We posted a couple weeks ago about what not to say to someone grieving. In case you missed it, our list is here.
The next week we were inspired by an incredible post on the blog Love, Light, Laughter and Chocolate about the loss of Meghan, a little girl whose story and memory are changing the world by raising awareness about securing furniture and other home safety. Kim’s post on how she remembers Meghan every year on her Angel Day is a grief must-read. If you are not one of the 100,000 people and counting who have already read it you can find it here.
But what struck me almost as deeply as Kim’s original post was a follow-up she posted a couple of weeks later called “you can’t help how you feel”. Hundreds of people tried to comfort Kim after her original post with words you may have also wanted to say her. The minute I read her post I realized our what-not-to-say list was missing a big one, and it was the phrase she was inundated with after Meghan died and after her post: “don’t feel guilty, it isn’t your fault”.
Sound familiar? So many losses come with guilt – from accidental deaths to suicides to overdoses and countless others. When someone expresses guilt around a death, others immediately begin with the reasons not to feel guilty: you couldn’t have known, you did your best, it isn’t your fault. Like so many of the other phrases on our list, this comes from a place of good intention. No one wants a good person to feel guilty. Guilt sucks. The person didn’t intend for the death to happen. In many cases it really, truly wasn’t their fault. So of course we want to tell them not to feel guilty. Here is the problem: you can’t change how someone feels. Sit with that a minute. I am going to say it again. You can’t change how someone feels.
Now, the cognitive-behavioral therapist in me knows there is a whole other discussion around thoughts and feelings and therapy that we could have here, but that is a conversation for another day. What we are talking about here is what you as a regular old friend can and should do for someone grieving (or what you can’t and shouldn’t do). One more time: you can’t change how someone feels. So stop undermining their feelings. Stop arguing. Stop letting your discomfort with their feelings interfere with your ability to listen, support, validate, and generally be there for them.
We suck at death, dying, and grief in our society. We don’t want to sit with pain and despair, but we usually can grant those emotions to grievers (at least for a little while). Guilt though? That is just too much for us to sit with. Something about guilt makes us think it is an emotion we should dispute and try to quash. Guilt suddenly makes us think we have permission to argue with a griever about their feelings. Rather than listening, accepting, and exploring how our friend is feeling, we decide to tell them what they are feeling is wrong. We imagine that someone who feels guilt is damaged, needs to be fixed, or that they are “stuck”. We make up a story that one cannot feel guilt and still be a healthy, functioning, well-adjusted person.
Well, meet Kim. Check out her blog. Read Meghan’s story. Check out Meghan’s Hope. Kim feels guilty about her daughter’s death and that is okay. Really. She isn’t consumed by it. She doesn’t fixate on it at the expense of other things in her life. She has been able to acknowledge it while continuing to grow. What does she say about her guilt? “I don’t wallow in it. I’ve processed it. I’ve accepted it. I’ve integrated it. It’s part of who I am. It’s changed who I am. I can only hope I’m a better mother, educator, and human being for it. I can only try to prevent it from happening to others”. Dealing with so many feelings that come with grief is not about getting over them. It is not about “letting them go” or “moving on”. It is about integrating them. It is about knowing those emotions may be a part of us, but they don’t define us.
So next time you are thinking of telling a griever how to feel or how not to feel, think of Kim. She is sharing her story and she is saving lives. She is reflective of what she has been through and the feelings that come with that. She is keeping Meghan’s memory alive and she is keeping others from the same tragic loss. She is writing and mommy-ing and eating chocolate. She still feels guilty and that’s okay. Really.
Think your guilt or grief might be the unhealthy, complicated kind? Not all guilt is healthy so if you are worried check out our post on normal vs not-so-normal grief.