I’m currently deployed with the US Army in Northeastern Poland where I’m serving as the lone Behavorial Health Provider for over 800 US soldiers. I see anywhere from 20 to 35 servicemembers a week for therapy and give a few briefs a week to troops (all my briefs either focus on or touch upon suicide). At least ten of the soldiers I’ve been treating are survivors of suicide.
I use that phrase carefully. Survivor of suicide. Being close to someone who completed suicide is like having a metaphorical bomb dropped on one’s life: in addition to the sorrow that accompanies death, there are almost always additional feelings of confusion, guilt (unreasonably and unfairly), and anger. I’m also continuing to treat several clients back in NY and NJ by phone who are also survivors of recent suicide (counseling by phone is something that I really advise against and only agree to in cases similar to this). To sum it up, I am working with at least a dozen people every week who are the survivors of suicide. This is, by far, the largest amount of survivors I’ve treated at one time. It’s heavy work. But it’s allowed me to see some stark themes that I have not written about in my previous articles (my first article in this series was about how one feels like there is something deficient about them when someone they love commits suicide; part two discusses the suicide domino theory and how it betrays our future selves by eliminating all possibilities). This third piece discusses the two lines that survivors repeat in our sessions.
Why did they do it?
That’s a question that every survivor utters. Everyone. Clients query me. Some ask God. All of them run it continually through their mind, especially in the early days, weeks, and months. It’s agonizing. And it can not be answered. Even in cases where a note (or notes) are left behind, it still remains a mystery. Sure, some completions lead to easy speculation (a recent end of a romantic relationship, astronomical debt, incurable health problems, substance misuse), yet we can never truly know. Mysteries are frustrating; suicides go far beyond the scale of frustration.
People want answers. Some find solace in figuring out some reason. It may give them peace. But discovering some hidden debt or secret pain usually leads to more questions. Thus further agony. I tell my clients this. Despite my advice, I’ll even play detective with them for a bit, cautioning them all the while that we’ll never really know as I try to move them forward in the healing process and to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
If you are a survivor, it is natural to ask “why?” We all do. But we eventually need to move on. If you know a survivor, do not ask them why they think their loved one did it. It’s a radioactive question. Do not ask it. If you are a survivor and someone asks you, rather than erupt (which is absolutely your right but isn’t helpful), tell them, “No one knows. Please never ask that again.”
How come I didn’t see it? (or worse, after the fact, “I should have known because of….”)
I had a soldier say to me recently, “Maybe if I didn’t get off the phone the way I did six weeks before she wouldn’t have done it.” To borrow from Shakespeare, we take “trifles light as air” and seek to link them to the suicide. A lack of eye contact in March, a sullen expression three months earlier, a muted voice at Thanksgiving, a shorter conversation one Thursday, a missed call, an unreturned text, a gift not given, a dinner that was cancelled, a party not attended, and other trivial life instances become fodder that is raked over and despairingly examined. It is a sisyphean task that leads to false and disastrously unfair guilt.
If we put every interaction with people we care about under such a microscope, not only would we have no time to live our lives, but those in our lives would become exhausted and infuriated with us for speculating upon every word and gesture.
This is easy for me to see, because I’ve dealt with so many of these cases. These bombs that shatter the survivors lives. I see the commonality of the responses and I can let those with whom I work know that these thoughts are natural and horridly unfair. And that they need to stop.