There are so many aspects to grieving that derail the grief process. One such emotion is guilt. We all experience it when our child dies; however, if we hold onto that guilt, it will sabotage our grief journey and our life. As parents our job is to protect our children and make decisions that will ensure their safety. This is why when one child dies, for whatever reason, a parent questions what could have been done differently. Depending on the circumstances of a child’s death, this guilt can be consuming and can often lead to very complex emotions.
While grief guilt is a common reaction, it is something we need to explore and examine. So many times, we have unrealistic grief and blaming only intensifies our grief.
Often as grieving parents, we analyze our child’s death and question how we could have changed the events. This is when we somehow feel responsible because of something we did, or failed to do, for our child or loved one. Lauren was murdered at the hands of someone else, yet I experienced guilt for not being with her. I left town to help my ailing mother.
While I was gone, Lauren went running in our neighborhood park and there she met her attacker. Intrusive thoughts of “if I had stayed in town” Lauren would still be alive. We had planned to go clothes shopping for her once I got back so what if we were shopping instead of her running? What if our normal activities had prevented her from running that day? Even though my thoughts were not really rational, I felt guilt.
Other parents have expressed their guilt for the choices they made. A child that had cancer didn’t go to a different hospital or receive alternative treatment. A parent that did not check on their addicted adult child or the parent that found their child and attempted CPR to no avail. Or the parent that did not make a phone call before their child died by suicide. Another gave their teen a car for their birthday and then she dies a week later from a car wreck. The list goes on and on of how we can pile on the wasted guilt. Yes, all these deaths are tragic; however, blame serves no purpose.
Accidents often create guilt for parents. Over the years, I have known several parents that were involved in an accident with their child. Parents relive each detail of the event leading up and analyze what they could have done differently. In one such accident, a fellow parent was driving while their small child was sitting in their car seat in the back.
Moments before a rear end collision, she saw a large truck barreling down on her while she went into an emergency stop. She questioned if she had seen it moments earlier, could she have swerved out of the way? Or what if she had reacted sooner? Over and over these thoughts sabotaged this mom’s ability to progress through grief.
Other accidents involve drowning. A child accidentally getting into the backyard and the overwhelming guilt is just too much to process. While accidents do happen, self-blame can be extremely difficult to overcome without professional help. Even if some thought of guilt may be valid, the only means to move forward is to acknowledge what happened, and ultimately forgive yourself. Giving yourself grace, God’s grace, is essential in forgiving yourself.
Survival guilt is extremely common. This is when someone feels guilty for living instead of the person that died. It sneaks into your mind and soul and can reside there over time if you allow it. This is something I needed help with. Of course, Lauren could run faster, she was stronger, and her endurance was heads above mine That is why we would often start running together but would go our separate ways and meet up at a later point. I had a recurring dream, and, in this dream, Lauren and I were running together side by side.
As we turned in the path where her attacker waited, Lauren pulled away from me. No matter how hard I pushed, I could not catch her. I started screaming for her to slow down and allow me to pass her. I wanted to die instead of her. I wanted it to be me… not her.
Especially if a child dies, a parent will wish it were them. This overwhelming feeling that it should have been them instead of their child can damage the ability to move forward in grief. We may need help to move away from this guilt and face that what happened was out of our control.
Moral guilt believes the loss is some sort of punishment for their actions. If we hadn’t done this or that sin or had been a better person, this would not have happened. What occurred is our punishment. While this is not rational, it can also creep into our thoughts. Maybe if we were kinder, or attended church more, the death wouldn’t have happened. To me, this is so sad. The fact is, everyone sins, and has fallen short. Plus, we are forgiven by faith and grace not by deeds.
Guilt is a normal response to grief; however, if unleased guilt takes hold, it will derail and sabotage our grief journey. While we may need to own our own truths, we must be freed from guilt. Give yourself grace as you would give to your child and as God gives to us all. Be kind and gentle with your already aching heart. Give yourself the gift of forgiving yourself.