Monday, April 26, 2021

Revisiting Guilt: Putting Myself on Trial for the Suicide

 “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.

 To my fellow survivors: What stories do you tell yourself about the suicide? If you struggle with guilt, have you tried naming the charges you hold against yourself and assessing the evidence after some time has passed? Maybe something will shift in your body or your thinking. Maybe you’ll find the words to “befriend” or even forgive yourself.  


  1. Hello everybody, and a big thanks to you Susan who bring us together and giving voice to our suppressed anguish,letting some air in.
    My worst accusation is that I did not do my best to provide a healthy, non toxic home environment because of my cowardice and my uncertainty about the outcome of a divorce.
    My attorney would say that there was no possible way to know of things would have been better or worse if I had the guts to become a single mother of three boys and two girls. But now I ll never know, will I? Hope was left in Pandora's box but why was there in the first place? Is hope a good thing after all? When your child dies this way, the order of the whole world is shaken,you are afraid to hope or to rejoice again, considering it to be a hybris, a provocation for more disaster.
    The second accusation would be that although I calmly and silently accepted, I did not actually embrace my son's homosexuality, because it was at the time not possible to do so. I felt sorry for him,and was worried about all the dangers and social outcasting and the difficulty to find a loving life companion and... I did not share these thoughts but these was certainly there. So I was not supportive or light hearted about it but I tried to act as nothing was wrong I was loving and fun. But maybe this deep sense of making his mom or dad unhappy gave him an extra motive? My attorney would say that there are no solid pieces of evidence and that the accused expressed the deepest remorse, which is true.
    Συγγνωμη Δαβιδ συγγνώμη για όλα παιδάκι μου όμορφο και γλυκό. Εύχομαι να με ακούς και να χαίρεσαι εκεί που είσαι.
    I am so sorry for everything David, my beautiful sweet boy, I hope you can hear me and be happy where you are now.
    Greetings to all

    1. Dear Vassiliki, please pardon this late reply. Your attorney in this "trial" is brutally honest and you are brave to share these words. I know what you mean about the whole order of your world being shaken. Since it is already shaken, maybe it's easier for us to obsess over "if only" and what might have been in a way that we don't do when our world is stable. But as your attorney points out, there is no way to know if things would have turned out differently for David. Maybe our actions as mothers have less impact than we realize as our kids mature and find their own way in life. Your words in Greek are so heartfelt, I'm sure that David knows how much you loved him and how very sorry you are for what happened. Sto kalo --

  2. I feel like I’ve dissected every moment of Gareth’s life, looking for turning points where I might have intervened to change the eventual course of events. I have blamed myself completely, my divorce from his father, not always recognising his difficulties, being fraught with him as a stressed young mother. Gareth had always been challenging (not physically but verbally), he was intelligent and articulate but he was loving, thoughtful and we could talk for hours about many things. I sometimes felt he said he was suicidal over the last 7 to 10 years and I always took him seriously and begged him to get help. He never sought help, perhaps too proud as time went on. I offered to go to family therapy with him but he didn’t ever feel he could. His anger I always knew was safe with me as I never walked away even though at times I was exasperated with the constant challenges. I journaled although sporadically and one of my intentions for 2019 was to have some joy with him but it was difficult although I tried. I do feel I let him down badly. We do feel protective and Vassiliki that was all your feelings were, protection against a world that is often harsh and cruel but also kind. I often feel I imposed or rather projected my own lack of confidence onto him. All this sounds very incoherent but such are my thoughts at times.

    Thank you again Susan, your blog and my incoherent responses are cathartic in a way, one day I may make more sense.

    With love Roslyn xx

    1. Hi Roslyn, Your thoughts make a lot of sense to me. And it sounds like you took what steps you could to reach out to Gareth and urge him to get help. As you said: you never walked away. That is a lot. That is mother love.

  3. Your blog helps me feel that I am not alone..... Guilt, regret, anger, jealousy, and most of all Future that was cut off by my beloved child death. I guess that we all have to live with our grief. We grieve because we loved so much.

    1. Hi Lily, Yes, it's so many strong feelings all at once, isn't it? Thank you for reminding us that the profound grief we feel is a sign of the depth of our love.

  4. I've just been re-reading this Susan, and thinking how right you are about the need to give ourselves a fair trial. I think this is easier with a good therapist, and I am very relieved to finally have found one who is experienced and skilled in working with traumatic grief. In just 3 sessions he has done more to help me than the three others I tried and stuck with simply because I needed someone to listen. Listening is not enough. I needed to be challenged, in all the right ways, and for all the right reasons. I am working hard. I'm not done. But I feel as though I am moving forwards on my journey.

    Susan, did there come a time when you felt you had accepted that Noah was really gone? I still feel I am struggling to accept it, and am still unable to summon memories of Anton's life, rather than his death.

    With love to everyone who comes here to spend time with grief, and not be alone

    1. Hi Ligia, Very glad to hear you've found a good therapist and are moving through your grief. To your question, it took at least a couple years for the reality of Noah's death to sink in. And even after that, there would be days when I couldn't accept it and fought against it. Like all of this, it's a process. Let's hope time is your friend in this process.