Monday, November 4, 2013

Surviving A Spouse's Death by Suicide

[Reviewed and updated December 17, 2023]

There are always two parties to a death; the person who dies and the survivors who are bereaved. ~ Arnold Toynbee, Historian

A reader writes: I lost my husband to suicide last year and I am trying to cope. I am trying to move on, but I cannot do this alone anymore. I feel responsible, because he asked me to say something I could not say, and subsequently hanged himself. I feel so much remorse, guilt, pain, and it won't stop. I continually have thoughts to go to him. I am losing it by the day and don't understand what's happening to me. I need contact of some kind to know he is okay and does not blame me. I know we are all responsible for our own choices, but "yes" instead "no" would have made the difference in whether he was living today. I know this to be true. I don't know where to turn and am hoping you can save my life.

My response: I am so very sorry to learn of your husband's death by suicide this last year. I can only imagine how horrible this must be for you, and even though there is nothing I can do to take away your pain, I hope I can offer you a few words of encouragement.

Suicide is one of the most difficult and painful ways to lose someone we love, because we are left with so many unanswerable questions and so many mixed feelings: How could our loved one do such a horrible thing to us? Where do we put all the anger, remorse, guilt and pain that we feel? What more could we have done to help? How can we ever get past the shame and embarrassment we feel when others find out what happened, and seem all too quick to judge us for not foreseeing this and for not doing enough to prevent it?

Please know that anger and guilt are the two most common reactions in grief, and most especially so when the death is by suicide. And anger at God is very, very normal too. Losing someone we love is so very difficult to accept and to understand, and it is a process that takes place over time. This news is just too big to take in all at once and way too big for us to digest. We must let it in a little bit at a time over a very long period as eventually our minds come to accept what our hearts cannot.

I understand that you're feeling very guilty for something you failed to say that you believe would have prevented your husband's taking his own life. I hope you realize that when someone is determined to commit this act, there is very little if anything someone else can do to prevent it. While there are warning signs that may mean someone is at risk for suicide, we simply do not have any control over the choices and actions of another human being, no matter how much we may wish it to be otherwise. To believe that you could have prevented this simply by saying "yes" instead of saying "no" to whatever your husband was asking of you is to give yourself a tremendous degree of power over another person. If you truly had that much power over him, you could have "made" him do anything you ever wanted him to do, and you and I both know that was not the case. Your husband’s pain exceeded his resources for coping with it. Unfortunately, you are the one who is left behind to deal with the pain and hurt and guilt that have resulted from his action.

As the first anniversary of your husband's death approaches, I am not at all surprised that the fresh pangs of grief have re-surfaced for you. This is not at all unusual and certainly it is not abnormal.

You also say that you don't know where to turn and you are hoping that I can save your life. First of all, we both know that I have no power to save your life, any more than you have the power to save mine. What you choose to do with your life is in your own hands and under your own control. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, you did turn to me by sending me this message, which in itself is an indicator that you have the power within yourself to reach out to get the help you know you need. In the beginning of your message to me you say that you cannot do this alone anymore. I agree with you completely. Grieving is very hard work, and you ought not to be trying to do it all by yourself—especially when you are coping with a death by suicide. There is plenty of help available, just waiting for you to find it. I will offer you some suggestions, and my prayer for you is that you will resolve to get busy and get moving on finding the help you know you need.

Resources for Survivors of Suicide Loss
As a survivor of suicide loss, you need to educate yourself about the subject. Read what others have written about it. See, for example, Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide, by C. Lukas and H. Seiden and read some of the Related Articles listed at the base of this post.

Visit some of the websites devoted to this subject:
These sites will assure you that you are not alone in this tragedy. You'll discover some ways to manage your grief, and you'll be helped to recognize that if others can survive this most devastating of losses, then you can do it, too.

For whatever reason, your husband obviously believed that life in this world was just too much for him, and at the moment he took his own life, he saw suicide as his only option, as the only way to end the emotional pain he felt. If as mere human beings, you and I can see the tragedy in that and forgive your husband for being human and at his weakest, it just seems to me that God can do so, too. I can't tell you what to believe, but I'd like to think that God's heart is a lot bigger than ours. And He must be at least as capable as we are of giving your husband the sort of understanding and forgiveness he needs.

Grief is something that we get through and learn to live with but not something we ever get over. Death may end a life, but it does not end a relationship. The bond you have with your husband will remain with you as long as you choose to keep his memory alive in your heart. Remember that your husband's entire life was much more than those few final moments when he chose to hang himself. I promise that the day will come when the good memories you have of him will outweigh the bad. The way you come to peace about all of this is one day at a time, and if that's too much, you work at it one hour or even one minute at a time. But if you still find that you're unable to get to that point of peace all by yourself, I urge you to find someone to talk to about it—someone who knows something about suicide as well as about grief. That can be the best gift you could ever give yourself and your husband. Pick up the phone and ask your primary care physician to refer you to someone who specializes in loss and grief; call your local library, mortuary or hospice organization and ask what bereavement support services are available in your community. If you don't have the energy to do this research, ask a friend or relative to do it for you.

I hope this information proves helpful to you. Please know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. Take good care of yourself. You took the initiative to write to me. You can do the rest. You are worth it. Now get going!

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