David describes how he felt after his son Ben died during a family holiday in France

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 the Bereaved Parent Support Coordinators for Care for the Family.

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