When Nothing Can Be Done

I tried to protect my son from the pain of survivor's guilt as he grieved for his friend who had committed suicide

When my son breaks through our front door and runs up the stairs crying in half boy, half man sobs, I just stand where I am in the living room, holding peanut butter in one hand and a book in the other. I have been cleaning up and getting my daughters ready for the evening rituals; this son was not supposed to be coming home anytime soon. Visiting from Long Beach, he was hanging out with one of his best friends for the night.

I waited at the bottom of the stairs, hushing the girls and listening like a stranger at a party to my husband's voice punctuate the longer, hysterical opera of my son's voice — high up and breaking, and then down low and then muttered, guttural cries.

Something horrible had happened. I ran upstairs and into my bedroom where our son sat on the bed, hunched over, face in hands, rasping. My husband hovered protectively. I sat next to my boy and put one hand around his shoulders and the other on his own hands on his face. “What is it, sweetheart,” I asked. “What is it?”

And so he told us that his friend, Sam, a 21-year-old girl, had killed herself. The word "suicide" sprang into the room with the coiled attack of a snake.

“I should have known, I should have known …” he repeated, and I, although never confronted with suicide before this moment, recognized immediately that the poison had set in and that blame would be assigned to each person who loved Sam, in the measure and endurance for which they deemed themselves responsible.

In the wake of suicide comes particular and instantaneous survivor guilt. This guilt is incredibly complex because often there is something someone could have done. But how do you read the signs? And more importantly, how do you interpret them? Who will truly take their own life? Who is hiding their suicidal plans and who is hinting at suicide because they believe it the quickest way to ensure help? Who is depressed and who is suicidal?

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Watching my son's skin change color — white to pink to blood red in the span of a few seconds — was watching the transference of emotion to body. His eyes flickered, his mouth trembled, his chest heaved and the tears poured without stopping for a long hour on that bed. As the words “I should have known” left his lips, a second wave of horror had washed over me. “I can't let this happen to him,” I thought. “I can't let him blame himself.”

Sam had a tragic story. She was the youngest of three girls and all of the sisters were close to a neighbor girl who was a year younger than Sam. They all grew up with her, did Girls Scouts, liked the same neighborhood boys — you know the drill. They were all very close. One day, the neighborhood girl experimented with heroin. She overdosed in Sam's bedroom. A year later, Sam killed herself.

My son had known Sam as a friend from middle school until sophomore year, when she moved a few towns away. He subsequently received a text message from her about the stress she was under, the grief she felt. He wrote back: “Hey, you aren't alone. If you ever want to talk, I'm here.”

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And Sam did want to talk. They spent the next six months talking on text and IM and sometimes on the phone. For the most part, Sam kept up the patter of a healthy and happy teenage girl with all the smarts and money in the world, only occasionally revealing a darker side with words like “so fucked up” and “I can't stand this” and “I feel so guilty.”

My son’s middle name is Wolf, and since he was small, I've sometimes referred to my family as a wolfpack. When I think of Sam now, I often get a visual of a wolf cut off from her pack. She is limping through the forest. She has enough food and water, and there is the beautiful wooded mountains, the stir of birds in the trees, the warm body of a rabbit in her mouth. But she is alone, and she steps in a trap. She will not articulate the pain she feels.

The deepest questions of suicide are largely unanswerable, more guideposts to meaning than the end of a spiritual path. For my son, the largest question has been in what ways are we responsible for each other? I did not know how to tell him that although I knew he wasn't responsible for Sam's suicide, the fabric of that question would thread through the rest of his life, and only intensify with every deepening love and relationship.

Sam never told anyone she was considering killing herself. That trap was a secret, and that secret kept the help that might have saved her from reaching her in time. As hard and sweetly and generously as my son tried to support this girl, there was nothing he could do.

And that’s exactly what I told him: You were her friend. You listened. You reached out. You told her you cared. You loved. Loving is the one thing we can do — it’s our responsibility to each other — and you fulfilled that. You aren't a therapist. You aren't a psychologist. You were her friend.

What I wanted him to know more than anything was that Sam's suicide was not his fault, or his responsibility; what I wanted him to look at was what he had taken on as his moral obligation, which was to act in kindness and love, to reach back when reached out to, to connect. That is all any of us can ever do.

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