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.