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Guilt and Our What if’s….

When we hear on the news of senseless shootings or tragic accidents where innocent victims are killed, our first thoughts may be “why” or “how could this happen”; often followed with “what if”. What if I hadn’t let my teen go to that party, or what if. . .

Senseless tragedies are emotionally charged events that beg answers to our questions. But in the not-so-charged arena of life, we also ask questions of ourselves about our losses, especially the “what if’s” of our decisions that leave us with lingering doubts, guilt and anger.

Working through guilt

Guilt is an emotion that helps us correct behaviors. It indicates we have done something wrong and we need to make amends. Guilt along with shame helps us say we’re sorry. But when faced with an irretrievable loss, we may be plagued with a guilt that is misplaced, blown out of proportion or not even applicable to the situation.

What if I hadn’t put my wife in a nursing home, would she have died with family around her; what if I hadn’t said such hurtful things; what if my friend lived and I had died; what if I had realized the depth of his despair, would I have been able to prevent the suicide? What if. . . The list is endless.

Coming to terms with our loss means we come to terms with ourselves as human beings. If the guilt is appropriate to the event, such as driving drunk and hurting somebody, then guilt is an important precursor to turning your life around. Hanging on to guilt beyond its purpose, however, will not change the past and beating yourself up will not bring you peace. Forgiveness enables us to take positive action instead of remaining in a past we cannot change.

When we feel guilt disproportionate to any actions we may have taken, or because we couldn’t know the future, guilt can become toxic. Caring individuals often take more responsibility than is either appropriate or realistic for what is happening.

We cannot change the past; but we can change our responses. If you are feeling disproportionate guilt over a loss, ask yourself the following questions.

• Could I really have done something different?

• What information do I have today that I didn’t have back then?

• Am I taking responsibility for things that were out of my control?

• Am I trying to be responsible for other people’s actions?

• Is my guilt a way to ease some of the pain I feel without having to correct something?

• Is it keeping me from grieving my loss, letting go and moving forward?

Making sense of what happened often means coming to terms with what doesn’t make sense. Acceptance means we stop struggling for answers we may never get. Acceptance means we give ourselves permission to let go without answers.

While it is appropriate and necessary to question, sometimes all we can do is accept that we make mistakes, others make mistakes, accidents can be tragic and there may be no rhyme or reason to it. We can use our emotional responses to propel us forward in positive ways. In the end, however, acceptance is the realization we are human and live in a less than okay world.

 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

 

Stuck in Grief

Grief and loss can trigger a whole range of complex and sometimes conflicting emotions: anger and joy – sadness and happiness – guilt and relief. Some of the more intense emotions might provoke a barrage of questions: Is it normal to feel this way? And if it is, how do I deal with it.

While it is natural and normal to experience a whole range of emotions, how we respond to them may help or hinder our grief process.

If losses are connected to random acts of violence, accidents, suicide or any unreasonable death we may be left with questions of “why”, “what if” or “if only” followed by intense feelings of anger, confusion, guilt, anxiety, fear and remorse. In the death of a loved one, children often feel somehow that they were responsible and don’t know how to articulate that guilt.

Why? Why did it happen? Why did you allow it God? Why did he/she have to die? Why was I left behind? Why did I survive? Anger can devour us as we try to find answers to unanswerable questions.

 

While we need to ask our questions, at some point acceptance is required; there may not be any answers or the answers will be incomplete.

What if…… What if I had done something different, what if I hadn’t been so abrasive, what if I had insisted he go to the doctor earlier, what if I hadn’t let my teen drive my car that night, what if….

If only. . . . If only I hadn’t been so angry when she left that morning, if only I had told him how much I loved him, if only I had listened, if only I had tried harder, if only I had been there when he died. If only. . .

It is not uncommon to grieve the actions we might have taken or words we might have said or wish we could take back. The “if only’s” like the “what if’s” can keep us stuck in guilt. At such times we need to remind ourselves that it is always easier to look backward.

