guilt |gilt| (noun):
a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation
Guilt is what almost took me down. The sadness, the anger, the gaping hole in my heart, the reminders of him everywhere – in my house, out in the world – none of it was as heavy or had quite the grip on my psyche as the guilt. And maybe it was because it was my child who died, and because – as his mother – I believed I had a duty, obligation and some semblance of control. Maybe it was because it was suicide, and there was the insistent “Why?” accompanied by fantasies of how I could have averted such an outcome. So it may have been easier, under those circumstances, for guilt to weasel its way into my brain and my heart, right next door to my Inner Critic Committee.
Embedded in my guilt was the assumption that I had the power or control to alter the outcome. Embedded even deeper was a whole lot of ego, a misguided sense of my own importance as his mother. The guilt I harbored about Julian’s suicide could not have existed without my belief that I could or (worse) should have done or said something that might have resulted in his still being alive. Unfortunately, suicide prevention has its own unique set of complicating circumstances, the primary one being that it’s like playing chess with someone who is constantly sacrificing all the pieces on the board.
But even in situations of a death due to illness or an accident or a natural disaster, we, the survivors, are never the only players or forces in the picture. Often, we are not even the most influential ones. In the case of illness, it’s often the disease that’s calling the shots. In the case of an accident, there is always a series of causal events that led up to the critical and unfortunate moment that we played no role in. In the case of a natural disaster, well Mother Nature’s raging these days, and yes, we all had something to do with it, but you alone are not to blame.
And yet, logic is irrelevant and elusive when one is struggling with guilt. I felt so bad, and my son’s death felt so wrong, I needed to assess blame somewhere. I just happened to be the closest target. I was angry at others too: Julian himself, his ex-girlfriend, the criminal justice system, the psychotherapeutic community, violent video games, pesticides in our food, Big Pharma…there was a long list. But the one person I could hold to account was myself.
So I indulged in the experience of guilt. Fully. I carried that big, heavy trunk around with me for years. It was exhausting. Finally, the day came when I was able to admit to myself that the contents of my emotional baggage had to be examined. I had to be willing to “pack smarter.”
- I wasn’t that powerful; I never had that much control;
- there were so many contributing factors, forces and influences in my son’s life besides me, and that had been the case for pretty much his whole 20-year life;
- I did the best that I could with the resources I had at the time. Was there more I could have done? Sure. There always is. But we make the best choices we can in the moment. Hindsight shouldn’t be allowed a vote.
For a while, Julian’s suicide was ALL my fault. If I had only said or done, or not said or not done that one crucial, critical thing, he’d be alive today. We’d be having breakfast at the kitchen counter discussing politics, no doubt, and I’d be telling him he needed a haircut, and he’d be telling me I needed to get on the treadmill if I was serious about losing those pounds.
I no longer believe it was all my fault. That’s just b.s., pure and simple. But when I did believe that nonsense, it was the most toxic baggage I had ever carried with me.
Some baggage is meant to be lost.