The September 12 edition of the New York Times included an opinion piece titled “What Lies in Suicide’s Wake” by Peggy Wehmeyer. Ms. Wehmeyer previously worked as a correspondent on ABC’s “World News Tonight.” In the opinion piece, Ms. Wehmeyer shared experiences following her husband’s death by suicide in 2008.
Wehmeyer’s account of widowhood by suicide grabs you by the throat and brings you to your knees. If you’re a suicide survivor, read it with caution, because it will bring you anger, sadness, pain, and guilt.
Wehmeyer’s story also made me want to take action. I wanted to do to her what Robin Williams did to Matt Damon in his role of the therapist in Good Will Hunting. Williams looked at a file on Damon’s history of abuse, and then stood in front of him, saying,
“All this shit. This is not your fault. Look at me son. It’s not your fault.” Then Williams repeated “It’s not your fault” until Damon collapsed crying in his arms.
Some burdens are too big. I want to take Ms. Wehmeyer in my arms and tell her she’s taking on too much. Her former husband chose suicide. That’s a tragedy. But it’s not her fault.
After a suicide, shame and guilt spread like warm butter on hot toast, seeping into crevices, muscles, joints, and neurons. Guilt stabs you in the heart and then pummels your brain with the most obvious, most painful, most important, and most impossible question, “Why?”
Why . . . is a stupid, impenetrable, devious, and unhelpful question. But suicide survivors can’t stop themselves from painfully ruminating on, Why did this happen? If I were the god of suicide recovery, I’d cancel that question from the genetic blueprint. After a suicide, the question Why is pointless and unanswerable.
I’m a psychologist and a counselor. I’ve got plenty of friends in the mental health professions. Many of my friends, being of the post-modern or existential ilk, like to exclaim, usually with intellectual delight and breathless discovery, that “Humans are meaning makers!!” Well, duh.
Of course humans are meaning makers. Basically, that’s all we do. We make up shit all the time in an effort to explain our existence and our experiences. Let’s say your romantic partner breaks up with you, if you’re like most humans, you’ll wonder “Why?” And then you’ll painfully exfoliate your soul until you corner yourself with some irrational bullshit like, “I must be unlovable” or “I’m defective” or “I’m undesirable.” Or, if you’re inclined the other direction, you’ll quickly conclude, “He was an asshole” or “She’s defective” or “I hope my ex gets hit by a train.” And there are the new-age explainers who repeatedly wax philosophical, saying, “It wasn’t meant to be” or “The universe is telling me that it’s not my time for a romantic relationship.”
Asking why shit happens (and then answering yourself) is simply not helpful; it’s not helpful because you will, being human, come up with dozens of stupid, irrational, and unhelpful explanations for terrible things that happen. In the aftermath of suicide, if you’re like Ms. Wehmeyer, and many of us are, most of your stupid, irrational, and unhelpful explanations will involve blaming yourself. You’ll think things like, “I should have loved him better” or, you’ll embrace the ultimate piece of bullshit, that, somehow, as Ms. Wehmeyer wrote, “I missed those [suicide] signs until it was too late.”
No she didn’t. Wehmeyer didn’t miss the signs. And neither did you. Predicting suicide is impossible for even the best suicide researchers on the planet. Like Robin Williams said: It’s not your fault. You’re not the god of suicide prevention. Things happen. Shit happens. People kill themselves. Suicide started eons before you were born and it will continue for eons after.
Accepting tragedy sucks. It sucks more than nearly anything else we can think of. But tragedy strikes. And most of the time, tragedies are outside our control. Does that mean you should stop trying to prevent suicide and save lives? Of course not. Do what you can when you can. Does it mean you should stop blaming yourself for actions and choices that other people make and that are beyond your control? Hell yes!
In case you missed it, National Suicide Prevention Week is just ending. All week we’ve been encouraged to watch for warning signs, to follow up on our concerns by directly asking friends, family, and colleagues how they’re doing, and if they’ve been thinking about suicide. All this is great stuff. But, along with the many educational messages we’ve heard, somebody has to point out the cold, hard truth.
Sometimes you track the warning signs, you ask all the right questions, and you love people with all your heart, and they’ll still die by suicide. If that happens, it doesn’t mean you missed the signs or that you weren’t lovable enough. If suicide happens, you need to take care of yourself; you need to talk about your sadness, pain, and regrets. But you need to add one more thing. You need to listen to Robin Williams (who also died by suicide) and forgive yourself, because . . . All this shit. This is not your fault. . . . It’s not your fault.
Resources for help
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
- Bozeman Help Center – 24-Hour Crisis Line: (406) 586-3333
6 thoughts on “The End of Suicide Prevention Week”
Thank you John.
Nice piece John. I like the exfoliating one’s soul part. I also like the underlying theme”it’s not your fault”. It remains a liability issue in health care however. Thanks.
Thanks Scott! Ah, liability. . . another double-edged sword.
Thanks, John for your bracing clarity. There are echoes of The Book of Job in this, which is really good company to be in. Your work is helpful to us all.
Very true John, great piece, thank you x