We do the best we can at any moment in time. While that is not an excuse for bad behavior, it is an awareness that even in making grievous mistakes, there is the need to acknowledge our humanness and offer forgiveness and grace. Otherwise we get stuck in a revolving and non-ending cycle of guilt, anger and pain

How? How will I make it? How will I be able to make a new life for myself? How will I manage? How will I ever be happy again? How will life have any meaning again?

Anxiety and fear motivate us to find solutions. But when we get stuck in the feelings, we are unable to take that next step into the unknown and risk trying new options.

Again, while we might not find answers to our questions, it is important to voice them. In the asking we are able to work through them to find a way to come to terms with them and lay them to rest.

When we become stuck in the unending stream of questions, what if’s, if only’s and why’s, our grief is extended. My next blogs will explore these further.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

How do you Grieve

Grieving requires work and our participation so we can heal.

Roller Coaster of Emotions

At a recent funeral I attended, upbeat music was played, favorite songs of the deceased sung and prepared comments read by family members left us laughing and smiling through our tears. I remembered the two memorial services held for my husband where for over an hour people spontaneously shared all the wonderful and humorous stories about him as we laughed and cried together. And that same celebration of life helped all of us mourn the untimely death of my son.

Funerals used to be somber and staid and we left feeling down and depressed. Perhaps we have learned it is better to celebrate a person’s life rather than simply mourn their demise.

When Grieving Begins

As many of us know, it is after the people have left, after friends and family resumes their lives that we truly begin to grieve. For it is then, on a day to day basis, when we are faced with putting the pieces together, coming to grips with our loss and its impact on our life. It is then the numbness wears off and we feel the depth of our sorrow. Some of us plunge into life as usual, hoping to quickly run away from pain – others retreat as energy is consumed in sorrow.

The emotions triggered by grief can go from the highs of celebration and remembrance down to the fathomless depths of despair. It takes time for “time” to do its thing – gradually shifting our focus from what was to what is now. When we are an active participant in that grieving process, our healing can be more complete. 

Our Roller Coaster of Emotions

The roller coaster emotions of grief can be triggered so quickly it literally takes our breath away. People have told me that long after a death, a smell, a sound, a word, an image can suddenly thrust them back into the earliest feelings of loss reminding them again of what they had and have no more.

I remember going to the airport to pick up my daughter and her family a year after the death of husband. As I waited for them to arrive, an image of my husband walking down the corridor towards me flashed across my mind with such force, I could hardly breathe. As tears stung my eyes, I had to stand very still in order to survive the moment, allowing it to gradually recede.

Losses Create a Whole Range of Emotions 

We might experience increased levels of anxiety and fear as we contemplate financial concerns or the shift of responsibility such as raising children as a single parent. With the death of a spouse after years of marriage, our social structure changes as well. We can be happy one minute and sad the next.  I remember having dinner with friends and life felt normal and happy; only to return to an empty house and feel that aloneness.

 Losses have many layers to them

Even while maintaining relationships of long term friends, we find the dynamics has changed and we are acutely aware we are no longer a couple and another layer of loss becomes evident. The new reality of being single brings with it demands for creating new social circles.

Sometimes we get stuck in some aspects of loss that keep us caught in emotional turmoil that makes healing difficult. Two of these emotions are anger and guilt. We will explore some of these emotions in the upcoming weeks.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Myths and Misconceptions About Grieving

Research continues to give us information about the impact of grief and loss and the process that helps us heal. In the process we have identified myths related to the grieving process. Here are some misconceptions we hold about grief.

We “get over” it

This is a phrase we often use when talking about loss. We see the pain of sorrow on the faces of friends and family we love and want to re-assure them that they won’t be in pain forever. Yet, we don’t “get over” the loss of a loved one – we integrate that loss into the fabric of our lives. They will always be part of who we are. As we heal, the grief we feel no longer takes center stage and we are able to create a new reality. Grieving allows us to let go, heal, integrate and replace.

Grieving has a time limit

Putting grief within a time period is both unrealistic and sets up additional pressures of expectation. People are given a couple days to mourn before returning to work. In the process, grief may be pushed away or stuffed as we try to ignore the pain and quickly resume life. But when grief goes underground, it will surface at some future date and demand we deal with it.

