Suicide. Who’s To Blame, Anyway?

Several years ago, within the two week span after my fiancé, Dan, committed suicide, three different people said these exact words to me: “What did you do to him?”

The first time I heard it was about one hour after learning Dan was dead. At that time, I was too shocked to even respond. I wasn’t quite sure I had even heard the words correctly. However, within minutes I began asking myself the same question. What did I do…or didn’t do?

blame

The second time I was asked that question, I blinked for a few seconds. Then I mustered up as much courage as I could and said, “I didn’t do anything to him.” But secretly I wondered if it was true. Already, I was playing the blame game, and assigning all the best parts to myself.

The third time I heard it, I again responded with silence. I had had enough time to figure out all the things that I “did to him”. I was acutely aware of all the things that I had missed, but should have seen. All the things I should have done, but didn’t do. All the things I should have said, shouldn’t have said, and should have known. How I should have been there when I wasn’t.

The simple ‘missing him’, which was enough to tear my soul apart, was compounded by my inescapable self-blame for his death.

Grief. Guilt. They walk hand in hand with you, one on either side of you, after a suicide.

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I was reminded of this the other day while reading an article about the suicide of gay college student Tyler Clementi. Tyler jumped to his death days after being spied on by his college roommate while kissing another man. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, left an electronic trail of outrageous messages that instantly turned the public against him. Long before the jury announced its decision on charges ranging from invasion of privacy to bias intimidation, the public’s verdict was clear: Dharun was to blame for Tyler’s death. Even I blamed him, and I know better.

After almost every suicide, Dan’s included, loved ones invariably look for reasons why. Why did someone we care about so much choose to die? It’s all too easy to point the finger at someone else, especially when there seems to be a clear trigger involved. A divorce, bitter custody battle, a feud, or any number of other ripples in the surface of our harmonious existences.

We forget that none of us ever lead a harmonious existence. At least not for very long. There are always ripples. We shouldn’t expect someone to jump off a bridge every time they encounter a ripple. But after a suicide, we forget all that. “Of course,” we say, “his wife just left him, no wonder. What a bitch, how could she do that to him, knowing how he’s been struggling lately. I should have seen this coming.”

I’m guilty of assigning blame, too. I blamed mostly myself, but also the hospital which released Dan too early. The hospital which I felt did not offer Dan the support he needed.

The one person I never thought to blame, at least not until many years later, was Dan. He had suffered. He was dead. How could I blame him? But he did it.

Not me.

Not the hospital staff, not the psychiatrist who oversaw his care.

And not his friends and family, who knew that Dan had been suicidal in the past.

Looking back, it’s impossible not to think that everyone could have done a better job of saving Dan. I can see now that there were signs. If I had seen them, noticed them, if any of us had, maybe Dan would be alive today.

So in that regard, everyone was to blame. But none of them forced, or indeed even encouraged Dan to take his life. Just as no one forced Tyler Clementi to take his. Maybe Tyler did feel humiliated by the insensitive and foolish actions of his roommate, Dharun Ravi, but it was Tyler who went to the George Washington Bridge and jumped off. No one but Tyler knows how Dharun may or may not have contributed to his decision to die, but Dharun is not to blame.

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The rush to assign blame in the aftermath of Dan’s suicide was perhaps more damaging than his death. It left me even more isolated in the months that followed than if Dan had died a natural death. The blame game even pushed me almost right up to the point of suicide myself.

When people play the suicide blame game, everyone loses.

With Dharun and Tyler, that impulse proved irresistible yet again. We all know that Dharun didn’t physically push Tyler to his death, but it made sense to blame him because we assumed his reckless and callous actions were more than just potential triggers. It looked as though his actions made the events that followed inevitable.

It’s not nearly so simple. We don’t know why Tyler took his life, just as I’ll never really know why Dan ended his. We don’t even know whether Tyler felt bullied, intimidated, or even humiliated. What we do know is that bullying, intimidation, and humiliation don’t automatically lead to suicide. If they did, few of us would have survived adolescence.

