Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My wife took her own life a few months ago, and it has busted me wide open. I’m better than where I was but far from being better. I wrestle with the coulda, shoulda, woulda of survivor guilt and anger. I miss her terribly, and now have somewhat come to terms that this will be life long endeavor of trying to heal. We had a bad fight the prior night and i believe that was the trigger. That and she was messing with her meds. She was a beautiful, vibrant woman of 60, with her whole life ahead of her. I’m in counseling, on meds and in a support group, they definitely help, but at times i feel so all alone in this wilderness, and am weary of this fight.
When a loved one ends her life in an act of suicide, it leaves us drowning in a sea of questions: Why did this happen? Why did she do this to herself? To other family? To me? What was my role in this tragedy, and how can I ever forgive myself? And with the unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions come a host of anguishing emotions—shock, confusion, anger, abandonment, shame and guilt being among the most common and intense. And as research, clinical observation and personal experience all suggest, the shock waves of this form of traumatic loss typically are felt across years and decades, rather than weeks and months, and call for patience, self- and other compassion and bravery on the part of surviving family members and those who support them.
You clearly have taken the first crucial steps toward adapting to this crisis in the form of reaching out not only to me, but also to a trusted counselor and support group. In the case of the latter, survivors of suicide loss usually find that consulting with therapists who specialize in traumatic bereavement and participating in mutual support communities that have themselves been touched by this uniquely distressing form of bereavement is important, as they can bring to bear a level of professional expertise and personal understanding that more general forms of counseling or support groups cannot. In addition, it can be wise to consult web sites like that of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which offers helpful resources and advice to people who share this hard passage with you: check out https://afsp.org/find-support/ive-lost-someone/.
Above all, recognize that you are not alone: hundreds of thousands of other survivors are experiencing some version of the same feelings and questions that you are, and are slowly feeling their way forward toward a life of renewed hope and resilience. The act of suicide is clearly the outcome of multiple factors, which range from the suicidal person’s biological disposition toward depression and other forms of mental illness, to substance use or abuse, a troubled upbringing, contemporary stressors, the sense of being a burden to others, and more. Resist the temptation to simplify this equation by assuming that the responsibility for this tragedy resides solely with you. Listen instead for the deeper understanding of this trauma that might be gleaned from the wise counsel of professionals, survivors, others who love you, and your own heart. Drawing on each, you can find a light beyond this darkness, and in time even grow to be a support to others groping through a darkness of their own.
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