Grieving is a necessary journey that enables us to reconcile what has happened. The time limit to complete that reconciliation will be different for each of us. Even when the initial intense feelings of sadness have been replaced with the desire to live again, there will be components of our loss that will always be with us. If we minimize or ignore this healing journey, we might miss some valuable discoveries about ourselves and our memories will not have a healing quality to them.

We all grieve the same way

We are different personalities with different life experiences. We grieve within that context. For some, sharing feelings may be difficult and they might find it easier to express their grief working on projects, art or journaling. It is important to honor your way and follow through.

Tears and sadness is feeling sorry for yourself

Grieving is not the same as feeling sorry for yourself. When we feel sorry for ourselves, we want to nurse our hurt and get sympathy. When we are grieving, we want to share our pain so we can heal. We don’t want to stay where we are. We do want to normalize life again. When the pain is intense and deep, it takes time to go through the layers of loss.

There are predictable and progressive stages to grieving

It was once thought that we go through the predictable stages of Elizabeth K. Ross’s stages of death and dying when grieving. While we may experience some of those elements, there is no predictable pattern or stages in which we grieve; my personal experience with grief resembled William Bridge’s transitional model. The first phase was recovering from the intense feelings of sorrow and pain and making the necessary changes to finances and living conditions. But then, as I picked up the pieces of my life, I needed to spend some time in that “neutral zone” to probe and answer the question of who I was today. What do I leave behind and what do I bring forward. I made new discoveries about myself and reaffirmed other aspects of my life. The process helped me let go of what was as I explored and tried on new realities. The discoveries during that time period helped make a more positive transition.

Losses are about endings. All losses require a transition – from here to there. If we hurry from ending to new beginning, we will find it difficult to put to rest the emotional turmoil, heal the wounds and grieve the many layers associated with losses.

It is better to be alone while we grieve

We need other people. We wouldn’t think about going through recovery of major surgery without the assistance and support of others. We forget that a major loss is an incredible injury. When we withdraw, we risk becoming isolated, lonely and depressed; we retreat into our world of pain rather than working out the healing. It takes courage to grieve; and while being alone may help us feel less vulnerable to others; it carries a huge price tag emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Expressions of Grief

Death or loss is often a surreal experience; what had such great importance to our lives has now ended; it can no longer be seen or felt or held or heard. It is difficult to simply tuck the experiences you shared with someone you loved into your memory bank like photos in a picture album, close the book and go on with life.

We long to continue the connection with the one who has died. We want to hang onto anything that expresses the love and feelings we had, something concrete we can pick up and hold that links us once more to the person we loved.

Expressions of grief are more than just mourning our loss in tears. It is taking something that is intangible, difficult to define and describe, and giving it substance in some tangible way so we can work with it.

We hang onto favorite pieces of clothes, or objects that were a part of our loved one’s life to reinforce that connection – that memory. Pictures in an album, a scrapbook or memory box, or favorite objects all help us feel closer to the one who died. But sometimes we need more than just the bits and pieces of a life now over – we need to be involved in putting those bits and pieces together – a route to healing.

My husband was a professional musician and left a legacy of music. After his death, I spent over a year, organizing, cataloguing and making a detailed inventory of all his band libraries and boxes of music. At the time, I thought it was something I needed to do in order to sell the music.

But I realized as I went along that it was a way to catalog the many memories we shared with that music. It was a connection to the person who was so important in my life and the process enabled me to heal. In the same way, I lovingly went through my artist son’s drawings when cancer took his life, and the walls of my home are a permanent exhibit of his great talent and love.

Expression takes what was so important to us and creates a living memorial. It doesn’t keep us stuck in the past – it is a way to process and make permanent our love in our ending.

Journaling and writing is one way. My journaling led to the writing of my first book. A love letter or letter of goodbye can put to word what is in the heart. Completing a project in memory of that person is another way. Women have often quilted bits and pieces of their love and loss into remembrance quilts.

