After my brother died from suicide I was too shell-shocked and self-enclosed to think beyond myself, but slowly, I began to understand grief would not vanish, or heal itself without my active participation. Deep, traumatic grief was not a knee scab that would fall off on its own, it was a heart attack that needed a change of life habits and new ways of thinking.
I realized guilt and feelings of responsibility were big parts of my very long grief. I was not a participant in my brother’s death, but we were in each other’s lives. He was younger and I loved him in a two-thirds sisterly, and one-third motherly way. To alleviate grief I began to look around and notice others. When a friend died I wondered if his wife felt guilty because she didn’t hear him dying in the kitchen below the bedroom where she slept. Reports of sudden deaths in the news prompted me to wonder about the husband whose wife died in a car accident on the way to get his dry cleaning, or the co-workers who witnessed a heart attack at work. There was the parent taking a child to a swimming party and believing there was safety. A father kissing his eighteen-year-old good-bye as he left for a fateful party. The scenarios involved parents, spouses, children, or friends warning the loved one or saying “I love you,” for the last time.
Then I thought of people who, like me, might be dealing with inherited characteristics and illnesses. Perhaps a sibling suffered from a terminal illness that only chance could explain. I imagined the heart’s inner workings of survivors and played scenarios of what they might be suffering.
I read about people in normal and risky activities. Parents only looked away a second, drivers didn’t think they were taking a risk, extreme sports enthusiasts had scaled a dozen mountains; many more treacherous than where they died. My imagining saw people who died traumatically when they were too young to know danger, lazy, tired, foolish, arrogant, careful, had done everything right, had looked twice while driving, and they re-checked their certified equipment. Death came anyway, showing itself in infinite variety.
Did every death leave someone home wondering what they could have done differently to prevent it? It was possible all grievers were besieged with guilt battling for a place of importance. “Guilt is the very nerve of sorrow,” was said by nineteenth century Congregational minister Horace Bushnell. Perhaps, like me, many people found themselves crying equally because they missed the loved one, and they felt burdened by the weight of guilt.
For a time that made me feel better because I saw that many deaths, not just suicide, could leave people dealing with guilt. With companionship of other grievers, I could buttress myself against the pain and constant wearing on my spirit. But, after a time, that mental island of kindred grief became too small and mean-spirited for me to want to stand on any longer. I realized I felt relief because I knew others felt pain. I did not want to be a part of that.
I did not want to feel the seed of imagining anyone should, or had reason, to feel guilty. I knew there was a possibility every griever felt guilt, but I was also beginning to believe that guilt should not be provoked, encouraged, or given undue, sometimes dramatic attention, as though it were a well-earned medal.
I wanted off the hook. Did I have a reason to feel guilty? For a long time I thought about that, but I had never willingly or knowingly contributed to my brother’s thinking or illness, but still…. The weight of my moral framework was wearing. I was at a fork in the road. Live with guilt chewing my heart or change my thinking. Along with sadness, anger, compensation and a whole list of issues, I finally decided guilt was just one more to be faced, and then faced-down.
I again peered into the grief of others. Beyond wondering if they felt guilt, I asked myself if I held them accountable and responsible for the death. What about the parent who looked away for only a second, the driver who made a wrong decision, the co-workers who didn’t know CPR? And what about other siblings with the same genes? This exercise didn’t take long. I did not hold them responsible. I believed what religions and philosophies have always taught. Death comes when it comes and we don’t always understand why.
Personal guilt implies a power that if people would only do their duty through the gauzy haze of the seemingly random daily acts of life, death could be prevented. It is a lovely thought that helps some feel secure in an insecure world. It has inspired teaching better parenting methods, safety standards, and health information. But nothing eliminates death.
I respect guilt as a human emotion with history and consequence that often acts as a self-regulator and keeper of social order. Whenever it visits it should receive attention. I make it a guest worthy of milk and cookies because it teaches a few secrets, but I don’t make dinner and invite it to be a roomie.
I still have little talks with myself about guilt’s place in the scope of “Me,” but it was my brother who made many decisions in his life that took him to his end. Many deaths are flukes; strange, unexplained and inconsolable sets of circumstance. Surviving parents, co-workers, friends, siblings, all of us, are fellow life travelers with influence and love, but without full knowledge or unlimited power. Grief is a price of having a lost loved one in our life. So, I’ve asked myself: Given all the grief, would I still choose to have had my brother? The answer is yes.