Living with survivor’s guilt and other lessons from my friends’ suicides
Dorothea Wong, Kallos Magazine // March 10, 2020, 4:25 pm
I was 17 that year.
One night, my mum came rushing into my room and said my art teacher needed to speak with me urgently on the phone. The next words I heard on the phone were not what I expected at all.
“Your classmate Darren* committed suicide. Did you know him well? Can you tell me more?”
I answered my teacher’s questions in a blur. After hanging up, I sat down on my bed and just cried. I couldn’t understand why I was crying. We weren’t even close. Perhaps it was the shock.
My heart broke even more when I found out that he was an only child. He was from China; his parents were working in America and he was studying alone in Singapore.
At the funeral, his parents wept uncontrollably as they hugged the cold, hard coffin that their son’s lifeless body lay in.
That was the first time I was faced with a friend’s suicide. But it was not the last.
One morning earlier last year, I woke up and saw a post on Instagram by a friend that I used to intern with when I was 18. Still groggy from sleep, my heart started racing when I read the long caption that John* had posted.
He briefly mentioned that there were some people who were wishing that he would die, and that he would finally grant them their wish. He signed off with his final goodbye: “Au revoir.”
Later in the day, my worst fears were confirmed – he had taken his life that morning.
It felt like déjà vu. The avalanche of shock, confusion and sadness reignited a strangely familiar tight knot in the pit of my stomach. That week, I struggled to sleep for four consecutive nights. Each time I laid in bed in the dark, a million thoughts filled my head.
John was always so positive and so cheerful. Was there a hidden sadness I hadn’t noticed? Could I have done something more? How did this happen? What made him do it?
Even though I wasn’t that close to Darren and John, those thoughts were endless and sometimes felt debilitating.
I didn’t know it at the time, but what I was dealing with was a form of “survivor’s guilt”, or the feeling that I could have done something to prevent them from taking their own life.
It took me a while to be able to face up to it, but when I was finally able to, here’s what I learned.
3 LESSONS FROM LOSING FRIENDS TO SUICIDE
1. There are some things that are beyond my control
Every day, I wrestled with thoughts that told me: “If you had done more, this would not have happened.”
I felt paralysed with guilt for my inaction, but after the emotions passed, I was forced to accept that there was nothing I could have done to control their actions.
The reasons for suicide are complex and vast, and many times, even those who have a wide support network who are aware of their struggles still feel pushed to take their life for reasons we may never fully understand.
There is no knowing if anything I could have done would have changed their decision.
2. I can commit to being kind
Even though I cannot know if what I did or didn’t do would have made a difference in their lives, what I do know is that what I choose to do now can make a difference in the lives of others.
I was reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) who saw an injured man lying on the road in dire need of help, and went out of his way to bring him to a place of safety and even covered all the expenses incurred. The Good Samaritan didn’t even know who the man was, but he saw a need and he met it.
If you notice someone who is down, choose to offer a listening ear. Listen actively and acknowledge their distress.
Take their troubles seriously and be the support they need. You don’t have to be their best friend to be a good listener, and you never know the impact a small action can make.
3. It is okay to grieve, but don’t do it alone
Elsa from Frozen sings “conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know,” but I would encourage you to reveal, not conceal! After grappling with my emotions for a time, I knew that I couldn’t process them alone. I needed to confide in people I felt safe with.
If you are going through something similar, talk to a mature friend, a trusted leader or teacher, or your parents. Find people who can listen to you and help you process your emotions objectively. Sometimes, even that might not be enough, and there is no shame in seeking professional help from a counsellor.
Secondly, bring your emotions and questions to God. In my prayers, I’m sure I punctuated my rambles with “Why, God?!” multiple times. There was no voice from heaven or any mind- blowing revelation, but there was a clear sense of peace and comfort that slowly filled the crevices of my heart.
Psalm 34:18 assures us that “the Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit”. What a life-affirming reminder that even in bleak seasons, our hope lies in the promise that God is close to us.
OUR FUTURE HOPE
One of my all-time favourite movies is The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. In the movie, Lucy, one of the main characters, finds herself wrought with guilt when the Narnians are severely outnumbered by the enemy in a massive battle that leads to much bloodshed.
She asks Aslan, the Great Lion, if she could have done more to prevent the tragedy from happening. Aslan replies: “We can never know what would have happened, Lucy. But what will happen is another matter entirely!”
I can never know what would have happened if I had texted one of those friends that day, or if I had taken the time to ask how they were doing. But what I do know is what will happen eventually, which is that God will wipe every tear from our eyes.
“There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
A time is coming when such tragedies will no longer happen, and even though I cannot change the past, I can look forward to that promised future.
WHAT TO DO IF A FRIEND IS SUICIDAL
Do you have a friend or family member who has mentioned suicide or seems to be contemplating taking their own life? Theresa Pong, Principal Counsellor with Focus on the Family, sheds some light on what you can do.
1. How can you tell if someone is suicidal?
While people who are suicidal may display varied behaviours, general warning signs can be observed. You may observe changes in their physical, mental and emotional states that include having little or no interest in happenings around them.
Often, they would have extreme emotional outbursts such as anger, sadness or irritability. They also express constant thoughts such as “My family or friends are better off without me.” Do look out for other comments like: “If you don’t love me, I will end my life” or “There’s no point in living”.
In terms of their actions, they could be giving away their personal belongings and saying goodbye to people around them. They would also be writing suicide notes or researching on ways to commit suicide.
2. How should you respond if you think your friend is suicidal?
The most important thing your friend wants at this moment is a listening ear. Allow them to have the space to talk and avoid minimising their struggles. While listening, do try to find out how they are coping and whether they have explored any other resources to help them.
Encourage them to seek help and offer to help them get in touch with a trustworthy adult such as a teacher or counsellor. If need be, alert your school teacher or counsellor about your friend. You can also contact the nearest family service centre for help.
*Names have been changed for privacy. This article was first published in Kallos Magazine Issue 36 and has been republished with permission.
If you’re feeling down and would like to chat with someone, help is available here:
Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) 24-hour Hotline: 1800 221 4444 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Institute of Mental Health’s 24-hour Hotline: 6389 2222
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800 353 5800
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800 283 7019
THINK + TALK
- Have you encountered suicide before in your circle of friends? How did you feel?
- Do you struggle with thoughts of suicide yourself? Have you told anyone?
- How can we better support those who are silently suffering?
- How can we grieve well for those we have lost to suicide?