Someone close to you has died – spouse, parent, child, dear friend. Now picture a collage made of pieces of tissue paper glued to an art board. The pieces are different sizes and colors. Each color represents a feeling and the size of each piece represents the intensity of that feeling. Perhaps red for anger, blue for sad, gray for lonely, purple for frustrated, yellow for relief, black for guilt.
My own grief experience has taught me that the sizes of the pieces/feelings change over time and, occasionally, disappear and new feelings surface. Often it’s a new color, like gold for happy memories, or maybe a smaller version of the original colors, like blue for sad.
The most difficult feeling for me is guilt. Others have told me that this is true for them, also. Like everyone else I’ve done or said things I regret or not done or said things I ought to have. When the other person is living I can ask for forgiveness or make amends in some way. Even if the other person was not wholly innocent, that’s not really all that important.
Guilt can be a motivator to do what needs to be done – reconcile if possible. What’s important is taking ownership for my part of the problem – whatever it is that I did or failed to do. Sometimes the offended party won’t accept my offer and I can’t do anything about that. I have little or no control over the behavior of others, but I do have control over mine if I take it. I’ve done what I could and that helps me move on.
When the opportunity to seek forgiveness or make amends is lost, such as when a person dies, guilt can become a (if not the) dominant feeling in your loss. I’ve been there, and many I’ve known have been there.
The guilt burden some people carry is far beyond what I’ve experienced. I think of a young boy in my group at a bereavement camp who had a bitter argument with his dad before going to school and his dad took his own life that afternoon. I think of a friend who went home from the hospital for some rest and her husband died in the night and feels she missed the opportunity for one last touch or word. I think of how a business colleague didn’t confront his dad about his drinking and his dad died in an auto accident that also killed another person. I think of the parents of a boy who died by suicide because he was drinking, damaged the family car and was afraid to go home. I think of the wife in a bad marriage who wished her husband dead and he fell off a ladder and died. How do you deal with any of that? Remarkably, people do. They survive and move on – changed forever.
I wish that I had easy answers to coping with guilt in such tragic situations. I have some experience based on what I and others I know have done have found helpful:
- Recognize that relationships in life can be difficult at times for most of us. Learning to forgive ourselves and draw from the experience lessons that make us better persons.
- Be the kind of person we lost would be proud of. We can still offer our regrets and ask forgiveness in a letter addressed to the one who died. And, as someone I know, write a letter back from the one who died expressing understanding and forgiveness.
- When the guilt burden just won’t ease or go away find a counselor. I’ve done so twice in my life and found it profoundly helpful. Others have found help in attending a bereavement support group where others truly understand the feeling. Comfort Zone Camp plays the same role for young children and adolescents. Others discover solace in a faith community. There are many paths to healing.
- Remember the collage will change during your grief journey. It is when we move towards the hard feelings like guilt, rather than away from them, that the healing will occur.
The time frame is different with each of us. Grieving is a lifetime journey and not an overnight trip. Add gold to your collage by capturing the good memories, becoming the best you can be, helping others on their journey through your experience and treating yourself gently.