Suicide Awareness Month - "Survivor's Guilt"
Losing someone to suicide carries a complex type of grief all it's own. Our person, our loved one, chose death. They chose to leave us. It's painful and difficult to accept, it feels personal. In my situation I understood why Keven ended his life so I didn’t have to go through that painful part of the process. But for many, especially if it comes as a total surprise, it's haunting to wonder “Why, why, why?” over and over, putting together reasons in your mind that you will never be able to validate. I know I’d be even more devastated if I didn’t understand why Keven made his choice.
Then there’s the guilt. It's only natural to feel like we could have or should have done something to prevent them from doing it. Even if we know we did all we could to help them, we still wonder if we missed that one thing that would have saved their life. Guilt and blame are the enemy. Every now and then those feelings creep in and I do my best to stop them in their evil tracks. It is not my fault, I believe that, but it still haunts me when I’m vulnerable, feeling down.
Society looks at suicide differently than a death by illness or accident. Sometimes people will blame or judge you thinking that surely there was something you could have done differently to save them. This happens in overdose death as well. The stigma against mental health, substance abuse and suicide is one of the main focuses of my book, and so far has been the most difficult to write about because of the anger that flares up when I think about it.
I'll never forget the time I was in a meeting, years ago, and after I shared one of the men in the group said "Some parents love their children to death". Wow. My share had been about finally coming to the conclusion that, in spite of what so many people recommended, I was NOT going to kick Keven out of the house. I explain my reasons why in my book but basically the two reasons were 1) I believed his chances of dying were more likely if he were out there all alone with only other drug users around him and 2) If he died, I wanted to be there. I wanted to be the one to find him. (of course I never imagined finding him with a bullet in his head, in my imagination it was always an overdose). I am not saying this is the RIGHT choice, I fully support parents who can't have their child live in the family home while using, it was the right choice for Kev and me.
Not all parents want to be the one to find their child, its traumatizing to say the least. But for me, it was important. At first the image would appear in my mind over and over but I slowly learned to push it away unless, for some reason, I wanted to remember it. I don't feel guilty for not kicking him out. I refuse to feel guilt and my heart hurts when I hear parents beat themselves up - sometimes death can't be stopped in the case of suicide or overdose. Its NOT your fault.
With disease, accidents, old age we’re aware there’s nothing we could have done to change the outcome. But like suicide, overdose deaths can carry the same kind of guilt. People often feel that they could have done or said something differently to change the outcome. I noticed that some of Keven’s friends felt this way, I heard things like "I should have checked up on him more often." Guilt makes us feel worse than we already do which is so unfair because in addition to sympathy and compassion, with suicide and drug overdose we may also encounter blame, judgement, or exclusion.
So how do we let go of the guilt and find the type of empathy and support we need? I can only suggest what's helped me in hopes that it will help others. FIND YOUR PEOPLE!
When Anthony* died from an overdose in 2015 I discovered a support group called Solace for Hope which I've written about here. The beauty of this group, and of FB groups like The Compassionate Friend and Helping Parents Heal, is that they connect you with others that are in the same shoes.
S.O.L.A.C.E. stands for "Surviving Our Loss with Awareness, Compassion & Empathy."
When Maggie, the main founder of the group, lost her 22 year old son, Mitch, to an overdose in 2012 she attended groups for parents that had lost a child. Sadly, she was treated like an outsider and was judged! She was looked down upon as if her son's death was less tragic then their losses to cancer, accidents, or other diseases, as if Mitch didn't matter as much because he was a "drug addict" (my blood is boiling as I type this!) So she started a safe place for parents to come where they were welcomed with open arms and compassion. Sadly the group keeps growing and growing.
No matter how much our friends and family love us and want to say the right things, they don't feel our pain in the way that someone with the same experience does. I can't emphasize enough how much joining a group can help. Not everyone has a group like Solace for Hope available in person, but there's a FB page along with the other two FB groups I mentioned. They're filled with people who will reach out to you and comfort you. Even if you don't share your story, you may benefit from seeing the outpouring of love on those pages.
As always, thanks for reading here and PLEASE feel free to reach out to me by email or in the comments. You're not alone.
*Anthony was one of Keven's best friends we "adopted" each other, I loved him with all my heart.