Monday, June 6, 2011

The Guilt

It wasn't your fault.  There's nothing you could have done to change what happened.  You couldn't have known.  Don't blame yourself.  You have no reason to feel guilty.  I heard all of these repeatedly from family, friends, and counselors during the days and weeks following Eddie's death.  I knew in my head they were right.  Common sense told me I didn't have the power to control what happened.  But my heart wasn't listening.  My heart told me I knew Eddie better than anyone so I should have seen this coming.  I had lived with him for over 25 years.  I knew he was an alcoholic.  I knew he was depressed.  I should have known what he was planning.  I should have been able to do or say something to prevent what happened.  I should have gone with him that evening.  I should have insisted he come home when we talked on the phone.  I should have gone out looking for him like I usually did.  If only ...  I should have ... Why didn't I ...

Whereas anger, if expressed appropriately, is a positive emotion during grief, guilt serves no purpose at all.  It is a natural emotion following a death, particularly an unexpected tragic one, but it doesn't help you recover from the loss.  Guilt can occur for many reasons ... regret over things that weren't said or done; unresolved feelings; a need to take responsibility for the death; the belief that it's more acceptable to blame our self than the one who died; the need to take control and make sense out of what happened.  During the grieving process, our thoughts are not very realistic, so it's easy to get caught up in blaming our self for the death.  For a time we may actually believe that we had the ability to change the past, to alter the course of events that led to the death.  We may even feel guilty that we are alive and our loved one isn't.  Guilt results from our hurt and anger.  If it's just a passing emotion, it's not detrimental to the healing process.  "It is a great grace of God to practice self examination; but too much is as bad as too little." (Teresa of Avila)

If you can't let go of the guilt though, it prevents you from moving forward.  I know because that's what happened to me.  I not only blamed myself for Eddie's death, I blamed myself for not being able to help him overcome his drinking problem.  Through my counseling I realized that my guilt went way back to a time long before Eddie died.  I loved Eddie; I supported him; I helped him; I encouraged him; I stayed with him through the good and the bad - but he never stopped drinking.  In my mind there must have been more I could have done.  I failed at helping him, and I felt guilty about that.  I had to work through that guilt before I could even attempt to get through the guilt I felt about his death. 

I had been to AA meetings, group sessions, and counseling sessions.  I had read all of the books on alcoholism.  I even spent five days in a rehab facility with Eddie.  So I knew all of the things about living with an alcoholic - drinking is their choice; nothing you say or do will make them stop; you can't love them into not drinking; you can't guilt them into not drinking; what they do is beyond your control.  Despite hearing, reading, and experiencing all of that for years, I still felt like I could/should have done more.

It has been over two years, and I sometimes still struggle with the guilt.  When I least expect it and for no apparent reason, the questions will suddenly pop back into my mind.  I start to ask myself again why didn't I, what if I had, shouldn't I have done this, couldn't I have changed things?  If I let myself dwell on it, the guilt will begin to take over again.  I have to push it from my mind, refuse to listen to the questions, and force myself to concentrate on something else.  I can't tell anyone how to get past these feelings of guilt.  I can only tell you that you have to, because if you don't they will eventually destroy you.  It may take counseling, prayer, constant reminders from family and friends, reading, meditating, repeating phrases to yourself (It wasn't my fault; I did everything I could; It was out of my hands).  Whatever it takes, you have to find it, do it, and stick with it until you are able to forgive yourself for what you think you did or didn't do.  Only then can you continue to move forward in the grieving process. 
"My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear." Psalm 38:4

"Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regrets, but worldly sorrow brings death." 2Corinthians 7:10

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