Guilty, Your Honor: The Burden of Guilt After a Suicide
Guilty, Your Honor, I whisper.
Have you ever done anything so horrible that you would prefer to hide in a dark closet for the rest of your life than have someone find out you did it? Have you ever done something so bad that even remembering what you did causes you to hyperventilate and shake?
I have. I've made too many mistakes in my life. I should have done better.
Sometimes I envision myself standing before a judge who wears a long black robe, with my head hanging low in shame. I am holding tightly to a large bulging sack.
The judge with the long black robe says, "Hold your head up to answer me. Who are you?"
I answer him quietly. "I am a mother, a wife, and a teacher."
"Were you a good mother?" the judge asks. I notice his eyes are staring impatiently into mine.
"No, Your Honor," I reply, shaking my head sadly. "I was not a good mother."
The judge says nothing, so I continue.
"I tried my best, but I made too many mistakes. I brought them to show you. They are all in this sack," I explain, straining to push the sack closer to him so he can see it better.
The judge looks at my sack and mumbles to himself, "Looks like this woman's got a ton of bricks here."
Then, he sighs and says, "Hmmmm - How do you plead?"
"Guilty, Your Honor," I whisper. "Guilty."
The reality is, however, I carried that huge sack of guilt with me from the moment the officer told me that my teenage daughter, Arlyn, took her life. I found the largest sack I could and opened it. Then, I threw bricks of guilt into it, one by one.
In the sack, I placed bricks for each memory I had of the times I had raised my voice to my children. I placed more bricks in for times I punished them for making childish mistakes.
If only I had been more patient, -
In the sack, I stuffed bricks for each time I was too busy grading papers or washing clothes or talking on the telephone to give my children, the most precious people in my life, my undivided attention.
If only I had kept my priorities straight, -
In this sack also, I added bricks for memories of many times when I had failed to listen to my children with my heart.
If only I had been wiser, -
After Arlyn died, I walked around carrying my sack of guilt; it was a painful reminder that some of my actions could have contributed to the depression that led to her death. I did not pull the trigger that hot August day, but I felt as if I did.
To me, Arlyn's suicide provided tangible evidence that I had failed in the most important mission of my life - mothering. I deserved to have to spend the rest of my life lugging a heavy sack of bricks around.
This was almost a complete turn-around from the attitude I had before Arlyn's death. Prior to August 7, 1996, I had confidence in myself; I had achieved the goals I set, so I thought I knew it all. If there'd been a Miss Arrogance pageant, I would have won the crown.
But I was knocked to my knees when Arlyn died, and I would never stand tall again. Any crown on my head was shattered.
After Arlyn died, the world no longer made sense. I doubted every thing I had ever learned, my beliefs, and my values. Most of all, I saw myself as a huge failure in life.
So here I was, trying to muddle through each day, attached to this huge burdensome sack of guilt that I could not and would not put down.
Ughhh! My sack of bricks was so heavy: the bricks representing all the mistakes of my life were so heavy that I'd need the help of a bulldozer to move it, at least.
Most of the bricks in the sack had to do with Arlyn: sins of commission and sins of omission. Arlyn had killed herself, and the guilt I felt was consuming me.
Every day after I woke up, I'd stand at the foot of the huge ugly load and looked up at it. As much as I hated it, I felt connected to it. I sometimes reached out and stroked the bag up and down with one hand, never letting go with the other. It was MINE.
Day after day, I stood there, holding on to my sack full of bricks of guilt. Friends would walk by and shake their heads at me.
"Let go of your guilt, Karyl. It's not your fault!" they'd say, often shaking their heads in disgust.
"You're wasting your life," others would say. "Arlyn would not want you to lug that sack around forever."
I tuned them out. What Arlyn would want or would not want did not matter. She was not here to speak out.
Sometimes, I'd try to explain how much I needed to hold on to the guilt, but they'd argue louder. So then, I closed my ears and turned away. They could not understand.
And so it was. Life went on for those around me, and I was alone. Except that I had my sack of guilt to keep me company.
But then one day, for no particular reason, I reached into the sack and pulled out one of the bricks. It was dated July 5, 1996. It said: I went to Germany, so I was not here to take care of Arlyn during her last month of life.
I thought about it. If I had been here, would I have noticed that something was wrong with Arlyn?
It's possible I would have.
At the same time, it's more probable that I wouldn't have noticed anything.
Arlyn was a master at deception, it seems; She'd been hiding her pain for years. So what makes me believe that she'd suddenly have changed and become transparent?
My tears began to fall then. I felt warm tears streaming down my cheeks. They were for Arlyn: Arlyn, my gentle little girl who was trapped in her own dark world by something beyond her ability to comprehend.
It hurt so badly to remember. So so badly.
But then, the tears began to fall faster, and they felt even hotter against my face. These tears were different; they for me.
I, too, was trapped in my own dark, lonely world, lugging this heavy load of guilt around. I, too, was trapped by something too complex for me to understand.
Did I really deserve the additional weight of the brick dated July 5, 1996, just because I went to Germany? Was I a terrible mother because I took a vacation that I had dreamed of for years?
In my heart, I knew that I had not neglected Arlyn by going on a vacation. In my heart, I knew that I did not need that extra brick adding weight to the overloaded sack.
But could I bear to toss it out? Would the world fall apart if I removed it from the sack?
I thought a while as I ran my hands over the brick. It felt rough, hard and cold.
Yes, I needed it. No I did not. Yes, I needed it. No I did not. Yes, I needed it. No I did not.
Finally, I placed the brick on the ground beside me, and waited. I heard no loud crashes of thunder; the earth beneath me did not tremble.
I looked up at the sack I? d been lugging. It really didn't look any different. I tried to push it; it didn't feel any lighter, but I knew it was. I had lightened the load just a little bit.
I took a step forward, and I felt a gentle breeze brush my cheek. A butterfly flitted by.
Quote for the day:
Guilt is the source of sorrow; 'tis the field, th' avenging field, that follows us behind with whips and stings. ~ Nicholas Rowe
Humble student of life's lessons lifted up by the wind beneath my wings, Arlyn. January 25, 1978 - August 7, 1996Writer, teacher, reluctant_traveler