Shedding shame to survive suicide
Harriet Emma Empey Attridge was beautiful, spirit-loving, loyal hard working and courageous. She completed suicide at the age of 62. Nine years later there still isn’t a day that goes by that I do not miss her. She was my mother and I love her. Why did this happen? Am I to blame?
I am not alone in asking these questions. There is often no clue as to why our beloved chose to die and we are haunted by the idea that somehow we are to blame. Survivors often believe that if they had only been a better spouse, child, parent, friend then the death would not have occurred. Even if the loved one has left a note absolving their family and friends of responsibility, the death still represents a failure to love and protect. We feel ashamed and this complicates our grieving.
The judgement of others can heighten the sense of shame. Many people still refer to someone as having “committed”suicide even though it is no longer a crime. These languages reinforce the idea that an unforgivable wrong has occurred and that somehow everyone involved is tainted. In such an environment, open discussion about the death is difficult and there is little opportunity to counteract the damaging self-blame. In order to survive, however, it is important to shed this shame.
Answering the “why” is the first step in surviving but it is a very hard step to complete. There are no easy answers. Individual values, beliefs and experience will lead to reasons that make the most sense to each person. Many survivors arrive at a point, however, where they think of the death as the result of an unhealthy state of mind that can lead to suicide without “smoke signals”. They understand that even if there are warning signs, a suicide can not always be prevented.
What characterizes this state of mind? Most striking is the lack of self-worth. The person who chooses to die can see themselves as a burden to others, as not worthy of love or life. “I’m a bad person. You’re better off without me.” This complete lack of self-esteem leads to a belief that problems are insurmountable and that suicide is the only way out. A survivor may find it hard to accept that any problem would seem that great. In this state of mind, however, reality is very different.
Survivors can also understand that even though a suicidal person is not healthy, he/she is still capable of a terrible lucidity. To avoid intervention, great planning and deceit is often necessary. It does not seem possible that someone so ill could think clearly enough to have detected the clues in order to prevent the death. But even professionals can miss the signals.
This is what happened with my mother. She was clinically depressed, and was doing all the right things to treat her illness: seeing her family doctor, having talk therapy, taking medication. When I phoned the family doctor to give him the news, he said, “This is unbelievable. The latest psychiatric report is that she was improving.” But she wasn’t and she fooled everyone. She made up her mind, and chose a time when all family members were away and ensured that there would be no intervention.
Her suicide note said, “I’m in the middle of a revolving glass door. I can see everyone who loves me on the outside. I can’t stop the door, however, to reach out and take their help. I can no longer trust myself to make any good decisions.” She believed that suicide was her only option.
I often wish that life were different. I want my mother to be alive and healthy. I regret that living was so difficult for someone so beautiful. I can live with these wishes now. I no longer see myself as a failure or to blame for her death. It is a hard journey and even now some of my answers don’t always bring total comfort. But at least no longer feel ashamed of myself or of her. She was my mother and I loved her.
Written by: Martha Attridge Button
For Bereaved Families of Ontario