A close friend’s son went off to university and in a far away city he was mugged. My friend’s primary emotion? Guilt! There was no rational reason for this sense of guilt, no logic or justification – only that it was his son and he felt that he should have been there.When you become a father, no-one gives you a training manual or a helpline. There’s no job description or qualification, but surely keeping your child alive is the most important task of all.
In 2003, my beautiful son Ben died … I failed. I know that it was an accident, but that didn’t take away my sense of guilt – my sense of failure. We were on holiday and he tripped and fell. Ben, who was given the nickname ‘Mr Reliable’ by his football coach as he was so sure-footed, slipped at just the wrong place – and a gentle family walk in the French Alps turned into a nightmare. It didn’t matter how many times I was told that it was an accident – I was his Dad and it was my job to keep him safe. Just a few yards behind, but powerless to prevent it. How could I go home without Ben? How could I face his grandparents when I’d taken three of their grandchildren away on holiday but only brought two back? How could I go back to school in my role as a teacher and take responsibility for other people’s children? I’d failed to keep my own son safe, so who could possibly trust me with theirs?
Guilt should be a good thing. It’s a God-given emotion that helps us recognise when we’ve gone wrong and prompts us to do something about it. But what if you don’t know if you’ve done anything wrong – and even if you have, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it? Then guilt can become destructive. It can paralyse us and complicate the normal grieving process. As a Christian, I should know all about forgiveness. I know the depth of God’s love and forgiveness to me and I know that I need to forgive others … it’s in the Lord’s Prayer after all! But it doesn’t make it easy – and sometimes it’s hardest to forgive yourself. It’s sometimes harder to be kind to yourself than it is to others.I came to learn that forgiveness is not an emotion – it’s a decision. I don’t forgive because I manage my emotions in some way, but because I choose not to punish the person who I think has wronged me. I choose not to even up the score.
In the end I decided to trust God’s view of myself, rather than my own. Ben was my son and I loved him beyond reason. I’m God’s son and He loves me in the same way – actually my love for Ben is just a pale reflection of His love for me. He has forgiven me, how dare I do anything less? It’s been ten years since Ben died and the ‘if only’ feelings have never really gone away; it takes very little to bring those raw emotions back to the surface, but now without the overpowering sense of guilt. I can honestly say that life has become good again; a new normal has been established – and with it laughter, contentment and satisfaction. God is good, God forgives and God heals.
David and his wife Jane are Befrienders with the Bereaved Parent Support team.