How Do We Stop the Guilt?

Jeannie Brenner shares her personal story about the death of her husband and how she handled her grief and the guilt she felt. She explains how you have to acknowledge your guilt and allow yourself to work through it in order to come out on the other side of your grief. She shares how she learned to forgiver herself and so can you.

by Jeannie Brenner

“Jeannine…..Jeannine!”  I heard my husband’s aggravated voice.  I was about to loose my companion of almost 50 years, but I continued to sit silently in the hospice lounge, praying for strength to answer his call.  His impending death and the strain of the last weeks was taking its toll.  I felt helpless and inadequate; wanting desperately to bring comfort to the one I loved, but all my proper bedside words did little to console him.  He was not ready to give up the familiar life he knew, and he was expecting me to somehow work a miracle that would change the ending.  He believed that if I tried, I could reverse what was happening.  How I wished I had that power! 

But death was close, and drugs were clouding his mind, leaving him angry and confused.  As an ordained minister who has sat with many families at the end of life, I should have been able to offer words of hope and comfort, but any reference to a spiritual hope only seemed to create more anxiety.  He had fought so hard for 5 years to regain control over his life after a major stroke had severely crippled him mentally and physically.  Now giving up the battle was more than his bewildered mind could grasp.  It was heart breaking and frustrating for both of us.  I was exhausted, and it was only after his third call that I got up to slowly return to his side. 

In the days since his death I have asked myself repeatedly, “How could I have been so callous?  Why did I not respond more quickly?  Shouldn’t my love have given me the patience to endure his emotional turmoil during his last days of life?  I so wanted to be able to have one last memorable conversation, to express my love and my hope for a time when we would be together again, but any allusions to the fact that life was coming to an end only seemed to cause him more apprehension.  And so his last conscious moments passed, and likewise the opportunity to share what was in my heart and what our life together had meant.     

When a loved one dies, I believe that one of the most common emotions accompanying our grief is guilt.  All too often there are regrets - things that we wish could have been different.  We may say if only I had stayed home that day, or if only we had gone to the emergency room sooner, if only we had not quarreled the night before.  These regrets hang over us like a dark thunder cloud.  They are a burden that we can not cast off.  We want to change what we did or did not do, but it is too late.  The past is truly past and we can not turn back the clock.  But we are not willing to accept this fact and so we brow beat ourselves endlessly.  We feel we must exact punishment by incessantly reliving our failures.  Hoping for some relief or to hear words that will free us free from the guilt, we find it necessary to repeat our miserable failings again and again.  We pray the same prayer of confession a thousand times.  But we find no release from the heavy weight that follows us. 

Why is it so impossible to let go of our own guilt and remorse?  As gracious and loving individuals we have no problem telling others they should forgive themselves?  We offer logical excuses for their failures.  We remind them that no one is perfect and all of us make mistakes.  We comfort them with the assurance that God is merciful and ever ready to pardon all who ask.  We may even quote words of Scripture promising that when we admit our wrongs, we are forgiven.  We describe their self-reproach as pseudo-guilt, or false guilt, one for which there is no good reason.  But in spite of our reasonableness with others, when dealing with our own failings, we refuse to accept our humanness.  We can not let go of our guilt and forgive ourselves.  Why?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that we have a special set of rules for our own life.  While we may be lenient and forgiving with others, our rules do not allow for the same kindness to our self.  We believe that a price must be paid, and so we go about exacting that price with self-condemnation as an act of retribution.  If this is so, maybe the initial question we should ask is what do we mean by forgiveness?  What do we believe must be done to show forgiveness?  First of all, true forgiveness means there is no penalty to be paid.  The slate is wiped clean.  The wrong-doer is released completely from any guilt and also from any memory of the wrong.  When we totally forgive we are no longer going to try to get even, nor are we going to do anything to make the wrongdoer look bad to others.  We are not going to share what we know about his or her wrong in anyway that will impeach his good standing, and we are not going to let any reminders of the failure slip from our lips.  This may not be easy, but it is the only way for there to be complete forgiveness.

Now, if this is how we believe we should forgive others, then why can’t we do the same for our self?  Why do we think that we have to continue to chastise our self for failures which are in the past and which we can not do a thing about now?  And, why do we find it necessary to tear down our own good-standing with others and blemish our character by randomly repeating our “sins” to anyone willing to listen?  Such indiscriminate sharing will profit no one.  While it may be therapeutic to acknowledge wrong, having done this, it is not necessary to impeach one’s reputation by aimlessly relating our faults to anyone willing to listen.  Do we think it is showing forgiveness when we tear down someone else’s character? 

Yes!  I wish I could have better met my husband’s needs during his last days.  I wish I had had more patience with his limitation.  I wish I could have brought him comfort.  However, I have no doubt of his total forgiveness to me.  I also fully believe that there is a God who is gracious and merciful, who loves unconditionally and is ever ready to pardon all who come to him.  Therefore, if this is so, then it is time for me to accept the forgiveness that is mine and in like manner to release myself from the burden of my own guilt.  That means that rehashing those things I wish could be changed must cease, both verbally and in my mind.  It means that as these thoughts surface, and surface they will, there must be a conscious effort to replace them with happier memories.  The road through grief is a journey, but our remorse will only be a stumbling block to recovery.  It is on the good and treasured memories that we must fix our minds, for it is these thoughts that will eventually bring the healing we are trying to find, and we will then be able to dream and hope again.


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