Overcoming Guilt During Grief

I’ve written before in this space often about the death of my husband. You don’t know how you will feel or if you will feel again when you are dealing with it. When he was diagnosed and dealing with his cancer, I had so many selfish moments when I look back on it. I did the best I could in managing to take care of him as well as our daughter. People would tell me how proud they were of me for being so brave and taking care of him, which in the ends just contributes to that feeling of guilt.

But if I look back on it, there’s nothing unselfish in my actions. I fought every day to help keep him alive by researching what I could and finding clinical trials for him. Everyone thought it was for him, but it was for me. It was selfishly for me. I loved this man so very much and I loved my daughter but I remember sitting in the hospital during his initial recovery from surgery thinking “what in the heck am I could to do now?”

He had this usually good attitude about planning to fight the cancer and do everything he could. And he did. But I lived with the guilt of wondering if I did enough. Was I really that selfish? Did I cook the right foods for him? Did I say the right prayers? Did I take him to the doctor enough or did I pawn him off on his friends because I just didn’t want to face the reality that day? Did he die feeling loved enough? My list of self-doubt and questions could be endless.

Survivor guilt can take on lots of forms and is real. You hear in grief counseling people talking about the stages of death and recovering from losing a loved one and moving forward after they die. But guilt is one that needs a lot of focus because it is real and exists. There are people who lose others every day, some tragically and others by natural causes.

Often in our current age, we find ourselves not usually having to take care of a dying spouse, but rather our aging parents. I remember watching my mother care of my grandmother who was dying and had Alzheimer’s disease. She would cry as if she could change the outcome by doing something different. Did she make the wrong decisions in the hospital? Should she have hired a private nurse instead of the nursing home? Should she have given up her life to move in and take care of her? I should use this as my daily example and point of reference, but that’s not easy to remember during grief.

If you find yourself in this situation, counseling is so important. This line is the most important one of this whole blog. Find a counseling group, or an individual. You don’t have to have money to do this either, if you are broke – there are free resources. There are insurance programs, church programs and hospice programs, no one will be denied the mental health assistance needed. Even seek the counsel of a trusted friend; ideally she will take on the role of finding you the help if needed as well.

There are other things I learned that are so important that I would love to share because this survivor’s guilt can tear people up to the point of having it overcome your own happiness.

Here’s a few of the things I’ve learned along the way:

  1. Get a good night’s sleep often. You have to be strict with yourself about going to bed and waking up to create a sleep rhythm. Everything seems ok after a good night’s sleep, even if it is only temporary. Eventually it becomes a habit.

  2. Know that grief is ok and normal --take care of your self, mentally as well as physically.

  3. Eat, make sure a healthy diet is something you strive for and avoid substance abuse; it doesn’t help the pain permanently. It simply masks the current pain. Get to a dr. if you need help even temporarily…. there is no shame in grief.

  4. Talk, write, paint, sing or dance – whatever creative expression allows you to get those feelings out of your mind alone.

  5. Avoid sad songs. I need to do a shout out to my very good friend Christina specifically. She got in my car one time and said “well no wonder you are sad, you are listening to Norah Jones, turn this off.” She taught me a valuable lesson that day about music. It sets the tone literally in every situation so crank up some happy tunes.

I’m not going to lie, time doesn’t heal all wounds but it does give you time to work on you and the pain gets a little bit less as time goes by. What I mostly found that works for me during the times when I feel guilt of wondering if I did enough or the right things is to actually try my hardest to live a life worth celebrating and living daily. If the roles were reversed and my husband was left the widower, I wouldn’t want him to live in self-pity or guilt. I would want him to find joy in our daughter and to find someone who would cherish him for all that wonderfulness of him (as long as I was way hotter and they kept a picture of me hanging above the fireplace, haha). I know for a fact that he wanted the same for me, I just have to frequently remind myself of that when I get down. Yes, there are times I’m sad and I think of him every day. But I work through the guilt of being the one who gets to live my life and be the best that I can be for the both of us. You can appreciate life at the same time you grieve; it’s ok to give yourself that grace. Embrace the life you have, if anything even more because you know how fleeting time is and make sure to do your best to live it to the fullest.

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