For many people, there may well be a feeling of guilt surrounding the death of a loved one. These feelings are usually accompanied by the thought “If only I had …” Guilt is almost always a negative emotion that can eat away and prevent us moving forward. The most important thing to do with guilt is to test it to see whether the facts justify the feeling. Quite often a friend, relative or someone who really knows you well will be more objective – so explain your feelings and ask them to help.
Most people will eventually come to an understanding that there are few real reasons to be guilty. For the small number where guilt may be legitimate, confession and forgiveness is the key. We need to forgive ourselves – although it may not be easy and will take time.
Anger may be another strong emotion that many experience. Perhaps anger is directed at others – the medical profession, the other driver, at God for ‘letting it happen’ – or perhaps we’re just angry at losing our hopes and dreams for the future. These feelings are natural and understandable, but can get in the way of our being able to move forward if we don’t recognise and deal with them.
There are three main ways of responding to anger in grief:
- Suppression of our anger is something we can do, sometimes unconsciously. It happens when we feel we ‘shouldn’t be angry’, so we deny the very feelings that can be eating us up on the inside and don’t admit to ourselves or to others what is going on. Suppression is not helpful and can lead to ill-health and other emotional problems.
- Expression, where we express our anger loudly and persistently, can certainly give some short-term relief. But unfortunately, it doesn’t usually lead to long-term resolution and can result in relations with those supporting us becoming strained.
- Confession of our anger (to ourselves and others) gives us the opportunity to decide how to handle it. Forgiveness may again be a hard, but important route to explore. As George Herbert said: “He who refuses to forgive breaks down the bridge that he himself must cross.”
For many, feelings of despair and utter loneliness will fill our lives. We are feeling the pain of our loss – heartache is a real physical response to an emotion. For most, these are natural feelings that time will heal, so accept them as such and don’t fight them. Try to ‘ride the wave’. It won’t be easy. It may be a long way to the shore and you will feel as though you are drowning at times – but calmer waters will eventually come.
Seeds of hope
You are going through some of the most traumatic times anyone can face, so if you can, take time out to be kind to yourself – you’re worth it! Don’t be afraid to ask for the help you need. Many people will be only too happy to help out and some will give you emotional as well as practical support.
Believe it or not, from the very early days of bereavement, there will be seeds of hope. The danger is that we may miss them because there seems to be so much darkness. Light can come from dark, good can come from bad, the future can still hold hope – not, perhaps, the hope we once had, but a new, different hope and a different journey. Take care to look for the seeds of hope. Water them, nurture them, and begin to re-invest in the future.
Pointers on dealing with emotions
- Accept and recognise your emotions – they’re neither right nor wrong; they’re just the way you feel.
- Confront guilt – is it real or imagined?
- Confess real guilt and anger to yourself and others.
- As far as it is possible, forgive yourself and others.
- ‘Ride the wave’ of despair and loneliness – it will pass.
- Treat yourself – you’re worth it!
- Ask for help; let others support you.
- Look for the seeds of hope and nurture them.