Oh beautiful readers, I want you to know you are all wonderful and you are all special. It only follows that you would all grieve in your own unique ways too. Many of you, I’m sure, are the picture of composure even in your worst of times: grace under fire, poise under pressure, kind and considerate no matter what. For all of you specimens of serenity, I would like to direct your attention here because, well, I’m sorry this post ain’t for you. That’s right, move along!
This post is for all the wretched grievers who know first hand that grief makes you crazy; it makes you say things, do things, feel things. And darn it if it doesn’t sometimes make you act like a jerk.
Grief is like being at a party after you’ve had way too much to drink. Maybe you should have eaten a sandwich before you came or maybe you should have had one less shot of whiskey. Either way it’s too late because all rationality is gone and you can only see clearly with one eye open.
In your grief intoxication, you grow mad at everyone because they “just don’t understand." You punch a hole in the wall. You tell your family what you really think of them. You eat all the snacks. You get emotional and drown everyone in your tears. You lock yourself in the bathroom and tell the very people who are trying to comfort you to leave you alone. Then you run out of the house, drive your bike through your Aunt Ruth’s rose garden, and pass out on the lawn.
When you finally wake up from your drunken-grief-state, everything is a blur. You survey the damage and think, “Did I do that?” Completely unsure of whether anyone is still on your side, you wearily stand up, brush yourself off, and set out to get your life back together.
Okay first of all, let’s agree: You’re not a wretched person. You’re just not, I can tell. Most likely, you are a very good person who, like many of us, has found the unexpected impact of grief a bit disorienting. Hopefully your friends and family know this too and are trying to understand. There’s a good chance, with the exception of deep-seated misunderstandings, the people you’ve harmed have already set out to forgive you.
Just the same, you’re a quality human and quality humans feel bad when they hurt or alienate those they love. Even though you may have a good excuse, you’re sorry and you want to avoid any long-term scars caused by improperly dressed wounds.
If that weren’t reason enough, consider that—in order to move forward through your grief and shape a life without the physical presence of your loved one—you need a clear head. It will only make your journey lighter if you shed the weight of guilt and resentment and arm yourself with as much love and support as possible.
It’s time to make amends.
When I think of making amends, I immediately think of the twelve-step program originated by Alcoholics Anonymous that has now been adapted to prescribe a course of action for many types of addiction and recovery. Those in the program endeavor to move through all twelve steps, but today we’re going to borrow just two steps—Steps 8 and 9—to conceptualize making amends in our grief.
Step 8 asks that you make a list of all those you have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all. Step 9 is accomplished by making direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. For the remainder of this post, we’re going to walk through a simplified adaptation of these step. So, if you’re serious about making amends, grab a piece of paper and a pen.
First Things First: Where Have You Caused Harm and Which Relationships Need Mending?
Really think about this. How can you develop the best possible relationships with all the people in your life? Grief shows you how valuable it is to appreciate your loved ones while you have the chance, so maybe you want to look even further back beyond your grief. Is there ill will, bad blood, or old resentments anywhere in your past? Step 8 says you need to really scour your past to determine where you have caused harm.
Harm is defined as any level of physical, mental, or spiritual damage. You can inflict such damage in very overt ways through insulting, self-serving, or malicious behavior; or through more subtle behaviors making you generally difficult to live with. Have you been irresponsible or negligent? Have you shut out your spouse? Have you ignored a child? Have you been impatient, cold, critical, or mean? Have you avoided someone because they remind you of your loved one? Do you blame someone for the death? Do you blame yourself?
How much self-blame, guilt, and regret do you carry? How much can you forgive yourself for? Sometimes the hardest relationship to reconcile is the relationship with one's self, so don't forget to put your own name on the list. Part of making restitution with others is thoughtful reflection about your personal interactions and accurately examining the role you played in causing harm. Resist the urge to pass extreme judgments upon yourself, just as you need to resist the urge to place disproportionate blame upon others.
When considering broken relationships, especially those that have arisen from grief, our emotions have the tendency to go on the defensive: We were grieving! They knew that! They ought to understand! It feels uncomfortable to think we've hurt someone, and it's even more frightening to imagine discussing it face-to-face with that person. It's far easier to justify our actions and find blame: He's too sensitive. She misunderstood. She hurt my feelings first. He was pushing me to move on too quickly. He's never understood me. Whether or not these things are true doesn't change our part in the problem. Furthermore, just as we hope others provide us a level of grief-related leniency, we should not discount the hardship and hurt others may carry. If we're going to ask forgiveness for ourselves, we should approach the situation with a willingness to be equally as forgiving.
Next: Set Out to Make Direct Amends Wherever Possible
I hope you're feeling strong because what you're about to do takes an enormous amount of courage. I truly think you will see it is worth your while, but as Theodore Roosevelt said:
Now is the time. Don't delay because you're scared, embarrassed, or guilty. Arm yourself with the knowledge that your attempts may be met with a range of responses—positive, negative, indifferent. Take the encouragement of others to heart, and the discouragement in stride. Be aware that a casual or natural opportunity to discuss these things may not present itself, so summon all your strength and prepare yourself to start the conversation. Be level-headed and forthright. Avoid being defensive, but conversely don't wallow in excessive remorse. And above all else, be willing to forgive.
As you move forward, do so with good judgment. Although you may feel ready to rehash the past and lay all your wrongdoings on the table, others may not be quite as emotionally ready. Please be especially mindful when approaching those who are also grieving. Everyone grieves at a different pace, and they may still feel fragile about a great many things. There will be instances where it may only make sense to extend an initial olive branch and to allow the healing to continue over a longer period of time. Your healing cannot come at the expense of someone else's well being; that would totally defeat the purpose.
You must also accept there will be instances where amends cannot be made. Perhaps there are circumstances where making admissions and restitutions will cause more harm than good to the emotional or physical well-being of yourself and others; family dynamics and real-life consequences need to be considered.
Perhaps most pertinent to our discussion is the reality that often the person we'd most like to make restitution with is the individual who has died. Sadly, this is the case for a great many grievers. You are not alone in learning to live with guilt and regret. All you can do is consider other ways to find peace and forgiveness; perhaps by forgiving yourself, helping others, and by doing exactly what you're doing now—making amends with those who are still living.
For more articles about guilt and grief, look no further!
- Grief and Guilt: “I Can’t Believe I Did That” Edition
- Guilt and Grief: Making A Living Amends
- Guilt vs. Regret in Grief
- Guilt and Grief: Coping with the Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda's
- Guilt and Grief During the Holiday Season
I'm emotionally exhausted. How about you? Go ahead and take a break, but don't forget to come back because we'll miss you.
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