A friend of mine confessed to me recently that she doesn’t know how to mourn. She doesn’t know how to deal with the death of someone whom she felt a certain amount of responsibility for. At the time, I didn’t have any words of wisdom for her. My mind can be rather slow in formulating thoughts. I had to go home and think about it for a few days. Now I feel like I can talk about the subject of grief in at least a mildly intelligent way.
In my own life, I’ve had to deal with the grief of losing a friend in high school, losing my sister shortly thereafter, losing my grandpa not quite a year later, losing my aunt, then my grandma, then my other grandpa. There was also the loss felt from a miscarriage which was added to the mix.
While all of those losses have affected me and shaped who I am, the one that changed me the most was the death of my sister. It’s been fourteen years since she died and grief has been my companion all that time. I’ve been dealing with this subject in a serious way for fourteen years, sometimes coping better than at other times. I was hoping to discuss this subject in one post, but I don’t think that’s possible. There are many facets to grief and to treat them all thoroughly, I will divide up the subject between several blog posts. I suppose that in this first one I should talk about the subject of guilt.
It seems that most of us find a way to place blame on ourselves when somebody has died. Maybe we blame ourselves because we didn’t spend more time with them; because we said something insensitive or failed to speak an important truth to them; because we feel like we should have known that they were going to die. And here’s the big one–we feel guilt because we believe that if we had just done something a bit differently, that person would have lived. All the coulda, woulda, shouldas come out to haunt you and don’t give you a moment’s peace.
I would like to offer a word of encouragement to those who are in that valley of guilt right now. You are not God; you don’t know everything; you can’t prevent bad things from happening. You are human; you make mistakes; you miss opportunities. That doesn’t make you a bad person. You’re not a genie; you can’t change the past; hindsight is 20/20. You cannot dwell on the what-ifs.
I’m not saying that guilt is totally evil and we should deny that we feel it. Sometimes there is a legitimate reason for feeling guilt, such as if we never told the deceased person how much they meant to us, or if the last time we saw one another we were angry. Those feelings of guilt can modify our attitudes and behavior in the now to help us become better people. The tricky thing is to keep those feelings in balance. Too much guilt and you shrink in on yourself like an old prune, too little and the grief experience doesn’t mold you into a better person. The lessons we learn in grief should help us to realize what is important in the here an now. For instance, before my sister died we were not a very emotionally vulnerable family. We rarely hugged or said I love you. That changed after my sister’s death, when we realized that we had not shared our feelings with her enough and told her how much we loved, appreciated, and supported her. We are closer and more open with one another because of that difficult lesson.
There is another kind of guilt we feel when we start to go on with our lives as normal. The first time you have an enjoyable experience after a major loss, not even thinking about the deceased in the midst of your fun, you will probably experience some major guilt crashing down on you. When you realize that your life will go on without them and that there will be times of happiness, joy, and fun which are not tainted by feelings of loss, you might feel guilty for not being miserable in those situations. I know that sounds strange but trust me, it’s true.
So, back to those nagging feelings of guilt. It can take some time to get to the point where you stop blaming yourself or feeling guilty for enjoying life again. Even if you arrive at that place, there’s no guarantee that you won’t dive back into those feelings of guilt at a moment’s notice. That happens to me regularly, though not as frequently as it used to. Remember–continuing to beat yourself up is not going to help you and it certainly won’t help the person who has passed away.
Finally, I suppose I need to say something to those who feel guilt over somebody’s death for very obvious and justifiable reasons. There are cases where a person harbors deep, legitimate guilt over a death. Maybe they supplied the drugs that resulted in an overdose; maybe they accidentally struck a person with their vehicle; maybe they made one mistake and it resulted in the death of another person. These things happen and those who are responsible can be eaten up with guilt.
First, I would say try not to bury or deny your guilt. You really need to examine it, own it, and then move on with your life as best you can. Your guilt can make you better or worse, and the choice is really yours. Take the guilt you feel from your mistake or premeditated action, and allow it to fuel your work in helping others. If you were the drug supplier, perhaps you could find a way to work with youth who find themselves going down the same road you did. Learn from your mistake and warn others before it is too late for them.
I hope that this post has been helpful. I will be writing another post on grief in the near future, so keep your eyes open.