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At best, we can say that Dharun’s spying and subsequent Twitter messages triggered Tyler’s suicide, which is different from causing his suicide. We know from research that more than 90 percent of people who take their own lives have some kind of underlying mental disorder at the time of their deaths, most commonly depression. But with Tyler we just don’t know what factors came to bear that caused him to end his life.

Of course Dharun Ravi is responsible for what he actually did, and what he did, as far as we can tell, inadvertently triggered an extreme response that no one could have imagined. But no matter how reprehensible Dharun’s actions were, he’s not to blame for causing Tyler’s suicide. Dharun didn’t kill Tyler, just as I didn’t kill Dan.

Dan and Tyler killed themselves.

And it’s not that I’m against anti-bullying laws and public awareness to end bullying and discrimination of all kinds. I am a staunch supporter, believe me. Bullying was a trigger to my own daughter’s brushes with suicide and self-harm. Bullying continues to play a role in her struggles to this very day.

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It’s just that, in blaming bullies for suicide, society, once again, can turn its eyes away from the real problem of suicide. By focusing on the bullies, and not the suicide victims, we can pretend that the root cause, mental illness, is not really the issue.

In Tyler and Dharun’s case, we took what could have been an opportunity to promote mental wellness and suicide prevention, and instead turned it into a hate filled search for retribution. We cycled into that popular “Blame Game”. The game which everyone loses.

Instead of focusing on getting the Tylers of the world competent mental health treatment, teaching them how to deal with difficult people, how to handle stress, how to find hope in a seemingly hopeless situation, we made it all about Dharun. And he’s the person in this scenario who deserves the least amount of attention.

There will always, always be Dharuns in this world. No amount of prosecution will ever change that.

And there will always be Tylers in this world. Let’s focus on saving them. For a lifetime. Let the ripple that we make in this world be of love and compassion, not hate and blame.

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Help is available 24/7 at the ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

What do you think? Ever been bullied? Harassed? Discriminated against? Do you think people should be prosecuted if their words or actions trigger suicide? Often, the best source of support is from others who have been in the same situation. Your words of encouragement might just be the one thing that gives pause to someone else considering suicide. Comments and questions are always welcome and encouraged!

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3 thoughts on “Suicide. Who’s To Blame, Anyway?

  1. This is beautifully written and heart wrenching. First of all I want to say how sorry I am for your loss. The excruciating work of trying to come to some sort of conclusions after a suicide is as I said, excruciating. I feel that your comment “there will always be Dharun’s in this world” is significant. As a society we need to search our selves and begin to accept the fact that in any human interaction or rather in particular a human altercation, we could be the last straw in the world of the suicidal. Im not saying we must walk on egg shell’s but we must raise our collective human responsibility and compassion for one another. We must learn to heal our own pain so that compassion comes easier and that includes self compassion. Now at the risk of contradicting myself, Dharun contributed to the suicide, that is a fact, a sad fact of life. Should he not take on any sense of responsibility then he is likely to continue with his cruel bullying and contribute to another death. He was not to blame but he did contribute. We conveniently blame depression for suicide, it is so much easier for all of us to explain away suicide by depression or organic disease alone. It absolves us all from mindful right action. That include the pharmacological companies, when we keep blaming depression they keep producing the pills without review. When my brother died by suicide I blamed or rather attributed some of the blame to myself. The shouda woulda coulda… I didn’t invite him to a family Easter dinner, I feel if I had, it would of went some way to help him feel connected and not so isolated. I blamed society, particularly his bullies and primary school experience and other early traumas and violations. Above all I blame the pharmacological company’s. He had just been put on prozac. He was not depressed, he killed himself very soon after being prescribed the drug. They cause suicidal ideation. The pharma ‘s explain away this problem by saying the depressed begin to get their energy back thus are able to kill themselves, what a crock. He was strong and full of energy, he could have got through his traumas life and people had thrown at him, had he not been given a loaded gun and the idea to kill himself by the medication he was taking.

