Grief with a Heaping Side of Guilt
It’s so easy to shut life out in the midst of deep grief. It’s so difficult, if not impossible at times, to let life in.
I remember the first time I laughed out loud after my son died. The onslaught of immediate guilt I felt shocked me more than the laugh itself. In that fleeting millisecond of joy, it felt like I had betrayed my son in the deepest way possible. Who was I to laugh, to smile, to feel joy? Who was I to keep breathing, and loving, while my son could not? Who was I to still be alive at all?
It has become easier to laugh since that first one escaped. Now each subsequent laugh feels like less of a betrayal, and more of a necessity, catapulting me to the other side of the river, where healing flows. Slowly, I have given myself permission to laugh more often, more freely, and now mostly, without guilt.
I’ve been told by those who probably know, that I suffer from complicated grief. And while I do agree that my grief does indeed feel very complicated, I’ve never really understood that term in relation to child loss. Regardless of cause of death, isn’t all grief that is caused by the loss of a child, and the fact that they died before us, complicated?!
Death certainly leaves more questions than answers. Honestly, I have yet to sort through all the discombobulating questions that I have. And if I ever do, I know most of my questions will remain unanswered on this side of the veil. Grief is complicated like that.
During my first few years of grief, two questions that perpetually gnawed at my soul were, where was God while my son was dying and why didn’t He save him? And closely related was the question, what kind of a loving God would allow such a horrible tragedy to happen? Yes, I know— these are the universal questions spawned from deep suffering, yet I needed to find my own answers to these questions that personally plagued me.
Of course Rilke had a brilliant point: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I’ve carried (and still carry, at times) immeasurable amounts of self-blame, guilt, and anger— at God and myself— for not being able to save my son from death. I’ve replayed it over and over and over again looking for that lucid moment when I should have realized, Yes. Here. This is the moment you could have changed fate.
Yet every time, I come to the same conclusion: There was no moment. No foretelling. No divine “tweet” saying, “Your son is about to die.” I did absolutely everything I possibly could have done. Everything anyone could have done. I am human— not Superwoman and I am certainly not God. I am simply a mother who fiercely loves my son beyond measure, and always will. A mother who would have done anything and everything to save my son’s life. A mother who did do everything humanly possible.
Still, that truth is not enough for me, most days. It’s not enough to relieve the pervasive lack of peace that shackles my heart and soul. It’s not enough to make the wrongness of child loss, right. So my mind continues its senseless self-torture: Surely, as his mother I should have been able to predict the future, change the events, and ultimately save his life. Surely, as his mother my love should have protected him from all harm. Surely, as his mother my pleading and begging and screaming for God to take me instead should have resulted in a miracle! Surely, as a mother I should have superhero powers up my mama sleeve to keep my children alive and well, and breathing at all times. Surely, as a mother I am now the biggest failure alive because he is dead.
The blame was like tar, coating my soul and paralyzing me from the inside out, until one day I realized that if God Himself couldn’t save my son, how could I? How could I have expected myself to be more powerful than God himself, when I am human— fallible— imperfect? How could I have changed the future, especially if He (obviously) didn’t?
Whenever I start going down the ‘what if…if only’ path of destruction, I try to remind myself of this one small fact: if I could have prevented it, I would have. Without question. Without hesitation. Period. Any loving parent would! That is how much and how fiercely we parents love our children— that we would, without thinking twice, die for them. Yes— we would risk death infinite times to keep them alive.
So, in light of the fact that I am not God and I have limitations, what if I could offer myself a different ‘what if’ to ruminate— what if I could let myself off the hook? Even just a little? What if, what if, I could offer myself just a smidgen of self-forgiveness, instead of the steady concoction of irrational blame on which I’ve been overdosing? What if I could offer myself unconditional love instead of this steady, self-administered IV drip of guilt and shame to which I am constantly attached?
What if I could forgive myself for whatever it is I think I should have or should not have done? What if for one small moment in time— what if for just this second, this minute, this hour, this day— I could say to myself and at least halfway mean it: “It’s not your fault. You did everything you possibly could have.”
If only it were that easy, right? Unfortunately, self-forgiveness is an on-going, arduous process— not a one-time event— and there is no magic formula to get from self-blame to self-forgiveness. For me it’s taken an immense amount of hard work, on-going therapy, and doing my best to accept exactly where I am at every stage of the process. Even if that means, today I am stuck in the pit of irrational blame and shame. Or, today I cannot even say the words, “It’s not my fault.” Or, today I cannot get out of bed.
I still struggle and fail at reaching a place of self-forgiveness all the time. Sometimes every day, even. Sometimes I say my line, and I don’t truly believe it at all. Yet I’ve found there is so much power and healing in simply saying it out loud. Even if I don’t believe it. Even if I think I won’t believe it ever. That alone can often times redirect my ‘what if-ing’ just enough to lighten my self-guilt, even the smallest morsel, if only momentarily. That alone can be enough to change my thought pattern to a slightly less self-deprecating one, even though in my heart I still might feel relentless blame and shame.
I am in no way saying this is at all easy to do. Make no mistake, it’s been a long, grueling process to arrive at this place where I am even able to speak of the word self-forgiveness, let alone write about it. I still struggle with blaming myself and sometimes become stuck there— for days or weeks at a time— and in those moments it feels like I’ll never overcome it.
The difference now is whenever I start heading down the other ‘what if’ path of self-destruction, I try to stop myself— by literally stopping the thought— which alone took me over four years of practice with very skilled therapists. It doesn’t erase the thoughts, but I’ve found that over time, the more I can stop myself from thinking them, the less power they have over me. Then I try to gently redirect myself by repeating this mantra as often as necessary:
What if for one small moment in time— what if for just this second, this minute, this hour, this day— I could say to myself and really mean it: “It’s not your fault. You did everything you possibly could have.”
My hope is that eventually, I’ll be able to say it and really believe it, with every part of me. And if that happens, then maybe, just maybe, I could slowly transform my “complicated grief” into something slightly less complicated, less torturous, less suffocating.
Yes, the unyielding pain of child loss will always remain— the aching, the missing, the grieving— but maybe, just maybe, instead of feeling quick sanded in survivor’s guilt, I’d feel just a little more free—
Free to simply miss him— miss us.
Free to simply grieve him— grieve us.
Free to simply love him— love us.
Free to simply long for him— long for us.
Free to simply breathe for him— breathe for us.
Free to simply live for him— live for us.
Free to simply love boldly—
in all the ways he did, in all the ways we did—
for him— for both of us.