Ask John: "Was my husband's suicide my fault?"
A woman wrote, and asked me to respond to, the heartbreaking question below. My response to her question follows below it.*
What happens when you do something that you can’t get forgiveness for? My husband committed suicide two years, three months and four days ago. He needed me, and I wasn’t there for him. I pushed him away — and he couldn’t hold on. I left him at the precise moment he needed me the most.
He is gone, forever gone. I’ll never see him; we’ll never speak; I can never say I’m sorry. He can never forgive me. I will live with it forever.
I asked God to forgive me, so I guess he did, right? Great. Honestly. But in this lifetime I don’t imagine I’ll ever feel any better for knowing that. I can’t go back and change things. I did not do everything I could have done. I am guilty; trust me on this one. I can’t forgive myself, so how do I ever stop suffering?
Please listen to me on this. Your husband’s suicide was not your fault — at all, in any way, ever. His taking of his own life is absolutely not your burden to bear.
That you feel otherwise is entirely natural and tragically inevitable. When a person commits suicide, they automatically sentence those they’ve left behind to a lifetime of suffering from the guilt of thinking that they could have done something, anything, to prevent it.
When the truth is there was never anything anyone could have done to prevent an adult from killing themselves. (I stress “an adult” because young people are influenced by others to a degree that typically adults are not.)
What causes a person to commit suicide has nothing to do with the world outside of themselves. Every day countless people find themselves feeling severely depressed or emotionally desperate and yet do not even think of killing themselves. The only adults who ever commit suicide are those infected with the very specific condition of being suicidal. Your husband had that unrelenting sickness within him. It’s not your fault that you don’t possess the cure for it. No one does.
You could no sooner have stopped your husband from doing what his illness ultimately drove him to do than you can stop the sun from setting. No matter how kind and loving you had been to him on that terrible day, he would have done what he did — on that day, or on a day soon after. The only chance he had of stopping himself from taking his own life was to seek the kind of psychological counseling which you must now seek for yourself. (He might have also, and even greatly, benefited from pharmaceutical therapy.) And do, please, seek that counseling. You need that assistance to help lift from your shoulders that crippling burden of guilt, which, again, and despite how I know it seems to you now, isn’t yours to be carrying at all.
You mentioned turning to God as a source of relief and solace. Please don’t let today’s commonplace deprecation of religion in any way dissuade you from fully availing yourself of what I’ll here call The Universal Good, however you might conceive of that infinite power. If you have a system of faith which has ever in the past served you well — one which you know to have at its core a truth which, as they say, surpasses all understanding — then now is the time for you to delve into that faith.
Faith isn’t for the good times; no one cries out for the succor of God when everything’s already going their way. It’s when this world has collapsed down upon us that we need something beyond this world. If you have a faith system which can connect you with the The Big Power Beyond, take a moment or two to situate yourself at the very wellspring of that system’s spiritual essence — and then stay there. Be still there. Let that healing force talk to you, soothe you, nurture you, heal you.
Also, open your heart to the spirit and soul of your husband. In meditation or in prayer, call to him, find him, commune with him. When your consciousness is again with his, tell him how crushingly sorry you are that you didn’t save him. Tell him how it pains you every single day to think of him suffering as he must have been. Tell him how joyful you are that he suffers no more. Tell him how much you love him, and miss him, and cannot wait to be with him again.
Ask him to forgive you for not doing more to help him. I don’t know a lot about a lot, but I’m sure of one thing: He will. Because he knows that what he did to himself was never your fault. And I promise you that he wants you to know that every bit as desperately as you want to know it yourself.
From "Ask John," the advice column I wrote for the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper (part of the USA Today Network) from October 2016 through January 2020.