Before I made my professional home in the grief world, I had no idea that guilt was such a common emotion after someone died. Looking back, perhaps I should have known.
My maternal grandmother died when I was ten years old. Unlike many grandparents I see today, my grandparents rarely got out and about and did not come to the special events in the lives of my brothers and me. My closest brother and I did like spending the night with my grandparents.
My grandmother would do little things to make us feel special including making egg custard (a favorite for me) in glass ramekins. When I was eight years old, I was in an elementary music program and had two different solos (it was a small town). While visiting at my grandparents’ home in the months after the program, my grandmother asked me to sing one of my solos for her. With all the attention just on me and separated from the larger program, I felt embarrassed to sing and declined. Two years later when I learned of my grandmother’s unexpected death, I felt guilty and thought that I should have sung for my grandmother. The guilt has faded as I’ve forgiven that eight-year-old boy for a bout of shyness, but I do still wish I had the memory of singing for my grandmother.
In grief support groups when we brainstorm ways people feel after someone dies, “guilty” generally makes the top ten. There are so many ways that guilt comes to us. For things we did and said that we regret. For things we didn’t do and say that yearn for one more chance. We could have been nicer, more considerate, more generous and kind. We should have apologized, asked forgiveness, made things right. Death comes and the window of opportunity is shut tight, never to be opened again.
But is that right? Are we doomed to live with guilt forever, no way to find relief and release?
Guilt is a parasitical visitor that has no intention of leaving and instead moves in and sucks away at any signs of forgiveness and relief. It whispers in our ears that the dead aren’t here to forgive us and so we don’t deserve to be forgiven. Sometimes we put ourselves on trial and decide that “guilty” is not the fair verdict, and we show guilt the door. Sometimes we feel we have a debt to pay and our restitution to make the world a better place gradually loosens guilt’s grip until it no longer has a home in our hearts. Guilt is a tricky one, however, and tries to convince us that the only way to pay our debt is through pain and suffering. It’s a false play, of course, as pain and suffering pay no debt to the world or to the dead—neither has any need for more pain and suffering. What the world and our dead need are lives lived with greater generosity and compassion. Such generosity and compassion, including toward ourselves, leaves no room in the inn for guilt to rule.
Yet sometimes fair trials and restitution aren’t enough; we need the experience of being forgiven. Forgiven for making mistakes, for being less than we could have been, for not knowing everything we know now, for being fallible and human. Some find forgiveness through religious traditions or spiritual practices and some see the dead as more forgiving and gracious in the next life than they were in this life. Guilt wants no part of that, of course, for hospitality for forgiveness puts guilt on the curb (where it belongs). We get comfortable with guilt as a housemate and feel ironically guilty when considering breaking up. We confuse faithfulness to guilt with faithfulness to the dead. Guilt knows all the angles.
On the other hand, there are times where the challenge we face is not to accept forgiveness but to offer it. The dead were not perfect and sometimes they hurt us, sometimes very badly. A friend and colleague was hurt horribly by recurrent sexual abuse over many years. Her forgiveness eventually came for herself—paradoxically forgiving herself for not finding a way to forgive her abuser. Forgiveness, thankfully, knows some angles, too, and its work is to free us from the prisons of our pasts. Forgiveness, received and offered, is a kind of freedom.
There is such a thing as therapeutic, healthy guilt. The lack of the capacity to feel guilt is a frightening reality for individuals and the human family. When we cause hurt by action or omission, it is right to feel guilty. This kind of guilt truly is a visitor. It teaches and guides us into our better selves and then moves along. It does not camp out in our back yards, or worse yet, sleep on our couches or even in our beds. This better-version guilt is a step towards forgiveness and fuller lives. It has its role to play and we need it.
But the guilt we experience is too often not the therapeutic, traveling kind. It is the “I’m here, where do I sleep, what’s in the fridge, not going anywhere” kind that suffocates. Part of its success is the lie that we can change the past, and so that is where we should live—and keep feeling bad about it. Fortunately, forgiveness beckons continuously with a better deal—the chance to live in the present, guided by the past and open to the future. Forgiveness won’t bust down the door or pick the lock and sneak in, but it persistently offers a better way with an eviction notice for guilt in its hand. Sure beats living unforgiven, and our past selves, eight-year-old boys and others, deserve compassion, understanding and mercy.
Center for Good Mourning