    • I am so sorry for your loss, and thank you for the heart felt comments. I agree with you 100% that bullies, and anyone else who in any way harasses another person should be held accountable for their actions. I am a staunch supporter of anti-bullying and anti-harassment laws. At the same time, I wish our society was as strongly dedicated to suicide prevention and awareness as they are anti-bullying. At the same time we teach our children not to bully, I wish we would teach them ways to handle stress. The punishment of a bully, though justified for the bully, in no way prepares a vulnerable person to deal with the multitude of triggers in this life that can lead one down a path toward suicide.

      As long as our society continues to find external sources of blame for our suicide victims, we will never focus on the REAL problem – the mental state of the suicide victim. We can NOT, and never will be able to eliminate stress from our lives. We need to teach people how to handle it, and make medical help readily available to them without shame.

      Again, I think you for your comment. By telling your brother’s story, you are helping others, and in that way, your brother also is helping others! hugs to you! 🙂

  2. Carrie, I am really sorry, for all the pain and guilt you went through, losing a loved one to suicide or any other death is just terrible and either way, the ones left behind have to learn how to make sense of what is left.

    Suicide is just so awful, it is a very courageous act for anyone to do, i think of my husband who decided that hanging himself would be the best way out, but as you say Carrie no one forced them to do it, just as a person shoots themselves, they have to put the gun to their heads and pull the trigger, the drug addict who overdoses, has to insert the needle, even a person who hangs themselves, has so many chances to not do it, they have to climb up the ladder, attach the rope to a beam, make the noose and then still yet climb the ladder again and put the rope around their necks and jump, that must be very terrifying at the least, but these people do it everyday. Surely their state of mind just cant be rational.

    We could all just blame ourselves and it would just be easy, but in reality i feel it isn’t just one thing, my husband threatened suicide for over 3 years, even had dreams of doing this, i begged him to get help and he refused, so i’m sorry no, no one is to blame, if a person really does desire to live they will seek help.

    There are so many little things in our lives that eat away at us, and eventually if it isn’t dealt with the real problems or issues that bug us, yes, these will turn out to be triggers.

    In my husbands case, he was an alcoholic and he just refused to stop drinking, every time i left, suddenly he was able to stop and promise his family the earth, when we took him back it would be about 2 weeks and the cycle would start again, he blamed me for everything, he continually told me how i was putting him down when he was in such a bad place, well, i never asked him to start drinking or lying again, did I?

    Perhaps, the overload of stress of his work, the fact i lost my job, or that he felt I was spending all his money (which i wasnt), the worst blow, his assistant who worked with him, who he showed how to do the job, somehow. managed to get my husband fired and get the job himself, every day this ate away at him, making him a very bitter person.

    i was also a big trigger, as he just wasn’t able to cope with life and needed to drink, whereas. i don’t drink and face my problems, work through my issues and tried to keep going even when life was really awful, trust me there are days i would also like to say “oh what the heck and drown a bottle too” but i wouldn’t.. this just got to him so very much.

    In the good times he just whitewashed all his problems, but, of course when he was drinking this just made him really depressed and then life just wasn’t being fair to him, i cant even tell you, how much support he was getting, people giving him work, helping him where they could, yet, i never featured in the picture, it was help yourself, but. do i have suicidal thoughts, do i kill myself because i am unemployed and my husband has left me with nothing but debts and two kids to raise? NO!

    So really, who is to blame? no one. No matter how you try to help someone, you can give him/her all the hope and encouragement, hold their hands, at the end of the day, if they cannot see the light, cannot understand how many people care about them and are ready to help in whatever way they can, these people need to want to fight for the life they have, or the family they have, no one can stop them, their minds have already been made up, perhaps you were able to stop it and get them help, but, many a time i have heard, if they don’t do it then, they relapse and do it another day, so really, all you can say is “I did my best, I was there when he/she needed me”

    You only have one life to live, do the best with what you have, help others, but, look after yourself, you are responsible for you. You can guide and help others. No one can force another person to live or live their lives for them. it has to come from within.

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