When Grief And Guilt Prolong The Pain Of Loss

Guilt and Grief

A zinnia means: I mourn your absence.

by Erin Barone

Sarah was 35 years old, with two small boys and a husband who abruptly passed away due to a brain tumor. While her husband Sam had complained of steady headaches, Sarah would blame it on stress from his job as a financial advisor and simply tell him to take some Tylenol.

After a few months of unrelenting headaches, though, her husband finally decided to see a doctor, whereupon he discovered that he had a brain tumor requiring immediate surgery. Sadly, Sam did not survive the procedure, dying on the operating table.

Since his death, Sarah has frequently made comments like “I didn’t choose this life for me, and I especially didn’t choose this life for my two little boys.” She also blames herself for having minimized the severity of her husband’s headaches, often stating, “I should have listened to him more, I should have told him to go to the doctor sooner, and then maybe they would have been able to save him before the tumor grew so big!”

Sarah has had difficulty waking up and often allows the boys to miss school when she just doesn’t have to energy to get them ready in the morning. She has also complained that her boys are starting to act out, misbehaving and throwing tantrums, as she struggles to parent them appropriately while still grieving the loss of her husband.

Whenever someone loses another person in his or her life, especially a loved one, each person’s grief takes on a unique form. For some, the grieving process begins almost immediately, while for others these feelings sometimes take a while to set in. But these feelings are normal when a loved one dies and often include a sense of guilt. We may blame ourselves for something we did or didn’t do that may have contributed to the death, or for things that we wish we said or didn’t say. But, again, this is a natural phase of the grieving process. Every person goes through it.

Moreover, guilt and grief tend to work together, creating new levels of remorse. For example, whenever Sarah’s boys start acting out, she thinks about them growing up without their father, which then reinforces her regret for not having urged her husband to see the doctor sooner. Each moment of guilt tends to lead into another. When Sarah sees Tylenol in the pharmacy, she internalizes her overwhelming sadness into a kind of shame, which, in turn, makes her feel unworthy as a wife and mother and leads to a deeper withdrawal from everyday life.

Some important steps to consider when struggling to overcome feelings of guilt that accompany a loss:

  • Know that it isn’t uncommon to play the “what if?” game, such as asking yourself, “What if I could have responded differently?” or “What if I had helped him more?” Sarah has struggled with this significantly. She often regrets just telling him to take Tylenol for his headaches and wishes she had told him to make a doctor’s appointment sooner. But sometimes we must focus on the positive things we did to help. In Sarah’s case, she lovingly massaged Sam’s neck and temples in an attempt to soothe his headache. She couldn’t have known something else was wrong with him. She’s not a prophet or fortune teller. Just a loving wife and mother.
  • Although there is no set timetable for grieving, if a substantial amount of time has passed and you are still not allowing yourself to move on, ask yourself why. In Sarah’s case, she was stuck in her grieving process due to her feelings of guilt, which were getting in the way of allowing her to move forward for herself and her children. Guilt is natural, but at some point it needs to be addressed and overcome.
    Also know that, as time passes, the ability to cope with loss will get easier. This doesn’t mean one has to just forget about the deceased person, but rather accept that he or she is in your life in a different way now.
  • A lot of the time, people won’t allow themselves to accept happiness after such a traumatic loss and, when they do find a tiny moment of joy, they then feel guilty for having this positive feeling. Ask yourself if you are remembering this person as a legacy of pain or for the joy he or she brought into your life.
  • If you want to forgive yourself, understand that guilt is all about intention. Is there a bone in your body that truly wished or intended for something bad to happy to your loved one? If not, then why are you feeling guilty, as though you intended for this loss to occur? We are not omniscient — we cannot foresee every tragic event that befalls us or our loved ones. Thinking you should have predicted and changed a course of events is just another way to prolong your pain. We must all accept our human limitations.
  • Finally, know that grieving the loss of a loved one isn’t something that has to be done alone. Talk to a friend or another family member who also might be grieving. If you find that the grieving is impeding your life, seek assistance from a professional who can help you work through the process without it’s continuing to control your life and/or the lives of people closest to you.

Erin Barone is a social worker with Family Centers, one of Fairfield County’s largest providers of human services, counseling, health and education programs. With offices in Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan, CT, Family Centers is a United Way, Community Fund of Darien and New Canaan Community Foundation partner agency that offers counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. Family Centers is also affiliated with the Community Fund of Darien. For information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.

Photo by Karen Keller Capuciati.

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