I was consumed by guilt for a long time over my father’s suicide, in 1978, mainly because I thought I was helping him. I did not understand the nature of his illness, so some of the things I did were actually harmful to him (for example, trying to talk him out of his delusions). Most importantly, I failed to recognize that he was in a life-or-death situation, and to this day, it still seems to me that my failure to help him contributed to his death. But through compassionate retelling of the story of his death, I found freedom from the feelings of guilt I once had.
Imbuing the story with compassion — which is “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering” — helped me see unquestionably that I would never have done anything to cause his death. 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.
Whatever failure exists in what each of us did or didn’t do deserves understanding, not judgment. Indeed, 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 and that my suffering about his death will continue to be transformed into the peace that now characterizes my life.
My compassionate retelling of the story also helped me see that several forces much more powerful and influential than I contributed to his death. Responsibility for his death is shared by a healthcare system that failed to help him even though his caregivers knew his life was at risk; by a society that did not offer assistance to him 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.
Interestingly, his own responsibility for his death has prompted in me the most compassionate reaction of all. Just as I truly did not know where or how to find out what I would have needed to know to be more helpful than I was 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 help himself during the entire course of his life — and that stirs in me the purest “feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune.”
This compassionate view has evolved over a 33-year journey, which began with feelings of guilt and blame and anger so severe that they nearly crippled me emotionally. Today, I can say without a doubt that my journey has left me feeling only great compassion for those who have died by suicide and for those left behind to mourn their deaths.
Excerpted from “FJC’S Journal: Stories of Loss Deserve ‘Compassionate Retelling’” at bit.ly/compassionateretelling-fjc on the Grief after Suicide blog.