Suicide is different. If my husband died by suicide next week, people would wonder why I didn’t see it coming. They’d puzzle over why I hadn’t known that he was depressed and gotten him to a doctor. They’d question why I’d left him alone, why I’d decided to go to meetings all afternoon, saying goodbye to him buried under the covers of a messy bed.
They would blame me.
I remember taking a young friend to a teenage boy’s funeral. His parents stood next to his open casket and shook people’s hands. I didn’t know them but I shook their hands anyway and told them I was sorry. In the back of my mind, I thought, ‘how could you have let this happen?’ And then just as fast, I thought ‘anything can happen.’
Anything can happen.
If planes can fly into skyscrapers and no one, not air traffic controllers nor pilots nor the U.S. military, can prevent it, then a single person can take the steps to end his life by suicide. It isn’t right to expect that the people who loved that person should have stopped the suicide.
That they shouldn’t have had those harsh words, that they shouldn’t have gotten impatient, that they shouldn’t have gotten tired, that they shouldn’t have wished to be out from under the threat of catastrophe.
They should have been patient, seen all the signs, hidden the weapons, coordinated the care, protected the person, been all-knowing, all-seeing, stopped what happened.
I was once involved with a man who made several suicide attempts before completing suicide just a few years ago. When I knew him more than thirty years ago, he came in and out of depression, sometimes isolating himself in his upstairs bedroom for weeks at a time. Once, feeling that his suicide was imminent, I called the police.
I remember the two officers standing in my friend’s living room while he knelt and banged his head on the wood floor. Bam! The officers stood with their thumbs in their belts. Bam! I explained he’d been released from the hospital just a few weeks before after a terrible suicide attempt. Bam! They said he wasn’t a danger to himself or others and they couldn’t take him anywhere. Bam! They said if I was frightened, I should leave with them. So I did.
I got in my car and drove down the street. In the rear view mirror, I saw my friend running after the car, his unbuttoned shirt flying out behind him, his arms outstretched, I could see him yelling my name but couldn’t hear him because the windows were rolled up. I didn’t want to hear him. I didn’t want to hear anymore. I wanted to be free of him and his illness.
So I think of that time when I read articles about suicide prevention. I believe that suicide should be discussed, that when we think people are contemplating, we should raise the hard question: are you thinking about suicide? I did it then and since and with different people. I think asking the question and waiting for an answer is an important act of compassion and I want, always, to be compassionate if it is in my power.
But I also think when I read about suicide prevention that the mental health world is putting a lot on me, the friend, the parent, the spouse. It feels like if I miss a step, if I react badly instead of compassionately, if I forget myself and my higher purpose and just give in to my frustration and fear, I will be responsible for the bad things that happen. And I don’t think that’s right.
I know people who have been affected by suicide and I know part of their unique torture is that they blame themselves. I wish I could take that away from them and store it in a big, steel vault that no one ever opens.
Yes, we can do more to prevent suicide. Yes, we can talk about it and help people find the help they need. But we can’t control other people. Ultimately, we have to accept that anything can happen. With or without our permission or acknowledgement. With or without our enabling and intervention. With or without our inevitable failings as people and loved ones.
In all of our messages about suicide prevention, I think we need to say this: no one is to blame.
I’ll say it again. No one is to blame.