Grief and Guilt
Guilt is a useless emotion, yet I felt so much of it during my beloved husband’s illness and after his death. Guilt plagued me. I was constantly asking myself if I could have done this or that differently – the “if only’s”.
What I didn’t realize then, and have become aware of since, is that I thought I had any control over my husband’s death. I refused to believe that any of it was happening. I lived in denial of the circumstances. I am a passionate human being and I put all my passion into “saving” him. Thus, when he became unsavable, it must be my fault, right?
So how did I learn to live without guilt?
First, I had to heal myself. I had to allow the grief to have a place in my life, to fill me up. Once I was able to do that, I could begin to have more clarity about what those 3 and a half years of taking care of my husband really was, and then, only then, could I begin to forgive myself…for everything…for not knowing, for caring, for holding on, for living in fear, for thinking I could manage by myself, for feeling like I was letting him down, for feeling angry when I wanted to be the perfect caregiver and simply couldn't.
There are certain moments that stand out. One day I had gone to a café for a couple of hours just to have a break. I felt so normal, sitting there with other people, on our computers, enjoying life. I listened to music and did some writing. Back then, it was difficult to go out because I was always worried something would happen with my husband and I wouldn’t be there to take care of it.
So, this one day, I was actually able to escape for a couple of hours. It felt good and I needed it. When I pulled into the driveway and walked into the house, the responsibility of being a caregiver washed over me like an anger-charged waterfall. Was this my life now? Really? A full-time caregiver?
I went straight to where my husband was sitting to check on him. He seemed okay so we sat and talked. I was so overcome with emotion and he had always been my confidante. I had stopped sharing my feelings with him long before, because I didn’t want to burden him. This day I wanted my best friend back. I poured my heart out.
It must have been brutal for him. He loved me so much and didn’t want to see me in any distress. He never wanted to feel like a burden. I mean, who does? Anyone who knew him knew what a giving person he was. At that time, his brain wasn’t functioning optimally, but I could see the compassion and love in his eyes. It was a moment of truth that seemed to last forever, frozen in time, frozen in my mind. We both began to let go that afternoon, the veil of hope penetrated.
Even as I write these words, I can feel guilt pressing my chest cavity like a vice.
I was angry, sure. Resentful, yes, but as soon as the words left my mouth, I wanted to suck them back in. I realize now, of course, that he was the last person that needed to hear my feelings.
I felt anguishing guilt over this particular instance, and asked myself a million times what if I hadn’t revealed my feelings that day – told my truth about being his “nurse”? Would he have made a more valiant effort to stay on the planet?
As some may say, everything is in perfect order. Perhaps this needed to happen to move the energy forward. I can never know. Four months later he was dead. What is true is that neither one of us could have gone on much longer the the way things were. We would have both died.
I tell this story only to illustrate how guilt can overcome our days after the death of a loved one. There are usually some horrific moments that grab our attention over and over with the endless questions of how things could have gone a different way.
Well, guess what? They didn’t. They went exactly the way they did and the sooner we accept it, the better, because
WE, the LIVING, must go on LIVING.
We are here for a reason and guilt is a useless emotion that will hold us back from living, and more than that - THRIVING. How did I come back from guilt, back to the land of the living?
How did I forgive myself for all the things I perceived I did wrong to contribute to my husband’s death?
First and foremost – SELF CARE. When I took the time to care for myself, I began to open a space for healing. This took the form of eating healthy meals, taking baths, going for long walks, sitting and breathing, feeling my feelings, getting a massage or any type of healing modality. Every time I give myself the gift of caring for myself, I'm sending a message to my brain that I love myself. Sure, I can say it over and over, “I love myself”, but it’s not the same as CARING for myself. There is no one around to do that for me, so I learned to do it for myself.
Second – SITTING WITH FEELINGS. Trying to pretend that I'm not deeply hurting is not going to facilitate my healing process. Hurt, sadness, anger – these are all potent feelings that need to be acknowledged. I take time out every day, usually two to three hours in the first year of my grief, to just sit, left hand on heart, right hand on solar plexus, and BREATHE, letting whatever emotions that need to come up.
Third – SELF FOCUS. I had to let go of caring what anybody thought of me and let go of any expectations on myself, or from others. In order to process my grief I needed to focus on myself with as little pressure as possible from the outside world.
Fourth – BEING PRESENT. In order to go into that place of peace I so desperately need, I force myself to stay in the present moment. Some may call this meditation, and I guess it is to a certain extent, but it is more about letting myself just BE. Each time my mind wanders to a guilt-provoking memory, I bring myself back to the present moment. The memory is something that happened in the past and cannot be changed, so why dwell on it? I know my husband would want me to rejoin the realm of the living and THRIVE.
I kept with my routine month after month. After a while my brain was getting the message that I really cared about myself and my recovery. I had to learn to transform the memories that triggered guilt into more positive thoughts. Each time a guilt-inducing memory entered my mind I would replace it with a breath and an affirmation like, “I am in the present”, or “I am safe and I am loved”. I consciously aimed my affirmation at the neural pathway of the guilt-inducing memory, replacing it with a self-caring thought. The brain is very malleable that way. We can create new neural pathways by thinking a positive thought over and over.
And then FORGIVENESS happens naturally. By taking care of myself, sitting with my feelings and staying in the present moment, I noticed that the guilt was dissipating. It was still there, to be sure, but it wasn’t torturing me. Also, finally realizing that I am not in control of another person’s life and death journey allowed my heart to crack open, which included forgiving myself.
My grief counselor said to me many times, “The only person who should have any guilt is the one who gets up in the morning and says, I’m going to go hurt so-and-so intentionally.” 99.9% of us never have a thought like that. How can we feel guilty for something we said or did while in the midst of a very traumatizing situation? We did the best we could with the awareness and capacity we had at the time. It’s that simple.
Holding onto grief is a metaphysical way of beating ourselves up and is not conducive to moving forward in our grief recovery.
Here are some suggestions for dealing with grief guilt:
1. Seek out a grief counselor. They are very helpful with tools for managing grief and it’s healing to have someone to pour out thoughts and feelings with. Here are two links to sites explaining how a grief counselor can help:
2. Be good to ourselves. It may feel strange at first when not used to it, but slowing down, breathing, sitting with feelings at least an hour a day, cooking meals, going for walks in nature and whatever else brings us closer to our authentic selves is very healing.
3. Writing about feelings. Get all of those regrets out onto paper. Reading them to a grief counselor is helpful for perspective.
4. Escape from grief each day. Whoever says escapism isn’t healing? It’s imperative when grieving, in my opinion. Grieving is HARD work. It's debilitating. Having a break each day from the intense work of grieving is imperative. The gift of distraction – going to a movie, watching a silly comedy, going to the mall, playing a game of tennis, having lunch with a friend and talking about what’s going on in THEIR life – is healthy, as long as our entire waking moments aren't a distraction. There is a healthy balance between experiencing grief and escaping it, but giving ourselves the gift of distraction, is loving ourselves.