My brother and I had been very close as kids, grew apart as we grew up, but always on good terms. He had a rough life, especially mentally. A few years ago, he sent me a letter saying he had a rifle and talked about going out and hunting people. It was pretty scary – both the handwriting and the content. I had thought he was OK, but couldn’t tell if he was joking. My mother was in contact with him, so I sent the letter to her and asked for her advice. She called him and asked about it. I don’t know how that discussion went down, but he wrote me a blistering letter, accusing me of betrayal and writing me out of his life. Two months later, he shot himself with that rifle in a motel room. I’ve carried this terrible guilt ever since. I know he made that awful decision, but I feel like I played a significant role in it. After years I still don’t know how to handle it, and he haunts me daily.
A. When you love someone and something bad happens to them, you always wonder if you could have done more. Many people have feelings of guilt. The more serious the outcome for the loved one, the more guilt that is felt. Feeling guilty is not the same as being guilty.
Being suicidal is a sign of a serious mental illness. Committing suicide is the ultimate act of self-destruction. Suicidal individuals are always admitted to hospitals. Most individuals with mental illnesses are not admitted to hospitals. Only those with the most serious of mental illnesses are admitted to hospitals. I mention this to put into perspective the severity of your brother’s mental illness. The vast majority of therapists work outside of a hospital environment. None of those therapists would consider attempting to help someone who was suicidal outside of a hospital environment. A highly educated, well credentialed therapist would not believe that his or her skilled words and insights would be enough to stop a suicidal client. Even with their extensive education and experience, therapists would not believe in their ability to prevent a client from committing suicide. All therapists would attempt to have their client admitted to a hospital.
For a layperson, the ability to help a suicidal friend or family member is almost non-existent. Yes, you love them more than anyone else, but what skill do you have as a therapist? You love them more than their therapist but you simply lack the education and training necessary to deal with their problem.
You would never think of performing surgery on a loved one, not because you don’t love them sufficiently but because you simply lack the ability and experience of a surgeon. It’s obvious to most people that without the skill and knowledge of a surgeon it would be foolish and perhaps deadly to perform surgery on someone you love.
Without the many years of education and experience, it would be just as foolish to attempt to do counseling with someone you love. I often tell my clients, who are experiencing the thoughts and feelings that you have right now, that it is far better to feel that perhaps you did not do enough than to know that your words and attempts to help a loved one actually resulted in their suicide. Yes, it is possible to make a mistake during surgery that will result in someone’s death — and it is equally possible to make a mistake in therapy that will result in someone’s suicide.
Every surgeon does his best and every therapist does likewise. I think it is best to realize our limitations. We have a limit as to our skills in any particular area. No matter how much we love someone and want to help them, our skill limits are not increased.
When I have a client ask me about a friend of theirs or family member who is having a mental problem and what they can do for them, I always tell them to encourage them to go into therapy. If you have read this column you have read many letters from readers who talk about the immense difficulty they are having trying to get a mother, father, son, etc., into therapy. My response to them is to acknowledge that often no amount of effort on their part is enough to achieve their desired result.
The question for you is did you do enough? My answer to you, is how much more of consequence could you have done? You did not ignore your brother. With concern you brought his letter to his mother, as you should have. The result was that your brother became enraged at you and then shut you out. I think this shows the complexity of the situation and your brother’s mental illness. Suicide and the mental state that leads to it are amazingly complex.
Please remember one last thing: Very skilled and competent therapists have close family members who have committed suicide. Even with all of their ability and skill, and the immense love they possess, it was not enough to change the outcome.
I hope that you will consider talking about this issue with a therapist or a support group. Please take care.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 5 Feb 2012
Randle, K. (2012). Guilt Over Brother’s Suicide. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 3, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2012/02/05/guilt-over-brothers-suicide/