Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Ones Left Behind

March is a difficult month for Lillian. It has been over 20 years since her first husband killed himself, but the anniversary invariably brings up feelings of guilt, pain, remorse, and anger.  

Today she seems depressed, distracted, not quite in the room with me. 

“My daughter called last night. Told me she started having her nightmare again – a loud noise, a blood splattered room, people screaming. I know she never saw that. Dave didn’t kill himself at home. And she was only a baby.” Lillian sighs, tears beginning to well in her eyes. “I can’t understand how he could do that to her, to us. Billy won’t talk about his Dad; he won’t even acknowledge him. Says that Philip is his father. I know he’s angry. They’re both such good kids.”

“And you?” I ask gently. “How are you doing?”

Lillian shakes her head. “I don’t know. I’m sad. I wonder if there was any way I could have stopped it.” She pauses.  “I’m such a liar,” she suddenly exclaims. “I can’t stand myself. I told myself I was going to tell you today. I was going to come clean. Clean! I don’t think I can ever be clean! I don’t deserve the life I have. I don’t deserve Philip. I don’t deserve anything!” Lillian says, shifting from side to side in the chair.

“The grieving widow, right?” she continues. “That’s what you always thought? That’s what I’ve always portrayed! Except it’s not true. I killed him. It’s my fault. It’s as much my fault as if I had fired the damn gun myself!”

I breathe. For a moment I thought Lillian was actually confessing to murder. Now we’re on safer ground. Lillian, I assume, is again caught up in her guilt. But then a patient I had seen much earlier in my career makes her way into my mind, a patient who often came into my thoughts when I was seeing Lillian. 

My earlier patient, who I saw only briefly, wanted to divorce her husband who she described as depressed and withdrawn. She was involved with another man who was vibrant, alive, exciting. She wanted out. I asked what kept her in her marriage. The children, she said, as well as her mother. They’d disapprove. Given her description, I asked if her husband was suicidal. She didn’t know.

In fact, her husband did kill himself. She came to see me one last time. There were no tears, no guilt. She was free. She destroyed the suicide note, she told me. It wasn’t a nice note. I never saw her again.

I suspected Lillian would tell me a similar story. And she did. Similar, but not identical. 

“Dave was a good man,” she begins. “He was a good provider. But we’d married so young. Our life had become boring, routine. Sex was a chore – for both of us I think. I’m not trying to defend myself. I know what I did was terrible. I started having flings. One of the flings turned into something more. Were we in love? Who knows. I didn’t think Dave knew. I thought I was careful and he never said anything. And then he killed himself. I stopped seeing my fling immediately. I never told anyone. I never thought I’d be with anyone ever again. But then there was Philip. He’s more than I deserve.”

“I’m really glad you told me, Lillian. What a tremendous amount of guilt you’ve been carrying around.”

“Yes, but it’s a burden I deserve to carry.”

I think about my earlier patient, about her cavalier reaction to her husband’s suicide and contrast it with the burden of guilt Lillian has carried with her for so many years. Am I looking for a way to lighten Lillian’s burden? No doubt.

“I can’t take your guilt away, Lillian, but I wonder if you haven’t suffered enough. Do you ever get to forgive yourself?”

Lillian stares at me intently. “You don’t think I’m evil,” she says matter-of-factly.

“No, Lillian, I don’t think you’re evil. Many people have affairs. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong. It’s not up to me to make that determination. But I do know that not everyone who has an affair has a spouse who commits suicide. It was Dave who pulled the trigger, not you. But I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about in the coming weeks.” 


Fredric Matteson said...

Thanks for your good note.To add a footnote to the conversation, in reference to the subject of suicide, I thought I would share the following. I am a suicidologist who is now in private practice on Lake Union in Seattle. For 25 years I worked with over 16,000 suicidal "patients" on the voluntary mental health unit of a public hospital in the Seattle area. What I learned from those 16,000 "teachers" taught me what I am now teaching others about the "common patterns" or "through-line" I started to recognize in all of the suicidal cases. One thing I realized was that at its core root, the primary "driver" for suicide was not about depression or mental illness -- even though depression may have been present. Not everyone with depression commits suicide just as not everyone who commits suicide has depression. For more information about what I learned, visit either my website: or my LinkedIn profile.

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

Thanks for your comment.

I most certainly agree - not everyone who is depressed commits suicide and not everyone who commits suicide is depressed.