Delayed Guilt: An Unwelcome, Unproductive Feeling

I wasn’t prepared for the thoughts I had the other day, guilty thoughts that suddenly surfaced in my mind. Although guilt can cause positive change, for the most part, I think it’s a non-productive feeling. Guilty feelings can tug a bereaved person backwards on the recovery path, when the goal is to move forward.

Guilt is a component of grief. Often our guilty feelings begin with the words “I wish.” My guilty feelings were associated with my elder daughter, who died in 2007. Some of my thoughts:

I wish I had known sooner.

I wish I had more knowledge.

I wish I hadn’t been so tired.

I wish I hadn’t said what I said.

I wish I told her I loved her more often.

I wish my daughter hadn’t died.

Like me, you may be grappling with guilty thoughts. Our thoughts can wake us up at night and keep us awake. But facts are facts, and we can’t change them. Bob Deits, in his book, Life After Loss, says guilt feelings are common after a sudden loss. “Guilt is the flip side of blaming someone else for the loss,” he writes. “With guilt, we blame ourselves.”

Our elder daughter was a difficult child to raise, especially during her teenage years. Painful thoughts about these years are still with me. Life taught me that we forgive our loved ones, but we don’t forget. Disturbing thoughts are stored in our minds, and come to mind suddenly like pop-up ads on the computer.

Therese A. Rando, PhD, in her book, How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies, thinks guilt is a “normal and expectable aspect of the grief experience.” She goes on to list the reasons for this. One is that human relationships include ambivalence. She goes on to say that relationships aren’t perfect. A third reason is that we fall short of our own expectations.

We may feel guilty for being alive when a loved one is gone, a reaction that’s called “survivor’s guilt.” I’ve felt some of that, but not much, thankfully. With conscious effort I am able to control these feelings.

When I start to feel guilty, I distract myself by cooking, cleaning, and doing other household chores. Reading is also a distraction and I enjoy reading mysteries, travel books, and cookbooks. In fact, I read cookbooks like some people read novels. Catching up on email can also be a distraction. Shopping is something I don’t do.

When guilt surprises me, I tell myself that it’s normal. I also remind myself that wallowing in guilt is a waste of time and life. And I remember something Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said years ago. “We grapple with fear and guilt. We search for meaning, love, and power . . . We seek to discover who we are and how we can become truly happy.”

I relate to this quote because I’ve lived it. Eight years have passed since my daughter died and during that time I created a new life. It’s a happy life, filled with new people, new work, and new hope. If you’re feeling guilty now, take steps to control your feelings. Take care of yourself and say goodbye to guilt. You have better things to do.

 

Harriet Hodgson

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Harriet Hodgson has been a freelancer for 38 years, is the author of 36 books, and thousands of print/Internet articles. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Minnesota Coalition for Grief Education and Support, and Grief Coalition of Southeastern Minnesota. In 2007 four of her family members died—her daughter (mother of her twin grandchildren), father-in-law, brother (and only sibling), and the twins’ father. Multiple losses shifted the focus of Hodgson’s work from general health to grief resolution and recovery, and she is the author of eight grief resources. Hodgson has appeared on more than 185 radio talk shows, including CBS Radio, dozens of blog talk radio programs, and dozens of television stations, including CNN. In addition to writing for Open to Hope, Hodgson is a contributing writer for The Grief Toolbox website, and The Caregiver Space website. A popular speaker, she has given presentations at public health, Alzheimer’s, hospice, grief, and caregiving conferences. Hodgson’s work is cited in Who’s Who of American Women, World Who’s Who of Women, Contemporary Authors, and other directories. For more information about this busy wife, grandmother, author and family caregiver, please visit www.harriethodgson.com.

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