However, they feel they should have done more. This is a difficult thought to shake. Clinicians have found that if you can interrupt a suicidal person’s negative spiral, the person will disband their thoughts if given enough time. But there are those who either do not want to be known or simply will not be stopped. There is little that can change some people from becoming victims.
Even when my son was killed in a motorcycle accident that was no fault of his own, I still felt guilty. There must have been something I could have done differently, I thought, to raise him so that he would not have gotten on a bike, so that he would not have been blindsided by that car. My guilt was intense. I was not crazy – I was a parent. Both look eerily similar at times.
I cannot fathom the guilt suicide survivors must feel and the work they must put in to realize they were not the reason why the victim died – they were the reason they lived.
Anger is the second emotion that is consistently more intense in survivors. This simply makes sense. Sometimes survivors are often met with a certain complacency by others towards the victim. This can be extremely frustrating which is another word for anger. Survivors can get mad at the world who thinks that blaming the victim is the complete answer.
As a survivor, it is easy to get mad at others who do not take the time to understand. Possibly they blame the victim because it somehow protects their sense of self. The truth is, most Americans have thought about suicide and the majority of Americans know someone who completed the act. Blaming the victim is a simple response but it is not a solution.
Suicide survivors can get angry at each other. It is a natural thought, albeit not healthy, to think that the other parent was too harsh or they were too lenient. It is anticipated that survivors may blame the spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend who pushed the victim too hard. It is also common to blame the friend who might have known more than the family but chose to keep their knowledge a secret.
A third person that we get angry at is the victim. This is a big one. How could they leave a wife and children? They had so many ways to get help but they chose this as an option. They took control over the destiny of their life and by doing so rendered everyone around them as helpless. That helplessness can produce a wealth of anger. We get angry because they did not choose us to help them – they chose death.
Death is scary – suicide is real scary. Fear comes from being threatened. We respond to fear with anger. It is a way of controlling the threat. Well suicide, I believe, is the most threatening. We walk the planet every day with the means and the motive to end our lives. Yet every day we make the unconscious decision to live. Unaware of our decision, when we experience someone who chose otherwise, it wakes us up to the reality all of us live.
Suicide reminds us why we chose life. If you are having thoughts about wanting to die or know someone, please talk to a counselor, a pastor, or a psychologist, or doctor. Yes, these thoughts may be natural but you don’t have to hold them in. You can find ways to deal with them so they don’t fester and control you.
Andy is a Clinical Psychologist who lost his son in a tragic motorcycle accident and now authors articles on bereavement. Look forward to his upcoming posts, quiz, and book, “When Sunday Smiled.” Follow him at his website, AndyMDavidson.com and Facebook.com/ThroughLifeandLoss to find out more about prolonged grief.