How to Battle Survivor’s Guilt

“Don’t you know about Vicky bhaiya?” said my mom to me over the phone.
“No,” I replied. “What happened?”
“He died… by suicide”

A long pause followed. It felt strange… surreal… to learn that Vicky bhaiya (name changed), our next door neighbour, with whom we would compete every Diwali for the quantity of crackers burnt, was gone. Later, I came to know that he’d swallowed rat poison. Right after consuming it, he called up his parents, who had gone to Punjab for a wedding, and said, “Maine kuch kha liya hai.. Aap log please aa jao (I have eaten something, please come soon.

By the time the family came, it was too late. It’s been three years… but regret still consumes them. My brother tells me they don’t celebrate Diwali anymore.

Earlier this week, when news broke of Mac Miller, Ariana Grande’s ex-boyfriend dying of drug overdose, many jumped in to blame Grande for his death.

Apart from coping with the loss of someone so intimate, Grande also had to battle the wrath of insensitive trolls and their negative comments. She then temporarily disabled comments from her Instagram.

In the wake of her breakup with Miller in May, Grande was also blamed for Miller’s drug relapse. When in fact, Miller had battled a drug addiction for years. This is how Grande had responded back then.

Back in the 90s, when Rekha’s husband Mukesh Agarwal committed suicide, the star too faced a misogynistic backlash. Headlines shamed her, many from the film industry attacked her, and her reputation became one of a ‘cold-hearted man-eater’.

But far removed from the screaming, sensationalist headlines of tabloids, the deep trauma felt upon the loss of a loved one to suicide, or the fear of losing a loved one to it remains unspoken.

As someone whose loved one has battled suicidal tendencies for years, I worry about the effect this vicious diatribe has on those who have lost someone to suicide. The accusatory words, I can imagine, only deepen the overbearing sense of guilt that the immediate family or friends feel post a loved one’s suicide. 

Did I do enough? Did I miss any vital sign when the person was trying to communicate the despair that they were feeling? Was I too demanding?

If only, I was more around. If only, I had been a good mother/daughter/lover. The deep emotional turbulence clouds all rational thought, leading one to face an unhealthy amount of guilt.

This guilt can hit one hard. For it is riding on grief. The grief of not being able to see a loved one again, the grief of the finality of the loss that stares one in the face.

Survivors’ Guilt

The human mind often finds reasons for something that goes wrong; that’s just the way we are wired. The feeling only multiplies manifold in the case of a close one’s suicide.

The anger gets directed inwardly. We blame ourselves; playing and replaying instances in our head. Cursing ourselves for what we could have done. What we could have said. “The emotional turbulence distorts our thinking, hijacks our reality,” says Dr. Nivedita Singh, clinical psychologist. Under the microscopic lens, we analyze and overanalyze even the small things, that would otherwise have gone unnoticed had the final outcome not been so shocking.

“If left unresolved, survivor’s guilt can lead to depression, anxiety. It can make one feel a loss of purpose and meaning in life. And can also cause relationship problems between family members, who might subconsciously be blaming each other or themselves”, says Dr. Nivedita. 

Today, social media is replete with affirmative messages encouraging people to open up, and has gone on to play a huge role in destigmatizing mental illness.

But such messages, and the belief that reaching out can help prevent suicides, is a double edged sword. It also carries the dangerous underlying thought that if in the unfortunate scenario where a person has succeeded in ending their life, the people around might not have reached out.

In hushed whispers, some still continue to wonder if the family had put too much pressure on Vicky bhaiya, or if it had been a case of a broken heart. Without realising that despite the full devotion of the caregiver to help the person in need, in some cases, it never seems enough.

‘Emptying the Vessel’

Of course, the need for empathy cannot be stated more clearly here, but in the case of the loss of a loved one, holding on to the unhealthy and strong emotion of guilt is counterproductive and can derail the path to recovery and bring life to a stand still.

“You need to empty the vessel. You need to process what happened differently,” says Dr. Nivedita. “Only then can you come out of it”.

As the world observes World Suicide Prevention Day, staring at an alarming numbers of suicides; over 800,000 people across the globe kill themselves each year, with the last recorded figure of people committing suicide in India alone being 1,31,666 in 2014, there is a great need to urgently speak about and take steps for suicide prevention.

But we also need to recognize that in the unfortunate case that a suicide could not be prevented, it was not the survivor’s fault. Most importantly, the survivor needs to recognise it themselves.

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Updated: September 10, 2018 — 5:43 pm