The Side of Grief That Nobody Talks About
Grief. No one likes it and no one wants it.
But sadly, it’s a near-universal experience. It’s difficult to get through your life without having to go through some amount of grief.
Much has been written about how grief works, the most well-known being, of course, the writings of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the world-renowned Swiss psychiatrist who identified the 5 Stages of Grief which have comforted and validated legions of people by explaining the seemingly inexplicable feelings and stages that grieving people move through and share.
But right now I want to talk about a different aspect of grief that I see in an extraordinarily large percentage of people who lose someone. It’s not a stage of grief; in fact, it can be so ubiquitous that it’s not something people move through very well even if they are an emotionally healthy person.
Guilt is not a feeling that’s usually associated with grief, even though I observe that it’s very, very common, verging on being ubiquitous.
Since most folks don’t realize that guilt is a common and somewhat natural part of grief, they assume that their own personal guilt feelings must mean that they are guilty of something. To them, their guilt seems true and important.
But, from what I have seen, it’s usually neither true nor important, it’s just a feeling most people get when they lose someone close to them.
Why Guilt and Grief Go Together
- Grief is a powerful emotional experience that fully engages the brain and the body. Grief is, essentially, the body’s attempt to absorb a shock (all deaths are a shock even when you know they are coming). Grief is like a combination of an earthquake and a hurricane both occurring together. In your body, all systems are activated and you are likely to feel many different feelings so it’s not surprising that guilt would be one of them.
- The death of a person, being the cataclysmic event described above, is an occurrence that carries great gravity. When we lose someone, it is natural to re-evaluate not only what they meant to us, but also our relationship with them. We begin to ask questions about our role in their life and in their death.
- Grief causes us to question ourselves. Was I there enough for them? Did I show enough care, love, concern? Did I miss their last phone call? What if I had done something just slightly differently, would they have felt better or lived longer? Could I have saved them? Could I have made them happier when they were alive? Does my secret wish for them to finally be relieved of their pain make me a bad person? These questions, plus many more variations on them, are ones that I have heard countless, blameless people torture themselves with after losing a loved one.
Are Some People More Prone To Guilty Grief?
Yes, most definitely. Although I have seen that most people are vulnerable to guilty grief, there is a large segment of the population who are far more prone to it and can get more hung up on it.
These are the ones who have a general tendency to take excessive responsibility for things, too often blaming themselves for events and situations outside of their control.
They are usually folks who have a tendency to be hard on themselves and are perhaps even highly self-critical. If you are prone to self-blame and self-criticism, you can get stuck in your guilt instead of moving through it as others would.
And, even if you are not a self-blame prone person you can end up experiencing more discomfort than is necessary. When you are already suffering from a loss, why suffer more than is absolutely necessary?
What’s The Solution?
An Ounce of Awareness + A Dose of Reality
As an expert on how Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN affects adults I work constantly with people who are out of touch with, and unaware of, their own feelings. So, I find myself saying to multiple people almost every single day, “Pay attention to what you are feeling. It matters!”
- The way you treat your feelings makes a big difference in how you experience and move through your grief. So, when it comes to grieving, it is extremely helpful to allow yourself to feel it. Yes, it hurts, and I know you want to escape it. But the more you escape it the more it lingers. It’s a sad fact but a true one.
- As you make an effort to feel your feelings, pay special attention to guilt. Watch for it so that you can be aware of when you are feeling it. Being aware of a feeling is half the battle because awareness allows you to manage it.
- Actively manage your guilt feelings — yes, you can do that — by tempering them with a dose of reality. I invite you to think about it this way. Wouldn’t we all behave differently if we knew the future? It’s simple. Yes, we would. This is a very important fact because some of your guilt is only happening because of your current ability to observe the past. “If only,” “I should have,” and “I shouldn’t have,” are all based on hindsight. Like the proverbial quarterback on Monday morning, everything looks different after an event than it does while you were living it.
Take This Forward
Truth be told, most people, whether they are grieving or prone to self-blame or not would benefit from following the steps above. I say this for two reasons: first, far too many people are not aware enough of their own feelings to manage them as effectively as they could. And second, guilt is a feeling that occurs the most to the people who deserve it the least. And useless guilt is draining and, well, useless.
Learn about why Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is hard to remember but so impactful and why it makes people prone to self-blame, guilt, and shame in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To find out if you grew up with CEN Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.