My late mentor Don, was the first person who exposed me to creative and unconventional thinking. We used to have many discussions about work, family and life, in general. During one of our conversations I expressed guilt over an ill advised decision that I made. Don simply stated that “Guilt is a useless emotion.” In retrospect, I believe this was Don’s way of telling me that it was more important to learn from my life decisions, rather than beat myself up over them.
Sadness and Guilt Are Separate
From my perception guilt is triggered by: 1) regret emanating from conscious choices that we made about the relationships in our lives, 2) events that are beyond our control.
I have made conscious decisions to distance myself from individuals whose presence caused much stress in my life. Establishing those boundaries were necessary to my ability to survive and thrive in the world and reduce my stress in the process. In the beginning, those relationships were satisfying to me, but as my life progressed and circumstances changed, those relationships weren’t fulfilling to me anymore. During my work as an addiction professional, I worked collaboratively with many individuals on redefining their boundaries particularly as it related to relationship choices. In both the best of circumstances relationships between individuals change because they grow differently. That change is a part of life, and a necessary part of life.
What if the people that we consciously cut ties with die, should we feel guilt because of the decision we originally made? When we made that decision to distance ourselves from individuals whose presence is detrimental to our quality of life, we made it based on our past and present experiences with them. Projecting what will occur in the future and the impact that it will have on our original decision may not enter the equation. It stands to reason that in this circumstance, guilt need not be felt. The reality however, is that for most of us who have grieved a loss, guilt and sadness coexist. Sitting with guilt and understanding where it is coming from, is key to finding meaning from it after loss.
It is expected that we will experience sadness for someone who was not a part of our lives, at the time of his/her death because: 1) There were, in all likelihood, some good memories created at some prior point in the relationship, 2) We empathize with the void left in the lives of those who cared deeply for that person. If we allow guilt to rule, we may lose sight of the good memories that were created during the relationship we shared with him/her at a previous time.
There is also the guilt that we experience in circumstances that were truly beyond our control. As a parent who experienced the death of a child I indulged in guilt frequently in the early phase of my grief. My 18-year-old daughter Jeannine died of cancer in 2003. I felt guilty because I didn’t see the symptoms of her disease sooner and because I couldn’t convince her to engage in clinical trials that could have prolonged her life. I told myself that as her father, I failed to protect her. What is also implied in this statement is that somehow, I was responsible for her death. After much soul searching, I came to the conclusion that my job as her father during her illness was not to protect her but to allow her to make adult decisions about not only her treatment, but her life. I realize that I didn’t have the power to protect her from a cancer that had no cure. Once I was able to see the total picture, I no longer devoted energy to feeling guilty.
During my career as an addiction counselor and while doing bereavement support, I have witnessed the stories of many about the death of their loved ones. Individuals whose loved ones have died as a result of accidents or other sudden deaths express (among other things) guilt that they didn’t say “I Love You” or had an argument that was unresolved in the hours prior to their death. If our loved ones were here in front of us, they would tell you that not saying “I love you” or an unresolved argument did not result in their death. They would tell you that they knew you loved them because of your actions and words during the totality of their life on earth.
The Need for Gentleness
I have also spoken with individuals whose loved ones have died as a result of complications from addiction or suicide. They disclose having to deal with the stigmas associated with those causes of death, and questions about why they couldn’t stop their loved ones actions. They also verbalize that guilt is a part of their experience, as well. Individuals honoring loved ones who have died as a result of suicide, remind us to assess the totality of their lives and their impact on the world, and not on the decisions they made during the last few moments of their lives. If the cause of death is addiction, we are reminded to assess the totality of that individual’s experience and the positive impact that they had ; not view them solely as “addicts.”
We are constantly reminded to be gentle with or take care of ourselves during the journey after loss. In this context ,it is important for us to realize that the impact that we had on our loved ones be assessed during the entire life of the relationships; not the last few moments of them.
Before you allow guilt to be a fixture in your grief journey, ask yourself whether or not it is truly justified to feel this way. If you did the best that you could given the circumstances or made a decision to redefine your boundaries with others to ensure your happiness and survival, give guilt its walking papers. Then fully embrace transformation after loss, while honoring the legacies of your loved ones.
Updated: August 1, 2013