“You will probably need to put yourself on trial about this suicide. My goal is that you and I [therapist] work together to make sure that you have a fair trial and that we carefully consider all the evidence.” – Dr. Jack Jordan & Dr. Bob Baugher, After Suicide Loss: Coping with Your Grief
For several years, I’ve featured this quote in presentations for fellow survivors about suicide loss and my grief memoir. Yet until the 8th anniversary of my son Noah’s death this year, I never took the time to actually put myself on trial. I’d been reading The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness by Rami Shapiro and learning how the guilt we carry is baked into the stories we tell ourselves—and that we may need to reassess those stories to move toward self-forgiveness. Guilt is one of the most common and corrosive responses in the aftermath of suicide, and one of the hardest to talk about. I’m sharing a little about my “trial” here in the hope that it helps others lighten their burden.
Mine was trial by journal. I began by brainstorming some of the indictments I’ve been living with since 2013. I’ve blamed myself for so much. For not being able to save my child from his demons, first and foremost. For hardening my heart in frustration and impatience at his behavior when we were estranged. For not understanding mental illness or how to live with a seriously depressed person—the list goes on. I chose three of the worst charges against myself and listed all the evidence I could muster, pro or con.
Under “I was unable to help my child in his crisis,” I surprised myself by naming all the ways I actually did try to help Noah. These ranged from first detecting his depression and encouraging him to see a therapist almost two years before the suicide to spending lots of time with him to keep him safe and calm during a psychotic break a few months before his death. Both during that break and when I flew cross-country to bring him home from college on medical leave, I was a gentle, caring listener, helping him to navigate some of his most difficult moments and preserve his dignity with friends.
Did I make mistakes, like fail to inform myself about suicide risk and panic when I asked Noah if he was suicidal? Yes, and I will always regret these and other colossal failures. So the evidence is mixed. But had I not been deliberate about setting out the evidence on paper, I might never have given myself credit for what I did manage to do.
The aftermath of suicide with its desperate search for answers and fits of guilt confronts us with our own limitations. “What lies beneath your self-blame are the terrible facts that you cannot control,” writes suicide expert Stacey Freedenthal. “Suicidal forces overtook your loved one. You have suffered an unfathomable loss. You cannot turn back time, do it over, do it differently. Each of these is a loss. Mourning these losses is the essence of grief. Your grief deserves your compassion.”
As therapists have pointed out, I couldn’t see the whole picture in part because of all that Noah hid from us. As fellow survivors have taught me, it’s possible to be well-informed about mental illness, proactive about trying every possible treatment for troubled loved ones, and vigilant about suicide watches—and still not be able to prevent a suicide.
After a lot of crying at the trial, I felt depleted but also lighter. I concluded that the evidence is mixed. I will never have all the evidence needed for a fair trial absent Noah’s input and an updated psychiatric assessment. And there will never be a clear causal line that can be drawn from my actions to Noah’s death since suicide is complex and influenced by many factors. I will never know whether what I managed to do or failed to do during his crisis, or over his 21 years, made a difference one way or the other for my son.
What I can do is to bring honesty and compassion to the stories I tell myself about Noah’s suicide. And take my spiritual teachers’ advice to do a “befriending” meditation, in which I give myself the understanding and encouragement I would want to hear from a good friend: You were there for him at key moments in his struggle. You loved him through it all. You don’t have to live with guilt for the rest of your life.
A day after the trial, a friend happened to send me historic videos I’d never seen of Roza Eskenazi, a Greek singer who I love but hadn't thought about for many years. I found myself singing along and dancing, euphoric to see her performance. Though still tender from my inquisition—or maybe because of it—there was room for joy.