Guilt. It is that awful feeling that creeps up in dark moments – shows up unannounced, and with no true purpose, other than to torture with a million different “what ifs”. It has a sneaky way of allowing self-doubt to taunt me. Guilt has forced me re-play the events leading up to my husband’s death, and has made me feel somewhat responsible. “How did I not know he had a heart condition? How did I not see it sooner? How could I have prevented his heart problem?”
Yes, guilt is a tricky thing, a sneaky and opportunistic emotion that rears its ugly head any chance it gets. But, is “guilt” a four letter word? Is it wrong to momentarily listen to what guilt has to say? The lies it likes to tell us when we are vulnerable? Or, are we better off suppressing feelings of guilt? Maybe calling it by a different name? Regret, perhaps?
In the last year or so, I have seen some social media accounts describing the user as “life coach” or “grief recovery coach” or “grief specialists”, all with different experiences in grief. What has been surprising to me is the tolerance, and sometimes intolerance of the word “guilt”. While some have seemingly accepted it as a natural, almost inevitable part of their grief journey, others appear to wave a finger in disagreement to the people who use the word “guilt” in describing part of the grief process. So, is “guilt” a bad word?
I read somewhere online, where a grief coach commented on a post saying that “guilt” is an unhelpful and inaccurate word because it causes a person to feel unnecessary judgement and distress. She also said that the words this user should be using were “remorse” or “regret” and that these words were more appropriate.
Although I think I understand the reason behind moving away from the negative connotations that “guilt” implies, I am not sure I understand the concept of telling a grieving individual how to feel. Is there a fine line between helping someone navigate the complexities of grief, and telling the person what to feel? If everyone’s grief journey is different, aren’t the words one finds to describe emotions just as unique as the trauma one has experienced? Is there a difference between advising and directing someone in their grief journey?
Because everyone’s journey is so different, I can only speak of my own experience. For the first several months after my husband’s death, I tried to suppress the overwhelming feelings of guilt. Guilt for many things: guilt because even though I wanted to help him, I did not know how to, so I felt partially responsible. I felt guilt that I survived him. For weeks after his passing, I felt guilt for even the smallest moments of joy or laughter. How did I dare laugh at a joke, when Adrian’s laughter would never be heard again? Guilt was difficult to deal with, so a tried to call it something else, tried to suppress it. The problem with suppressing my emotions was that I was beginning to pay a price in terms of my health. I developed insomnia and anxiety, which landed me in the ER a handful of times.
Two years have gone by since my husband’s death. It has been a challenging and difficult journey, but I concluded, some time ago that the best thing to do was to allow myself to feel and ride out the emotions of grief. It sounds counterproductive to allow oneself to “be sad”. However, it was incredibly important to me, because I realized that when I allowed it, I began to understand myself a little better. When I began to identify my feelings, and verbalize my thoughts, I found a sense of freedom. It has taken me a long time to get to a place where I can accept my grief, because now that I am finally able to say aloud why I think I fell short the night Adrian passed away, I can accept how silly this sounds. I carried guilt with me for so long because in not knowing how to help Adrian, I felt helpless. In my helplessness, I felt hopeless. So in my journey, understanding and accepting my irrational feelings of “guilt” was, and still is extremely important. Because no other word (not even “regret” or “remorse”) comes even close to describing the battle within myself – and how far it has brought me.
Guilt is sneaky, and although it isn’t for everyone, I’m glad it stuck around for a while. Because “guilt” has demanded I evolve. I no longer feel a need to torture myself with “what if”. My “guilt” has also been compassionate. It has allowed me to forgive myself, and it has encouraged me to let go of the things that were out of my control. If given the choice, I would have given my own life to save Adrian’s. And I would give anything to bring him back to me now. But I cannot, so for now, I look forward to when he visits me in my dreams. My heart is at peace with that. And I know that wherever my husband is now, his heart is at peace with that too.