***trigger warning: suicide – method ***
as a survivor of suicide loss, i experience guilt. but not in the way you might expect. i have never wondered if i could have done something more to prevent my dad from choosing suicide. i have never felt personally responsible for his death. i haven’t played the “what if / if only” game.
but i am no stranger to guilt. we have been friends for twenty years. while i haven’t felt guilty about my father’s death, i have lived guilt from the very morning that he died.
because i was the one. i was the one to find my dad. while i was asleep on the third floor of our house, safe and dreaming in my little seventh grader world, my father hung himself down in the basement. and at 6:45 that morning, i opened the door to the laundry room and found him.
lately i have been thinking a lot about that moment – being the first one – and what it has meant in my life. it was grotesque, horrifying, surreal. my instant reaction was to think that he was playing a practical joke. it was the only way i could explain such a terrifying sight to myself. but very quickly it became clear that this was indeed happening: i was alone in a room with my father, and he was hanging. dead.
it’s impossible to describe how that moment impacted my body, my mind, my spirit. in the weeks following his death, the immediate shock subsided and i began processing what had happened. i didn’t think that what he did was directly my fault – not a result of something i did or didn’t do. but i didn’t understand why he chose suicide. it just didn’t make sense to me, largely because i didn’t understand mental illness at that time but also because, on a basic level, i felt abandoned by him. and i personally had been exposed to something akin to a scene out of a horror movie.
enter my guilt. it is common for survivors of childhood trauma to feel that they somehow deserved the pain or abuse that was inflicted upon them. because the trauma is so earth-shattering and so inexplicable, we often turn our experience of being violated back on ourselves. did i somehow deserve this? is something fundamentally wrong with me? these are the painful questions that i have internalized and absorbed and lived. to the point of almost not recognizing how much they impact my thinking and feeling.
rationally i know that my dad would not have wanted me to find him. he lost control and succumbed to a very long and private struggle with depression. but the wounded child inside tells me that he would have known that i would be the first to find him, that i somehow deserved to witness his death. while i know that his suicide was the result of a terminal mental illness, the little girl inside tells me that i am unlovable, that something must have been so wrong with me to make my father take himself out of my life. i have internalized that feeling of rejection, that bewilderment at witnessing the trauma, into a deeply-held belief that who i am is not enough.
this is how guilt presents itself in my life. not in thinking that his death was my fault but rather in feeling that anything wrong is my fault. it has been hidden in my over-doing, my people pleasing, my perfectionism. it has driven me to exhaust myself at work and to hide my feelings and hide my own depression. it has focused my attention on the approval of others over self affirmation. always looking outside to feel ok on the inside. this type of guilt isn’t easily detected. it isn’t listed under the common experiences of surviving a suicide loss. those grief pamphlets don’t talk about how to challenge the fundamental belief that i somehow did deserve to go through hell.
so twenty years later here i am. going back to the laundry room. opening the door again. finding him again. only this time i can tell myself something different. i can recognize the guilt and observe how it unfolds in my life. i can approach my pain with the maturity and skill that i have developed over the past two decades. i get to do this again and again, each time showing myself more love and more compassion.
i can talk back to the little girl who thinks she deserved it and tell her no, amy. no you did not. that is something you didn’t deserve.