I’m here to thank you for your article about sibling survivor guilt. You have stated every single emotion my son and I have felt these last two years.
In October 2006, my two sweet sons went out into the night in a car to begin a new life together, getting an apartment, getting their rock band going again, getting new jobs, being back in the town where they grew up and graduated high school. Life was good.
But on that happy night, they had a horrible auto accident. One of them survived.
The son who is still with us has all of the emotions you mentioned in your article. He was the driver of the car. He feels guilt, loss, loneliness without his brother who had always been his best friend, always. They shared a room their entire lives. They had never been apart more than one or two days at a time. Their father died when they were seven and eight years old. They had lived with me until one month before the accident. I had barely gotten adjusted to their moving out, when I got the call that night about the accident.
When I got that call, I was in bed at 4:30am, and was alone when a voice on the phone told me one of my sons was dead and they weren’t sure the other one would survive. I screamed and yelled at the woman on the phone asking her who put her up to this? This was the cruelest joke to play on someone, to call in the middle of the night with this kind of news! I called her a liar. I accused her of being on drugs. It took quite a bit of work to convince me she was telling the truth. Then I had to decide which direction to go. Do I go to the morgue to see my deceased son which is 3 hours away, or do I go to the hospital in a different town 3 more hours away to see my surviving son? What kind of decision is that for a mother to make? Then I had to call my oldest son and break the news to him.
Needless to say, it was the night no mother ever wants to face. My sons and I ache together for the loss of sweet Jeffrey. But the loss I also feel is that my son who was the driver is never going to be the same. When he walks, I see his brother beside him. When he talks to me on the phone, I long to hear his brother in the background as he was in the past, laughing and joking. I feel Jeffrey there with Stephen always. Not because I put his memory there, but because I feel that Stephen carries his memory with him always.
Your article outlines all the stages of grief and guilt, and they are helpful, but I feel we need more. Can you write an article to help me learn how to overcome my feeling of helplessness? Can you write an artilce to help my son overcome his feelings of loneliness? I think you can.
I will be reading daily to see what you have to say. Thank you.
Dr. Baugher Responds
I have just read for a second time your powerful story and as I sit at my computer to begin my response, what song comes on the radio? “We’ve Only Just Begun.” I know that it is a song about a couple beginning a relationship, but it of course it is also a song about your precious sons. Here they were beginning their lives on their own and suddenly in one moment one life is snatched away and loved ones are forever changed. OK, ok, you’re not going to believe this. The very next song playing as I type this is: “How am I Supposed to Live without You?”—(now that I’ve been loving you so long—how am supposed to carry on?) Is that you Jeffrey? Are you giving me these songs? How many of you reading this have had songs come on at just the right time?
OK, now that Jeffrey has made his presence known, let me respond to your letter. I don’t have to tell you that the issues surrounding the accident are complex. Let’s try to get an overview of these issues. You say that Stephen feels guilt, loss, and loneliness without his brother. In addition to the grief issues of Stephen and your other son, you have your own grief. We can think of each of the perspectives of you and your sons’ grief in terms of units. So, there are three units of grief in your immediate family. Next, you are watching each other grieve and reacting to their pain. Add six more units of grief (two from each of you.) Make sense? Add on top of these nine units, the fact that it was an accident and that one of the three of you was the driver. So, there is Stephen’s tremendous guilt plus your attempt (and possibly that of your other son) to find ways to ease the guilt—which adds to your grief—because you can’t. Here is the summary of what we have so far for the three of you:
3 units of personal grief
6 units of watching others grieve and reacting to their pain
You and your other son’s attempt to ease Stephen’s guilt leads to frustration
I don’t believe trying to add these together makes sense. I rather suggest we look at this as each category multiplied by the others. This only begins to approximate the craziness each of you must be feeling. Do you agree?
In the remainder of this letter I am going to focus on what may be some of the key features of sibling guilt. First, we’ll look at types of guilt that siblings sometimes feel. After this we will look at suggestions for coping with guilt.
Here are five common types of guilt with a brief description:
1. Death-Causation Guilt
In this one the person actually caused the death or perceived that he or she did something to contribute to the death.
2. If-Only Guilt
Here the person thinks again and again about all the possible factors that could have somehow contributed to the death. When an auto accident is the cause of death, common thoughts may be:
“If only I hadn’t driven” or
“If only I hadn’t made that turn” or
“If I had left earlier [or later]”or
“If I had driven slower [or arrived sooner].”
When a negative event occurs in our life, our brain often reacts by playing the incident over and over and over. It is as if our brain is wired to dissect an episode in innumerable ways in an attempt to make sense of something that is senseless. We drive thousands and thousands of miles in a lifetime. Consider all of the multiple factors that converged on that day at that exact time at that place under those conditions. Our brain is absolutely incapable of logically deciphering why an accident took place. Yet, that does not stop us from trying an endless array of hypotheses. This reaction is one of the major contributors to the feelings of craziness that follows the death of a loved one. Therefore, it certainly wouldn’t be unusual for your son to feel like he was going crazy these last two years. Make sense?
3, Inducing-Pain-in-Others Guilt
When we feel guilty about causing a death, we may also feel guilty about the pain we have caused others. On top of all your son’s grief, he may also be feeling terrible for all the pain he feels he is causing those who also loved Jeffrey.
