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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!