As an oldest child, I am used to fixing problems—both in my life and in the lives of my siblings. With the suicide of my brother in 2008, for the first time in my life I faced a problem that I couldn’t fix.
My brother lay in the hospital for a week before he died, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. He’d attempted suicide in the side yard of our house. He shot himself while I was working on my truck on the other side of the house. My mother was doing dishes and my father was working in his office. My father and I both heard something, but didn’t connect it as a gun shot. After all, why would a gun go off in the middle of the neighborhood?
It was a small-caliber gun, and the shot sounded to me like a dropped bolt or a nut. I looked around for what I had dropped and, not finding anything, went back to work. My father said it sounded like he’d dropped a pen on the hardwood floor. He too looked for what had made the noise, couldn’t find anything, and went back to his work.
My mother, however, felt prompted to go outside, ended up finding my brother, called 9-1-1, and got him to the hospital. I ran around back when the ambulances pulled up in front of our house, and my mother came out of the back yard crying. My father had gone back there the moment my mother called for him. I can still remember my father holding my brother’s head in his hands, putting pressure on his wounds until the paramedics could take over.
After three brain surgeries and many prayers, the doctors reconstructed my brother’s skull as best they could and stitched him back up. The hospital scans showed no brain activity beyond what was needed to sustain life. The pressure in his brain fluctuated dangerously, and his hypothalamus had stopped functioning all together. His body could no longer heat or cool itself properly, so the nurses heated and cooled it alternately using heated blankets and ice.
While my brother was in the hospital, our lives stood still. Neither my father nor I went to work, and my mother virtually lived at the hospital with my two sisters. Over the course of the week, we all spent time grieving in our own ways.
During my grieving and answer-seeking process, I wrote frequently. This is actually when I started my first blog, which I have continued to this day. Between that and the conversations I had with family and friends, I began to process the changes that my brother’s choice had suddenly brought into my life.
Prior to that moment, the things I had dedicated my time to were meaningless. The only thing that really mattered in my life now was family. That was it. Nothing else even held a candle to the importance of my family.
Maybe if I had been around more, this wouldn’t have happened, I thought. Maybe I would have seen the signs and been able to stop him. Maybe I could have helped him more. There had to be something I could have done–right?
As my brother lay in the hospital dying, there was nothing to do but wonder what I could have done differently. I was his older brother. Wasn’t it my responsibility to look out for him, to care for him? Wasn’t I my brother’s keeper? Wasn’t I partially at fault for what he had done? Couldn’t I have done more?
I shared these thoughts with a friend, thinking aloud about everything I could—and SHOULD—have done to save him. I couldn’t help but cry. My friend stopped me, and spoke kindly amidst my tears.
“Dan, who do you think you are? You’re not Superman. You can’t save everyone…”
And she was right.
Today I share that same message with those of you who have lost someone dear to you and blame yourselves in some way for their loss. If you’ve ever asked what you could have done differently or how you could have changed the outcome, you are asking the wrong questions. These questions only lead to pain, not healing.
In the wake of tragic events such as suicide, these kind of thoughts are inevitable to some extent. It’s what we do with the thoughts when they come that determines whether we begin to heal or whether we prolong the process of our healing by wallowing in self-blame.
In the midst of such a loss, I know it seems like healing will never come. But I promise you it will. The light of hope will again shine in your life, and you will find purpose once more.
But you are not Superman any more than I was.
Those we love have their agency—or freedom of choice. As they use this agency, they may make choices that hurt themselves and cause us great pain. And while we would do anything to save them, what becomes of them is ultimately their choice.
We cannot mitigate the effects that other people’s choices will have on our lives. None of us is at the center of the universe, but the actions of one truly can affect the lives of all around them. As you mourn a loved one’s bad choices, please recognize and accept that your reactions affect those around you, too. And though you may be in pain, recognize that there are those who need you in their lives as well. Your decision to either move forward in the healing process or wallow in self-blame will have unintended consequences on those you love as well. Please choose to heal. Please be present with those who are still with you.
We can only help those we love if they let us. In the same respect, others can only help us if we allow them the opportunity to do so.
It took me some time to realize that we cannot take responsibility for the choices and actions of others. I could not have changed what my brother did, even if the circumstances had been different—only he could have changed it.
We can—and should—love them, help them, and encourage them to make good choices in their lives, but—in the end—the choices are theirs to make.
It is a hard thing to do, but we must relinquish the responsibility for our loved ones’ actions to them. We must let them live their lives . We are not responsible for the self-destructive choices they may choose to make. To believe otherwise requires us to live our lives forever condemned to misery and self-blame.
This is not to say that we should never try to save those we love!
In the years leading up to his death, I tried everything I could think of to help my brother, as did my parents. And I know we’d do all of it it again in a heartbeat if we could. For what is love but the desire to save those we love from pain?
But always remember, “You’re not Superman. You can’t save everyone…”
Please start now to let go of any self-blame you may be hanging onto, and let your own healing process begin.