According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, every 15 minutes someone in the United States dies as a result of suicide—about 105 people each day. For anyone who has known someone who committed suicide, you may be able to understand how almost everyone who knew that person has felt some form of guilt. Recently, I heard a speaker at a symposium say that the best way for change to occur is to “tell your story.” Suicide has a place in my story, a place of hurt and grief from the lives lost of those who had so much to offer.
My first experiences with suicide
I was in my twenties the first time I encountered suicide: My sister’s boyfriend hanged himself in a neighbor’s back yard. I felt guilty that I lived far away and could not be there to help my sister with the pain and grief she was experiencing.
The second time was a few years ago when another one of my sisters, 2 years younger than I, took her own life. I felt guilty for so many things. I felt guilty that deep down, I, my family, and even her friends were frustrated in not knowing how to help her with her struggles with addiction and mental illness. I felt guilty that I was married, had four wonderful children, had achieved a doctorate of education degree, and had all the things in life to be happy about while my sister had thoughts of ending her life. Cornelia was beautiful and talented, owned her own business, had wonderful friends and family, and traveled around the world. So, why did she kill herself? This question also makes me feel guilty; the fact that I really don’t know why. Perhaps, my greatest guilt is why I didn’t try to do more: understand her more, have more patience with her, and maybe even prevent her from committing suicide. Yet, I also wondered if doing more would have been just futile, and she would have succeeded anyway in what she tried to do so many times before. As a nurse, I even felt guilty that our health-care system did not provide the resources she needed to save her life. She had been in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation centers, and each time would be discharged before she was well enough to go home.
Many of you reading this have known someone who has attempted or succeeded with suicide, and likely you’ve had similar experiences with guilt. That’s one reason I decided to write about my experiences and the guilt I felt. The other reason is that my beautiful, smart, loving, and caring 16-year-old daughter has lost her best friend, John, to suicide. Watching her struggle with the same guilt I felt breaks my heart. She has wondered if she had talked to him more that day, if she had answered the phone that night, if she had told someone sooner that he was planning this, perhaps he would still be alive.
The fact is she did tell me the night before he died, and I told his parents and the school. At first, I was angry that they did not do more when I warned them of his plans. The fact is his parents did schedule him to speak to a therapist, and the school did talk with this boy and his parents. Then I felt guilty that I didn’t call the police or crisis intervention, or maybe even try to talk to him. I felt guilty that I did not ask my daughter if he had an actual plan on how he would do this when in fact I learned that he had.
With time I started to realize that this very smart boy, John, was committed to carrying out his plan. He planned how and when he would kill himself and thought of every detail. When he said he no longer was going to commit suicide, his closest friends, his parents, and his school believed him, mostly because everyone wanted to believe this smart young boy would not take his own life. I came to realize an important factor associated with the guilt suicide leaves behind is that it is too painful to know that someone you love and care about wants to and is planning to take their life so you believe them when they tell you they are no longer going to carry out their plan.
There are many things I learned from this experience. I learned we need to teach our children if their friends tell them of any thoughts of suicide and/or a specific plan on how they are going to commit suicide they need to tell their teachers, school officials, parents, and even their friend’s parents. I learned that we need to advocate for more funding for mental health care. I learned that we need to communicate about all the details of suicide no matter how uncomfortable they make us. I learned we cannot change the things we feel guilty about, but perhaps we can help others experiencing the same thing, and we can search for ways to prevent someone else from taking their life. As an associate professor of nursing, I will begin to teach my nursing students the importance of communication, advocating for health-care issues such as suicide, and teaching our youth that the problems they may face today can change tomorrow.
My daughter and many of her close friends continue to feel guilt and may continue to feel guilt the rest of their lives. They question everything John said to them in the days, even hours, before he took his own life. They look for signs to give them answers to why: why did he commit suicide when clearly the funeral was testimony that he was loved by so many? When I sat at his wake, I wondered if he is in heaven watching all of these people: his grandmother, his mom, his dad, his older sister, his younger sister, all the teachers, parents, and all his fellow students clearly devastated and grieving for his life that was no longer here on earth. If he saw the grief he caused, would he have changed his mind and still be with us today? God, please be with John for he is truly missed by all that knew him.
Editor’s note: For more information about preventing suicide, access the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The organizations’ website includes information on surviving suicide loss and education materials.
Maureen Kroning is an associate professor of nursing at Nyack College in Nyack, New York.
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