Grief over the death of a loved one can cause so many different emotions to flare. I find one of the most mysterious of the emotions that drives our grief journey is guilt.
Many bereaved have wrestled with a sense of guilt over the circumstances surrounding the death of their loved one, especially those who experience a sudden death. For several months after the accidental death of my husband Trent I found myself searching in vain for answers to my “what if” questions. “What if I had talked with him longer before he left for work. Then his car wouldn’t have been in the truck’s path.” “What if I had demanded he wear his seat belt at all times?” “What if he would have taken a different route to work that morning?”
I, too, wrestled with the guilt that I felt over being unable to change the outcome of that fateful morning. But it was important for my healing to be able to voice my questions, no matter their futility.
I found that several of my supporters were uncomfortable with my seemingly random questions and one friend even told me that I must stop asking because it didn’t change anything. Fortunately, I intuitively knew to follow my own course of grief and continued to question my husband’s death with those who would listen. Eventually, I realized that I was not in control of others’ lives and forgave myself for what I had perceived as wrongdoing on my part.
Many feel guilt over not being present at the time of death. Others regret not doing more or behaving unkindly toward their loved one, even in the throws of debilitating fatigue during a long illness. These are all legitimate feelings that must be addressed for healthy mourning. And self forgiveness is the key.
Talking these feelings through with a trusted listener or journaling about them can help us process the “what if” questions that feed our guilt. One question I learned to ask myself is “Would doing ____ change anything now?” I may never learn the answer, but I do know that Trent died knowing I loved him. And for me, now, that is enough.
Then there is what I call “moving on guilt” that can occur while we are discovering how to live after our loved one is gone. I recall experiencing this new and different guilt months after my husband’s death as I attended a family gathering. As I began to enjoy the day, the ache of my grief rose up and surrounded me in a confusing fog of guilt. “How could I be laughing with my family and friends when Trent is dead?” I thought as I struggled with my concern that if I participated fully in life again, I would dishonor — or worse — forget my beloved husband. That guilt took the wind from my sails and I retreated from the gathering quietly to face this new demon.
As I spoke to others about my experience, I was reassured that life would continue to move on, (whether I wanted it to or not!) but I would never forget my beloved husband. And I learned, with time, experience and a little gentle self care, that rejoining life and all it has to offer, however slowly, was a good sign that my broken heart was healing and the memory of Trent was finding its rightful place in my life.
Now 20 years later, I understand that the specter of my grief remains, sleeping deep within my heart. The fog seems always at the ready to reappear at a moment’s notice. But it doesn’t come nearly as often or as intensely now. And I have learned that when I face the ghosts as they come and mourn what is mine, I can let even guilt go once again, forgiving myself for what is passed.
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