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It’s so hard not to feel guilty when a friend commits suicide

The dream starts in a church, though I’m not sure why. Neither of us was particularly religious. Maybe it’s because we talked about my Catholic childhood that very last time we spoke?

He told me he wished he were Catholic, too, because having a pope was cool. I shrugged, uncomfortable, confused, and told him I’d see him later. I didn’t know then that this and other bizarre ramblings I’d noted were part of a schizophrenia diagnosis. I wouldn’t find that out until later — after I saw the shape of his body lying beneath a tarp put down by the local firemen to hide it from looky-loos.

Because we live in a small town, the firemen knew him, and they knew me. Despite my press pass, they knew better than to let me get close. They turned me around immediately. “Go,” they said. “Go back to your office.”

I went. I’d never see him again.

He was 21 and home from college on an extended leave of absence. I was working as a reporter at the local paper. When the fire siren went off, I grabbed my camera and notebook and ran to report on the scene, which was just a few thousand feet from our office. I found out later that, while I was editing mindless copy on a computer screen, he was running pell-mell across the viaduct, preparing to end his life.

More: What we lose when we refuse to talk about suicide

In the dream, he’s always alive. We laugh. We joke. It’s like it was before the schizophrenia, when he was the guy who made me laugh, the guy who made me feel safe, the first guy who ever told me I was beautiful, the guy who grabbed me by the hand and ran into the alleyway beside the movie theater and planted a kiss on my lips and then ran back out to the sidewalk.

For 15 years, I’ve had that dream once every few months. And still, I wake up excited: I got it all wrong! He’s alive!

I’ve searched for his obituary more times than I can count.

I always find it.

And I sit in my office beneath the bulletin board with his picture at the center, and I sob.

If you think all of this sounds bizarre, I’d have to agree with you. I’ve asked therapists over the years if there’s something wrong with me. No, they say. It’s common to carry some guilt after someone close to you commits suicide.

The logical part of me knows that I have nothing to feel guilty about. It’s estimated that at least 90 percent of people who commit suicide have some sort of mental disorder, and he did. I did not make his mind rebel on him. I did not make him jump off of that bridge.

Instead, I fight with myself over our last few months together. We were the only two people in our group of childhood friends who were living in our small hometown at the time. I was the only one there for him. But I wasn’t there.

I was newly married, new to a job that required 60-hour weeks. Spending time with him in those last few months was uncomfortable. It was nothing like it had been when we were teenagers. Always prone to a certain amount of paranoia (I remember on our senior trip to Washington, D.C., he made some comments that we thought were going to get us kicked out of the Pentagon… and this was pre-9/11), his comments had turned dark and often downright confusing. At times, I’m embarrassed to say, I’d see him in town and, rather than run into him, I’d opt to take another route.

I tell myself now that if I’d known that he was mentally ill, I would have been more likely to accept his comments — and him. I struggle with depression; I know it’s not easy. And I was a shitty, shitty friend to him at the time.

More: It’s OK to skip the news if tragedy is a trigger for your mental health

On the night of his funeral, his mother told me that he was schizophrenic, and suddenly, it all made sense. But by then, it was too late to go back to say, “I’m sorry. Let’s be friends again. Let me be your shoulder and your ear. Let me love you, judgment free.”

Is that an excuse? My mind says yes, but my heart says no.

Would it have changed anything? My mind says no, but my heart wants to scream yes.

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