As I extended my professional training in this field, I attended a weekend class taught by an art therapist who used different art forms to help individuals put together the pieces of a “shattered” life. As I looked at pictures of art created by grieving individuals, I was in awe of the beauty, pain, power and expression of love poured into these personal testimonies of loss. Anyone can create their own free form collage.

There are many time-worn rituals people have used to help the healing process and complete the journey of loss: planting a special tree or shrub; going through ritualistic mazes or walks. Allow yourself freedom to do what is right for you. Find a way that is meaningful to you that expresses your loss and your grief.

It may not just be a one-time thing. It may become an annual ritual. Soldiers often go back to battlefields and in remembering, heal another layer of pain and sorrow. My daughter continues to heal the memory of her beloved dad as she lovingly shares with her daughter about the grandfather she will know only through her Mom’s loving eyes.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

 

Grieving our Losses

Throughout life we experience losses: of jobs, security, dreams, childhoods, marriages, health, and loved ones. The seasons of life all hold within their walls the need to grieve the losses that are attached. For most moments of transition, we give ourselves a few moments to think sadly and perhaps fondly about what we are giving up before quickly moving on.

The depth of loss will be experienced differently by different people and will be associated with what that loss meant to us. Losses hold within them an emotional and psychological involvement. Some losses will be mere glitches in time while others hold within them deep pain and sorrow.

What does it mean to grieve?

Grieving our losses is coming to terms with what has happened – making sense of it all. It is working through the tangles of roller coaster emotions: anger, sorrow, sadness, relief, guilt, fear, anxiety, hope, hopelessness, depression and even joy. We may experience some or all of these emotions and more.

Grieving our losses means working through the normal and natural questions of “Why, what if, why me, if only, and if I had”. While working through the emotions and questions is part of the grieving process, at times there are no answers to our questions and we are left with no easy answers. And we are left to accept and let go of what was so we can heal. 

Grieving is finding some way to articulate what we are experiencing. It is not always easy to express what we are feeling in grief. Emotions can be scary, especially if we are experiencing a lot of anger. Anxiety and fears are sometimes hard to define as we move into the unknown. How do I share with someone else what I am feeling when I cannot understand it myself? But in expression, whether through art, writing, talking or silent walks with God, we find release.

Within the process of mourning our loss, we are faced with our vulnerability: How will I make it? Who am I now? How do I ask for help? Do I give myself permission to grieve or do I have to put on the mask of having it all together? Losses can create deep wounds that we don’t see but which leave huge holes in our psyche. With losses that held a lot of meaning, it takes time to heal. As we allow ourselves to grieve we validate and honor our journey.

And finally, grieving allows us to integrate the loss into our lives – it becomes a part of our life story. We remember, but are no longer focused on it. We may still feel sadness, but we also feel happiness, peace, energy and a zest for life. At that point we are able to create a new beginning – a new reality that has meaning and purpose within it. It may be different, but it is okay. Life has taken on a new normal.

©Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Endings Leave a Bit of Ourselves Behind

In many cultures, there are rituals that take us from one stage of life to another. Coming of age ceremonies or rites of passage symbolize leaving childhood to enter adulthood. Sometimes the rituals involved are physically demanding – others are simply a public recognition and celebration after instruction. Religions also have symbolic ceremonies to represent a major transition such as Jewish Bar Mitzvahs and Confirmation in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches.

Leaving Something Behind

We leave something of ourselves behind in our endings as we reach forward to a new beginning. And even in the excitement of a new beginning, the ending can be bitter-sweet. We leave for college with anticipation and excitement over being free from parents and in charge of our lives and discover pangs of homesickness, missing the comfort of home, advice and reassurance of Mom and Dad.

We wait with anticipation for that first child, only to discover in the non-stop busyness of bottles, diapers and potty training, that we never again will experience that total freedom to come and go – we are now a parent.

Or we finally reach that long awaited retirement, only to experience restlessness after awhile which stresses a need to redefine our identity and create meaning and purpose in our lives in a different way.

