Shame and suicide


It’s a feeling you get very used to as a suicide survivor, whether you lost a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a relative, or a friend. You live each day wrapped in this feeling. Shame settles over you like a heavy layer of dust and holds you in place.

The world loves to look down from its mighty pedestal of judgement on suicide. You should have done something to stop it. You should have been a better wife/husband/brother/sister/mother/father/friend and maybe your loved one wouldn’t feel the need to kill themselves. You should have listened more. You should have been there. You should have known what they were planning to do. You should have been better. You shouldn’t have gotten into that argument, that one time. You should have been more supportive. You should have understood better. You should have tried harder. You should have done everything differently.

You should have.

You should have.

You should have.

People may not speak these words out loud, but they’re there. When someone hears about a suicide, the knee-jerk reaction is to pick the person closest to the deceased and wonder why they didn’t know, why they didn’t do something, why they failed. I used to do it too, before.

Right after Brandon’s death (his suicide), I remember so clearly walking around in the world he left behind, feeling very much like somehow, somehow it was my fault he was dead. I felt responsible. I felt so weighed down by guilt. I knew people were thinking these things, I saw it on their faces, and I started to wonder if they were right. I sat down and made lists, whole pages of them, of the things that I should have done differently in the days, weeks, months, and years before his death. If I did all these things differently, if I didn’t say these other things, if I handled situations differently, if I…if I…if I…

It became an obsession. I spent months in this dark hole, being crushed by the weight of failure, by the weight of shame. I hated myself for not calling him that night on my way home. I hated myself for not inviting him out to dinner that night in the first place. I hated myself for that argument we got into a few days before. I hated myself for not telling him I love him more. I hated myself for not fully understanding the severity of his alcoholism. I hated myself for so many things.

Suicide carries such a stigma, so much judgement, so many assumptions, so those impacted by it feel ashamed, and we don’t talk about it. It’s easier to say that our loved one died and not go into details. I remember in the weeks following Brandon’s death, a lot of my coworkers would come up to me, express their sympathies, and inevitably ask how he died (he was 25, after all, and people are curious). I remember stammering out a “I don’t know yet” and rushing away. I was terrified of telling them the truth. I felt so ashamed. I didn’t want them to think of me differently. I didn’t want them to blame me; I was doing enough of that on my own. I didn’t want them to change how they saw me. I didn’t want them to wonder what was so wrong with me that my husband would want to kill himself. I didn’t want to become LESS in their eyes. Saying the words “my husband committed suicide” made me feel dirty, unclean, and wrong.

So I didn’t talk about it. And his family didn’t either. I remember thinking it very odd that in the obituary the local paper ran, all it said was “Brandon died in his home”. His death suddenly felt like this great, big, dirty secret. It felt like a shameful burden those of us who knew the truth had to carry. It wasn’t until months later, when I saw those same words in an obituary of another suicide death, a fellow suicide survivor friend I had made on the widowed forums, that I understood this was the politically correct code the world used. Because apparently, it’s easier to dance around the truth than to just be honest. It’s easier to shame and guilt families into silence than to just talk openly about a growing epidemic. Death makes everyone uncomfortable, but suicides are in their own column of uncomfortable.

It was around this time that I got angry at the stigma, and vowed to stop hiding in the shadows, ashamed and afraid.

So I talk about it now. I make people uncomfortable. I still feel those twinges of shame, but I choose to not let them silence me. It’s part of the reason I even decided to start this blog. If someone dies by suicide, it tends to define them and overshadow anything else they’ve done in life. And I refuse to let Brandon and his life be defined by the way he died. He is more than a suicide. He was a smart, kind, generous person. A drunken decision to pull the trigger doesn’t change that.

It took years of therapy for me to start believing that his death wasn’t my fault.

Notice I said “start believing”.

It’s something I still struggle with.

I still don’t fully believe it wasn’t my fault, but I believe it more days than I don’t, and that’s progress.

In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to climb out of the dark hole the stigma surrounding suicide creates. I’ll keep trying to not stay silent and ashamed. I just hope one day more people can talk openly about it and not feel ashamed or judged. I hope one day more emphasis gets put on mental health and its maintenance. I hope one day people can admit they are depressed and struggling without fear of judgement or of being seen as weak. Admitting you need help should be seen as an act of courage and strength, not of weakness. I think that will help us get to a day where suicide rates are much lower than they are today.

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