We expect grief to encompass sadness and depression. Maybe even anxiety. We expect memories to tease our emotions. What we don’t always expect, is for guilt to play such a dramatic role in the process. Guilt tends to weave itself through the very fabric of grief. Intertwined. Unable to be detached.
Guilt sneaks up in various forms and shades. It is sometimes produced by uncontrolled forces in which we have no say, and other times it is our own choices that bring it to a head. The power of guilt, whether external or internal, illogical or logical, is a force as powerful and unpredictable as grief itself. It makes the grief journey complicated and hard to understand. Sometimes we can bear the weight of sadness, but the guilt has power to twist and manipulate us.
In the raw stages of grief, guilt can be found in simple questions…. Why am I alive and they are not? Why do I get more days with a body that still works while theirs broke down? Why did the accident kill them and not me? Why did his heart stop and mine is still beating? The question pulls you down like the force of gravity. Even the belief that God still has a purpose for me, doesn’t necessarily undo the gnawing in my gut for why their purpose was somehow completed. They even have a term for it…. “survivor’s guilt”.
Also in the beginning stages comes the guilt of smiling. The guilt of feeling happy. How can I have a good day when they are gone? How can I smile at the bank teller when half my heart is ripped out? Wouldn’t I be a hypocrite if I acted pleasantly? My friends invite me out, but I feel like I’d betray my grief to go have fun. Wouldn’t it be unfaithful to my love for him to laugh while he isn’t here? And so, I’m caught in a vortex…..stuck. Pulled to keep living…..pulled to move out of the depression…while being sucked into the need to feel loyal to my grief. This guilt can be the hardest to balance. The hardest to understand.
Guilt can pound us with the “what-ifs”, one of the hardest thought processes to shake. Hard because the past is out of our control. Hard because the past is unchangeable. What if I had been there? What if I hadn’t left? What if I had made him go to the doctor? And along with those what-ifs, is the guilt of not being able to save them. Not being able to prevent their death. Even though our logic reminds us that we didn’t have any idea beforehand, the thought won’t stop molesting us that we should have done something. Known something. Prevented it somehow.
Guilt taunts our memories in the form of regrets. Regret of what we didn’t say or what we didn’t do. Regret of what we should have done. Regret that we fought over stupid things that didn’t matter. Regret that I didn’t appreciate them enough while alive. Regret that I could have treated them better or given stronger support. Regret can eat us alive.
For some of us, guilt burdens us because we are relieved. Relieved that our life can now be our own. Relief that the struggle and fights have ceased. Relief that we no longer have to watch them suffer and wither away. And the fact that we feel even a speck of relief fills us with a heavy weight and confuses our grief process, because we feel like a horrible person.
Those of us with children often feel an array of guilt. We feel like our children were left with the wrong parent. Wouldn’t our spouse be better able to deal with these issues? Wouldn’t they be more capable to raise our kids? We feel guilty that our children aren’t getting the attention they need because we are stuck in our own black hole. We feel we aren’t enough for them. In the absence of their other parent, we are filled with the drive to be a substitute for them, recreating their personality and strengths that our kids are now missing out on. The pressure heightens inside us.
As the journey of grief progresses toward some form of healing, little by little, we begin reaching for happy again. Reaching for new goals and contentment. Because, you know, we don’t want to live in this void forever. But as we take those steps, guilt is beside us, whispering in our ear. When we have a good day, it whispers. When we accomplish something without him, it whispers. When we embrace an activity that makes us happy, it whispers. Whispers of unfaithfulness. Of duplicity. Of selling out. As we set a new course in life, the life we were forced to leave beckons us to stay stuck, convincing us it keeps us connected to our lost love. And as we pry the fingers from the old life, one by one, the guilt continues to haunt us.
We feel guilty that they might be disappointed in how we have dealt with things. Upkeep on the house…. Relationships with the in-laws….. Taking care of the kids…..We had to let the car go… When our faith has faltered, when our strength has weaned, we feel like if our loved one saw us like this, they would be let down. If they saw us struggling, they would chide us. And we feel guilty that their death has caused us to question the very things they loved about us.
Then there is the guilt when we have to give up things that were theirs. All the dreams and possessions we worked so hard for together…things they loved…. We have to part with them. If they could see us, did we just break their heart? We feel like we’re chopping up what was our spouse, bit by bit, and scattering their memory to the wind as we part with their possessions. The dreams, hobbies, loves, interests, passions, that made them uniquely them, becomes a stab of guilt as if we are getting rid of them. Their clothes, their tools, their vehicle, their sports team memorabilia, their fishing gear, etc. Our tangible connections to their memory.
Some of the worst guilt…..is seeing ourselves becoming a better version of ourselves and knowing it was their death that propelled us to grow and become stronger, become wiser, become more compassionate and more adventurous. Why did it take them dying for me to realize my weaknesses? Or to finally take that trip? Why did it take them dying to want to be better? Or to not make excuses anymore? Why did their death make me finally take that risk or pursue that dream? And even as we are proud of ourselves, the guilt mixes in, making us wonder why we couldn’t be this person with them.
And finally…. The guilt of loving someone new. The betrayal that threatens to spill into our logic and sensibility. Our heart struggles to believe we are not being unfaithful to our lost love if we open up to someone new. Our heartstrings pull as we learn to spread our heart in both directions. We feel guilty if we compare. We feel guilty if we have a better connection with the new love than we did with our late spouse. Or the opposite… we may feel guilty that our new love never seems to create the same connection as the one we lost.
Yes, guilt plays a huge role in grief. And we have to work through the arduous task of letting go of the guilt. But it isn’t easy.