Most of us go through life transitions fairly quickly. But sometimes in beginning a new role or direction in life, we fail to complete our endings. And at some point we find ourselves discontented and unhappy, but do not know why. We no longer feel pleasure or satisfaction in the things we do or thought were so important.

Going Into the Wilderness

At such times, it can help to make a solitary journey into the wilderness to redefine what is important to us, what we have left behind, what we have brought with us and are still struggling with.

In the wilderness there are no distractions from life as and we have the opportunity to wrestle and come to grips with our struggles and make sense of where we are in the world.

A good friend of mine has gone backpacking in the desert many times with just a visual map to guide her. At first, it was to make some discoveries about herself. Now she just enjoys the solitude of her trips.

Going to the desert or going on any wilderness excursion, takes us away from our norms and comfort zones. It is in the wilderness where we are challenged to confront our vulnerabilities, fears and doubts. It challenges the status quo.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Opportunities Found in Adversities

It is in our adversities where we find God waiting for us: to comfort, encourage and give us hope.

When the Old Testament Prophet Elijah fled for his life from Queen Jezebel’s wrath, first into the desert and then retreating to the mountains, he was so exhausted he wanted to die. He struggled with his inner fears, doubts and insecurities, wondering whether it was all worth the struggle. God met him there in the midst of his exhaustion and questioning spirit. It was where Elijah discovered a healing God in the still quiet voice that spoke to his spirit.

It was in his affliction of a skin disease that Naamon, the mighty, esteemed and proud general of the King of Aram discovered humility and God. In order to be healed, he had to wash himself seven times in the muddy, dirty water of the River Jordan. In that inner struggle, Naamon had to put life into clearer perspective.  All his wealth, possessions and battle trophies could not buy him the restoration of his health. And he was forced to consider which was more important – his pride or getting better. He found more than healed skin from the Prophet Elisha’s directions – he discovered the God of Israel.

It was in the indescribable pain and the ongoing adversity in his life where Job discovered lessons from suffering. Job had led an honest, good and faithful life following the principles of God. But when he was hit with the downward spiral of one adversity after another, he became angry and confused. 

Job lost his home, his wife and his family. His friends were more accusatory than supporting. But it was in this unceasing adversity where Job discovered God. As Eugene Peterson writes in his Introduction to Job in The Message, “At first Job rages in pain and roars out his protests, but then he becomes silent in awestruck faith before God, who speaks from out of a storm – a “whirlwind” of Deity. Real faith cannot be reduced to spiritual bromides and merchandised in success stories. It is refined in the fires and storms of pain.”

It was in his affliction that the Apostle Paul learned he needed to rely on the strength of God. It was in prison cells where Joseph of the Old Testament and Apostles Peter and Paul of the New Testament trusted God and became examples to their guards of what it means to live in acceptance and in God’s love and peace.

In the unfolding horrors of Nazi Germany, Bonheoffer, the brilliant theologian, struggled with remaining safe abroad or returning to be with the his people. He chose to return and just before the war ended, was arrested and shot by the Nazi’s. But in those weeks within the prison walls, Bonheoffer, like Joseph and Peter and Paul, exuded peace and love and left an indelible imprint on the lives of his jailers.

The Bible is full of the stories of people like you and me who experienced tragedies and struggled with their adversities. In today’s world, we have the stories of many people who found within their losses and difficult times, purpose and meaning.

It is in adversity where we find loyal friends who stand by us. It is in adversity where God sends that person with a comforting touch or that word in scripture that literally jumps out from the page to give us hope and encouragement.

It is in adversity where we find strength to persevere, become more flexible, and discover humility and patience. It is in adversity where we discover love and understanding and grace. It is in adversity where we learn how to become better parents, more understanding spouses, and better people. It is where we learn more about ourselves, our abilities, strengths and weaknesses.

May you find in the midst of your pain or adversity not only God’s love and comfort, but purpose and meaning for your life.

Hebrews 13:5: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Roadblocks

Are you putting up roadblocks to personal growth?