Behind a cut for a discussion of suicidal ideation, obsession, and suicide. The post has been edited a bit from its original form thanks to constructive feedback from commenters on ways that word use heightened stigma around mental illness around suicide. I deeply apologize and hope that this draft serves the LW without making the pain of others worse.
Thread closed, 9/22. LW got what they needed and I have other duties and cannot focus on moderation today.
Early this summer my friend Rourke committed suicide. It feels selfish and egotistical to frame this tragedy in the context of me and my baggage, but I’m writing largely because I’ve hit an impasse in what to do and what’s occurred in the wake of his death.
Rourke and I were friends online first, but we made the time and effort to visit once or twice a year. Our relationship was pretty emotionally intimate. He wasn’t one of my closest friends, but I told him some personal history that I don’t tell everyone. About a year ago, after I’d told him I’m polyamorous, he made overtures, I reciprocated, and we slept together. It was a little dissonant – I sometimes have a hard time trusting people when they say nice things about me and bristled a little at some of his compliments – but overall really nice and felt good.
Over the last year he and I talked less. I have an anxiety disorder and major clinical depression, and sometimes that interferes with my reliability or how worthwhile I am as someone to lean on. I drifted from Rourke. Around May, while I was at an intensive work training, I got a phone call from him asking if I could spend a couple hours helping him process his own depression. I tried to schedule time with him for later but he hung up on me. He killed himself that night.
I wrote his sister to ask if I could pay my respects. She responded with a scan of his suicide note, which talked a lot about how he was secretly in love with me but felt he could never tell me, that his despair and heartbreak over me was the main reason he felt living was hopeless. She made it clear that I was not welcome where he’s laid to rest, and since then has also mailed me unsent love letters Rourke wrote to me that she found while she was going through his belongings. She also included a note saying that she wants to meet me in person so she can tell me exactly what she thinks of me to my face, that it’s the least I could do for their family, and that if I don’t go that will tell her all she needs to know about my character (e.g. that I am a coward and, indirectly, a murderer).
I have been doing a lot of work towards my own depression, because it’s severe and also tends towards the suicidal to the point where it affects even my closest relationships, and I mourn the time we could maybe have been even closer than we are and been building something even more beautiful, with stronger and deeper roots. I don’t want people in my life to be scared of me and for me that way, and for that fear to keep them at a distance. A key part of my therapeutic work is building up my (dismally low) self-worth and sense of a right to be here. I’m afraid that meeting with Rourke’s sister will acutely undermine that work at a time when I really need to cling to forward momentum.
But, I also feel viscerally obligated to agree to meet with her. There isn’t an hour that passes where I don’t break down sobbing thinking about how this is my fault. In one of his letters he said, “You will spend the rest of your life regretting me,” and I do, I regret all the things I didn’t do for him. I regret not realizing how he felt for me and bringing it to light, somehow, even though he never told me. I regret being a person who isn’t more good, more kind, more giving, who might have been able to help him.
I don’t know how to proceed. I have a therapist, and am talking to them about it, but otherwise I feel like there aren’t many people I can openly confide in about the nature of my guilt, let alone ask for advice. I have other friends who’ve had people close to them kill themselves, but none of them were named outright in any note left behind as a major motivation for the act. No one I know has almost or outright killed someone. I feel like a murderer.
What should I do? Can I talk to friends about this, or will they find me reprehensible and abandon me? (Maybe I deserve that?) Should I meet with Rourke’s sister?
I am so sorry for the loss of your friend.
Rourke was secretly in love with you.
That means: He kept it a secret from you.
That means: You are not a mind reader and you are not responsible for knowing a secret that your friend didn’t tell you. You did not know about his feelings and you did not know about his state of mind. You tried to be there for him on his last day. You had no way of knowing what he contemplated doing later on. Telling a close friend that you can’t talk right this second and trying to arrange a conversation for slightly later certainly does not make you a bad person and does not make their subsequent decisions your fault.
You are not responsible for knowing what was in unsent love letters.
You are not responsible for feelings that you didn’t know about. If you’d known about his feelings but hadn’t returned them, you wouldn’t be responsible then, either.
You are not responsible for the fact that Rourke grew obsessed with you.
You are not responsible for knowing his state of mind, and you’re not responsible the illness that ate his life.
