Grieving and healing after the loss of a child is mass confusion filled with conflicting feelings and experiences. One thing that complicates healing from child loss is guilt. Through both my personal journey and my experience as a professional counselor, I have witnessed guilt seep in as the pain starts to change. Managing guilt for healing after the loss of a child is no small feat.
Agony filled the days immediately after the death of my son. I spent every waking moment consumed by sadness. After a while, the intense agony began to slightly fade. That’s when the overwhelming guilt knocked me over.
How could I be feeling better? I hadn’t expected this. My life was forever changed. I knew that much. And because of that, I expected to be living in the dark bellows of grief that I had grown accustomed to.
I did not expect that as I started healing and processing his death that I would have moments of peace.
I wasn’t happy, but I also wasn’t suffering as deeply. This made me feel really guilty. How on earth could I not be suffering? Did this mean that I didn’t love him, that I didn’t miss him? I now know I felt guilty because I misinterpreted my lack of torment to mean I wasn’t hurting.
In my work as a professional counselor, I often talk to people about the misconception that two seemingly contradictory emotions cannot exist together. This creates a whole host of issues, especially in grief. One of the side effects of this is guilt, which can lead to resistance to the healing process, and thus long-term suffering.
It’s hard to imagine that we can feel content or peaceful after the loss of a child. In grief, love is connected to pain. The pain becomes comforting because that’s how we know we love them. At least that’s been my experience.
As the intense pain begins to change, we may resist it since we have connected the agony with the love we hold for our child(ren). If we are no longer suffering does that mean we have ‘gotten over it’?
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We have the capacity to hold two seemingly contradictory emotions at the same time. We can experience both happiness and pain at the same moment.
Fast-forward five years after the loss of my first child and I would say I am at peace with my life. But I also live each moment of it in pain that my son is not here.
As I watch my two living children play, I am happy but also sad that Parker is not playing with them. When my son talks about the brother that ‘lives in his heart,’ I feel joy because he talks about his brother. At the same time, I experience sadness that he will never know him.
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I still feel guilt.
Guilty that I feel happy and fulfilled. I get swept up in guilt when my living children occupy more of my time. I feel guilty, but I also feel sad and content. Life after the loss of a child is an ever-changing experience of mixed emotions.
When the guilt creeps in, I pause. I remind myself that my happiness does not replace the pain that I feel because of my loss. I tell myself that just as other parents of multiple children, sometimes one child needs more attention. That doesn’t change because one or more of them are no longer living.
Sometimes Parker consumes my thoughts and I cannot give my living children my full attention. Other times, my living children are at the forefront. That does not mean that I love one more than the other. It means I have three children and that I love them all.
Feeling guilty for healing after the loss of a child is common, but it does not mean that you miss or love your child any less.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Kelly is owner and therapist at Evolve Counseling, LLC and proud mother to three children, including her son, Parker who was stillborn at 24 weeks gestation. At Evolve Counseling, LLC she provides counseling services to individuals and families healing after infant and pregnancy loss.