4. Grief Guilt
The person reports feeling guilty for not grieving “correctly.” The problem with this is there is no one right way to grieve. This brings us to Stephen. Hundreds of parents have spoken with me about their concern of the way their child is grieving—or not grieving. I don’t have to tell you that watching your sons grieve has been extremely painful to watch. Your job is to let your sons grieve in their own way. The only exception to this is if either of your sons are hurting themselves or others.
5. Getting Better Guilt
This is one of the toughest issues regarding guilt after the death of a loved one. Getting better does not mean that the person is back to normal. Years after a death bereaved people find themselves at a place in their life different from any they ever experienced or imagined. Their entire world has been altered forever. They are, what many people report, in a “new normal.” Therefore, the form of guilt associated with the process of getting better is similar to Grief Guilt, but the focus is not on grieving. It is concerned with the times in which the individual realizes that he or she is:
• Living life without his or her loved one
• Feeling good about being alive
• Experiencing pleasure without feeling guilty
• Going through several minutes, or even hours in the day, and not thinking about the loved one
• Beginning a new relationship
What often happens is that months or years after the death, the person is involved in an activity and suddenly realizes that he or she is actually feeling better. Or it could be that the person has not thought about his or her loved one for a time. When this occurs, the person might feel guilt. In some cases it takes the form of a panic reaction.
For example, the person may say, “Oh my God, I’m forgetting him!” The person begins to feel that their loved one is fading from memory. Worse, the person feels that the forgetting process will progress. The person may say, “I can’t believe this. He was in my life. He was my entire life. I loved him. How can I be forgetting him? I won’t let this happen!” The person then makes a promise to never again fall into the trap of living life which yields forgetting. However, the person is now in what can be called “the trap of guilt” that impedes the process of grief. Let’s look at two examples.
Guilt Trap #1: An important sign of progression in the bereavement process is reinvesting in life. At the very moment that we begin to feel a little better, our guilt feelings emerge, which lead us to conclude that we must be forgetting our loved one. As a result, we “snap back” from our positive feelings and convince ourselves that moving on with life (the very epitome of positive coping with grief) is wrong. Therefore, the only way that a person can overcome this guilt trap is to understand that moving on does not equal forgetting or losing love for this person.
Guilt Trap #2: Another trap occurs as the survivor gradually comes to realize that many life goals might never be realized because life has drastically changed. The person is in a conflict that may sound like this: “If I work on these goals, then I am moving on with my life, but without my loved one. So why even work on them? Yet, if I put the goals aside, I may regret not having done them. I feel guilty either way.”
Let’s look next at a few suggestions that have helped bereaved people with guilt. I am going to personalize this and offer these directly to Stephen.
1. Write a list of all you did wrong and all you did right with your brother.
No one is perfect. Of course you did things wrong with him. List every one of them. Once you’ve completed that list, write out all the things you did right. It’s so easy to beat yourself up and focus on the negatives, but you must also look at the positives. One other related step in this exercise is to write out all the things you wish you had done differently and next to each underline the good intentions.
2. The reversal approach
In this approach I ask you to imagine that, rather than you, it is Jeffrey who was driving and it was you who died. However, you are now about to give your own words of wisdom to Jeffrey regarding all the guilt that he has been feeling these last two years. What would you say to him? Say them in your mind right now as you read this. Would you tell him to feel guilty? Would you want him to not live his life to the best of his ability? Conversely, would you tell him to live life even though at times he doesn’t feel like it?
Now, can you take those same words and say them to yourself? What I am obviously asking you to do is try to treat yourself as you would have wanted Jeffrey to treat himself. This task might be difficult for you. But, reach out, take your own hand and be kind and gentle to yourself. As much as you might feel that you don’t “deserve” such gentle treatment, again ask yourself, “Exactly what words would I say to my precious brother?” And then say them to yourself or let Jeffrey’s words of comfort come through you?
3. Individual and group support
Some people work on their grief and guilt alone, some do it with another person or two, and some find a group setting is helpful. Do you have one or more persons in your life who can be a good listener to you without judgment? Who is this person? If you haven’t done so already, have you made contact? Is there a counselor who understands grief that you can contact for an appointment? If you haven’t done so already, can you at least try it twice?
There are grief support groups in most communities throughout the United States and Canada and on the Internet. People in these groups have experienced a loss similar to yours. Call the local crisis center, mental health facility, church, hospital, hospice, or funeral home to find support in your area. Many people who join report that, after a few meetings, they feel comfortable in sharing some of the more difficult parts of their grief reactions. Support group members report that they have been able to say things to the group that they felt they could never say to their family. (Editor’s note: see http://www.compassionatefriends.org as well)
4. Channeling guilt
One way that people cope with the incredible guilt they feel is to channel it into a worthwhile project. The ability to give to another person or to a cause without expecting something in return is a tribute to the human spirit. It helps answer the question, “What can I do now in the name of my brother?”
Ask yourself :
Into what kind of project, activity, or work can I channel my guilt?
How might I serve my community to honor Jeffrey?
What organization would appreciate my volunteer work?
How can I raise funds?
What can I create in Jeffrey’s name?
What can I build?
Dear Myra, I offer this letter to you, Stephen, and to your other son with the hope that additional insight and suggestions will ease the pain that each of you have been feeling these past two years. Was it a coincidence that two amazingly perfect songs began playing when I began typing this letter to you? You know Jeffrey. Is this something he would do? And is this letter his way of once again sending his love to you?
My best to you.
Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
p.s. Much of the information on guilt is from the book Understanding Guilt during Bereavement.