[Edited] You are not responsible in any way for your friend’s death. You too have experienced a tragic loss here, the loss of your friend, and the loss of what might have been between you if only he had told you. I hope that when you talk to your therapist one thing you can eventually talk about is anger. I realize that he must have been very sick to behave this way, but sentiments like “You will spend the rest of your life regretting me” and blaming his love for you in his goodbye note to his family are grave distortion of what love is. Depression can lead to severely distorted thinking and I hope you can see these distortions for what they are. You are not responsible for his feelings about you or his inability to express them in a constructive way. You are not responsible for being in his thoughts or being his stated reason for ending his life. It is totally unfair that you should be in this position, and wrong of him to put you there.
Rourke’s sister is grieving, and she is angry, and she’s looking for someone to blame for a horrible act, and Rourke conveniently gave her someone to blame. [Ed.] It was not right for her to send you those letters that he never sent. Those were his private writings and it was not her place to break his privacy.[/Ed] You can honor and empathize with her grief and anger but you don’t have to meet with her and you do not have to take the blame for her brother’s death. If you want to respond to her in some way, you could write a letter that says, “I grieve the loss of your brother greatly. I cared for him very much, and I wish I had known about his feelings for me or understood how far his depression had progressed, but I did not. I wish he had sent those love letters, but he did not. I wish he had told me what he intended so that I could have called emergency services or sent him into care, but he did not. I wish you and your family what I wish for myself in the wake of this tragic loss: peace and healing. I do not think either of us will find those things in a meeting so I respectfully decline your request.”
In the aftermath, do not answer any communications from her. Block her on every conceivable form of communication, and also block any of Rourke’s social media pages. You can’t help her, you can’t help his family, and you can’t help him. More specifically, your suffering cannot help them, and you don’t have to serve it up as a sacrifice. They will find closure, eventually, or not. It’s not yours to give or to withhold from them, but you absolutely can refuse to continue being a vector for their blame and cruelty.
Please, keep treating your depression.
Please, tell somebody close to you about your experiences. How Rourke’s sister sees things is not how everyone will see things and is definitely not How Things Are. Your friends who have survived the suicide of a close friend may not have been targeted the way you were, but they will know about grief and guilt and the words “If only….if only….” It is completely normal after an event like this to see a friendship as a series of missed opportunities and feel like you could have done more. Let somebody in. You told somebody (us) today, and we didn’t blame you or hate you. The people who love you don’t want you to suffer alone in silence. They may not know exactly what to say or do, but they would hate knowing that you feel so alone and afraid.
Please, tell your therapist about the true and scary nature of your own suicidal thoughts, and please think seriously about checking yourself in somewhere if they continue.
This is one of my favorite poems about grief and life after a friend’s suicide, and I hope Ms. Howe, its author will forgive me for pasting rather than just linking. Here it is as a song, sung by my beautiful and talented friend (YES I AM BRAGGING).
What the Living Do
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through
the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
Rourke is dead and you cannot bring him back with your guilt, with your suffering, with your silence, and you definitely cannot follow him or bring him back with your death. Someday you might forgive him. Someday (much sooner I hope) you might forgive yourself. As long as you are alive, you have choices and chances. Please stay with us. You deserve to be here. Please make it through today, and tomorrow, and the next day. Please make it through one breath after another. Please walk around that corner and see your living face and fall in love again.
You deserve to be here. You have always deserved life, you will always deserve it, and there is no way you could ever stop deserving it.
[Edited] Public Service Announcement: Rourke never sent the “you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting me” note, his sister did after he was gone. The sentiment therein is chilling enough that it bears addressing. Someone who threatens to harm or kill themselves (or drops hints that they might kill themselves) if you don’t do what they want ( like stay with them, or love them back ) is literally threatening to harm someone if they don’t get their way and is trying to make you responsible for their actions. The person may be in great pain, however, it is still emotional terrorism of the highest order, and whatever the person does, it is not your fault.
Steps like asking a person’s friends or family to intervene, breaking their confidence, or even involving police and other authorities are complicated and imperfect (especially in communities of color with a history of racist violence), but if this situation crops up in your life, please strongly consider calling *someone* and not trying to handle it yourself. As some commenters pointed out, you can call a local suicide hotline and get advice from them on what to tell authorities to get the best possible response from this situation. They may recommend calling 911 (or the emergency services equivalent where you are), ask them to do a “welfare check” on the person and explain what they’ve said about suicide.
Bottom line: Take threats of suicide very seriously. If the person is sick and genuinely in danger, the authorities can provide help that you can’t. If the person is bluffing to manipulate you, you close down that vector of manipulation when you take it absolutely seriously. If the person harms themselves anyway, you did everything you could. You cannot cure someone’s suicidal ideation or threats with any amount of love or loyalty or compliance.[/Edited]