My mind was constantly swirling with emotions and thoughts
that repeated the same message.
Guilt. Was I responsible for Greg’s death? If I hadn’t been so keen on jogging, would Greg be alive today? Had there been some sign of his problem that I ignored or just missed? Why wasn’t I kinder to him the last time he had a cold? Did I kill him by thinking ugly thoughts when I was angry? And why did he die and not me? He was a much better person that I was, much kinder and more loving. And those times I had enjoyed being by myself, happy that was gone on a trip…
Regret. Why didn’t I run with him that day? At least I would have been with him when he died. Why did I agree to such a tight timeline on the book? If we hadn’t been rushed, maybe he wouldn’t have worked so hard and then he might not have died….(Excerpt from Seven Choices by Elizabeth Harper Neeld.)
I don’t think I have ever met anyone who has not felt guilty about something after a loved one dies. Even if we have to go to great lengths to find something we did wrong! A friend of mine whose mother died a peaceful death in her sleep at age 102 castigated herself for not going every Sunday afternoon to play dominoes with her mother. Finally her brother reminded her that their mother didn’t even like dominoes!
But human relationships are complex. We cannot live and relate to others without doing something that, in retrospect, we feel or know was wrong or harmful or insufficient or thoughtless. What do we do with these haunting thoughts of guilt?
Dr. Colin Parkes helps us understand this human tendency to feel guilty:
The tendency to go over the events leading up to the loss and to find someone to blame even if it means accepting blame oneself is a less disturbing alternative that accepting that life is uncertain. If we can find someone to blame or some explanation that will enable death to be evaded, then we have a chance of controlling things. It is easier…than to acknowledge our helplessness in the face of events.
We don’t want to feel impotent, of course. Therefore we continue to search for causes and to assign blame and guilt, even when that blame and guilt are not accurate. A wonderful grief therapist I was working with finally brought me up short one day when I was continuing to suggest that I probably caused my husband’s death by ugly things I thought and said. Armand said, “Well, if you had the power to cause his death by something you thought or said, why don’t you bring him back by thinking or saying something now?” That question ended my preoccupation with grandiose imaginings that my thoughts had controlled my husband’s life and, therefore, that I was somehow guilty of causing his death.
But what if, on the other hand, we actually played a part in the event that brought about the loss? I remember a young man telling me:
I did wrong, and my best friend paid for it with his life. I drank too much at a party and drove home recklessly…The judge said, “In addition to giving you a probated prison sentence, I am going to require you to pay retribution.” I work construction, so each week when I get paid I send my friend’s parents a certain amount of money. I know this can do nothing about the loss of my buddy, but it’s a way of saying I’m sorry. The thing that matters most to me—and something I will never forget in my whole life—happened at the trial when Jim’s mother came up, put her arms around me, and said, “Jacky, I forgive you.”(Excerpt from Seven Choices.)
The bottom line about guilt is this: We must, in addition to making restitution if any restitution is needed and/or possible, forgive ourselves and others if errors were made, if wrong was done.
And even if we did no wrong, we will also most likely feel guilty about something. We have to forgive ourselves for our human foibles, for not being perfect. Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that “The only thing guilt is good for is to move us to change. If it does not do that, then it’s just a sorry substitute for new life.” Healthy grieving—including engaging in a healthy way with our guilt—can lead us to new life, a life where we recognize we have gained more wisdom and more compassion for ourselves and others.
Also by Elizabeth Harper Neeld:
Do Men Grieve Differently From Women?
Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights born of personal experience to people rebuilding their lives after suffering grief and loss. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, advisor, and author of more than twenty books - including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World - she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.
Author's photo by Joey Bieber