One of the most torturous aspects of grieving is the change in the way we view past events. Revelations, insights, and traumatizing guilt - true or not - can haunt a survivor for years. These may come in sudden flashes at the beginning or be discovered along the grief journey, but they are part of the process. Separating what is from what might have been is one of the primary tasks of grief. To help you deal with blame and regret, I have listed below some of the most common reactions after loss and ways to handle them.
- Why didn't I see this coming? Whether you knew your loved one was suffering or not, there are bound to be questions like this in the aftermath of loss. The moments or days before death, older memories that now jump out in your mind like warning signs, common sense connections visible only when it is too late to change things, new information … all add to the burden you carry now. Like rocks in a backpack, they can weigh you down with self-blame, negativity, guilt, and regret, but you do not have to carry them forever. It helps to talk about them with others who understand or with a mental health professional. It helps to remind yourself they are the products, chiefly, of regret that the loss happened. You did not want this to happen. Truthfully, we often think we have more control over situations and other people than we do. Working through grief will lead you to a place where regret is a more healthy emotion. You can learn to check your thoughts and direct them.
- Shame. Guilt may lead to shame. Examine who you were, who you are now, and who you want to become as you work through thoughts that loop back on themselves over and over. Understand that this is not a "one-and-done" step. Rephrase your thoughts ("I'm feeling not self-blame but regret for the life we could have had if he had been able to get well."). Work toward forgiving yourself and your loved one. Reinforce your work with meaningful quotes from others.
- Why didn't I know what was going on? This is a different question from the above. Even those closest to you might hide something, either things they are doing in their lives or how they are coping. Sometimes, especially in the cases of mental illness, they are not aware themselves of what is happening to them or why, or they may not want to be a burden to others though we who are left would not feel that way. Normally, we live our lives not thinking of dying or losing those we love though we know it is possible at any moment. We are only human and cannot know or handle everything.
- I feel hollow, numb, but others tell me I need to let go and resume my life instead of being selfish. Loss takes us out of our normal state. First, shock and then grief plunge us into a place where former joy and happiness seem forever lost. This comes from feeling pain like we have never felt before. Each must find his or her own way, no matter what time that takes. It is not selfish to grieve; it is a marker of love. Recovery is possibly, but life has changed. To rebuild takes courage, support, and work, but healing happens. Be patient. Keep going. The pain will fade, but you do not have to let go of the love you shared. Hold on and ask others to understand. You will find your way.
- Why me? Why my loved one? Mourning is soul-shredding work. But in the processing is relief and, more importantly, a deeper understanding of life, love, and compassion. What is often found is a desire to make meaning from the loss, a drive to go forward to live a life that is worthy and one that honors those who were lost. Their lives mattered. You matter. Now, their legacy is in your hands. Will you find ways to help others in their name? If you do, you will also be helping yourself heal. Try to stay in the moment as much as possible rather than dwelling on the past or fearing the future.
- Acceptance. This is not a destination but a recognition of events and a turn toward healing. Like everything else, it comes in tiny steps. Your brain knows what happened, but your heart doesn't understand. Search for those people, things, and activities that bring you moments of peace. Think through whatever you face each day. Encourage yourself to move, physically and mentally.
- Remember, you are not alone. You can do this. Reach out for support and keep in mind that not everything you hear, think, or feel is true.