Awhile back I posted a piece here called, "An Honest Question: Atheists, How Do You Process Your Guilt?" In response to that piece, I received this morning the following heartbreaking letter from a woman named Erin:
"What happens when you do something that you can't get forgiveness for?
"My husband committed suicide three years, four months, and 14 days ago. He needed me, and I wasn't there. I was too wounded, I was masking it, I pushed him away and he couldn't hold on. I left him at the precise moment he needed me the most.
"He is gone, forever gone. I'll never see him, we'll never speak, I can never say I'm sorry. He can never forgive me. I will live with it forever.
"I asked God to forgive me, so I guess he did, right? Great. Honestly. But in this lifetime, I don't imagine I'll ever feel any better for knowing that. I can't go back and change things. I did not do everything I could have done. I am guilty, trust me on this one. I can't forgive myself. That's what guilt is right? So, really there is no way to process it."
Here's my answer to you, Erin:
Listen to me. Your husband's suicide was not your fault. Trust me on this one. Any counselor--and you have got to get counseling for this--will tell you that your husband's suicide was absolutely, 100% not your fault. That you feel guilty about that tragic event is as natural as snow being white. That's the deal with suicides: they always leave behind at least one person who suffers profound, often life-long guilt over their certainty that they could have done something to prevent that suicide from happening. And they're invariably wrong about that; there's never anything they or anyone else could have done to stop what happened.
The real reason anyone ever commits suicide--the only reason anyone ever commits suicide--has nothing to do with events or circumstances that happen outside that person. Trillions of people every day get depressed and emotionally desperate, but don't kill themselves. The only people who ever commit suicide are people infected with the profoundly serious condition of being suicidal. You husband was suicidal. It's who he was; he had that terrible illness in him.
You absolutely must understand that you could no sooner have stopped your husband from acting the way his sickness made him act than you can control the weather. It's possible that in any given circumstance you could interfere and stop a suicidal person from taking their own life, but that's just a postponement, not a solution. Someone who is stopped from a serious suicide attempt will try to kill themselves again, because that's what suicidal people do. That's the very mark of a suicidal. Unless they get intense professional help (and often even then), suicidal people always try to kill themselves again. And nothing anyone can do can stop someone who is determined, in the driving, irresistible way suicidals are, from doing whatever to themselves they're ultimately moved to.
Listen to this, Erin: You're no more responsible for the fact that your husband committed suicide than you would have been if he had been born blind or with one arm. He was infected with a condition that it was entirely beyond your powers to cure him of. You've got to let go of your guilt, because it's not based on anything real. You're suffering for no reason at all. Maybe you could have been nicer. Maybe you could have been more responsive. Maybe you could have been less self-involved. And none of that would have mattered. He still would have killed himself. The only person who could have stopped him from doing that was him, by seeking the kind of psychological counseling that you must now not fail to seek for yourself. Do it. Learn to let go of this burden which was never yours to carry in the first place.
One more thing, if I may. This terrible event in your life created for you a pain that is not of this world. Once you're suffering as you are, Erin, you've moved into God's territory. You just don't "ask" God to forgive you, and then sort of move on. Stay with God on this. God has a lot to tell you now, and you have to carefully and attentively listen to it all. And it may take some time for God to tell you everything he wants you to know. Absolutely get the kind of counseling referenced above, which is indispensable to your healing. But at the same time (and as corny as this tends to sound to people who haven't yet had the kinds of life experiences that strip this of corniness), put yourself as fully as possible in God's hands. Open your heart to his healing through the power and direction of the Holy Spirit within you. That really is God inside of you, talking to you, whispering to you the truths your mind, soul, and body need to hear. Avail yourself of the one who did allow his own life to be taken in order to not only heal you, but to keep you healed, forever.