Guilt and grieving: is there an antidote?

A photograph Richard took of the early morning sun with birds flying free in its wake

Richard took this atmospheric photo on his holiday and has entitled it 'Flying free'.

Blogger Richard, whose wife Fiona passed away under Sue Ryder's care, is racked with guilt after missing the six-month anniversary of his wife's death.

There are many things you do not need when you lose your wife and best friend after 30 years together. You do not need two toothbrushes; you do not need a host of beauty products whose purpose you never understood anyway; you do not need to cook that much food (although you still do).

And there is one other thing you do not need: guilt.


Why guilt and regret cause so much harm

Guilt clings to you like burrs caught in your clothing on a country walk. It wraps itself around shreds of half-remembered conversations, like ivy slowly destroying an old stone wall. It clouds your memories, like foxing round the edge of an old mirror or the fading round an old photograph left too long in the sun.

Quite apart from the sadness you feel already, it begins to harm the good things you have kept too.

This morning, it poisoned my breakfast.


An important milestone missed

I am on holiday, and knew that at some point this week the six-month anniversary of Fiona’s death would come. Checking the date on the early morning news, I realised that I had missed it.

On the day itself, I had been out in the glorious sunshine enjoying the flawless sky above, the blossom all around and the beauty of the day. Wrapped up in it all, that particular milestone had gone by without my noticing it.

With that realisation came a whole load of unnecessary guilt. I felt uncaring, callous and like the kind of person... who could forget his wife.

As a pastor of many years’ experience, I could tell anyone else that their guilt was unnecessary. Far from being evidence of some kind of neglect, it is a small sign of healing – a little light on the road ahead rather than shadow on the road behind. That’s what I would tell them, anyway.


Finding the antidote

Oddly, today, it was humour that banished the guilt.

Way back at the start of Fiona’s illness, she was staying on her first of many hospital wards in a bed opposite the nurses’ station.

We noticed that whenever the staff rang the porters and said they had a patient for ‘Primrose Cottage’, all the curtains would be drawn around a particular bed until it had been cleared. In the circumstances, it was a perfectly understandable euphemism for the loss of a patient.

Thereafter, Fiona and I would always say that we never wanted to hire a holiday cottage of that particular name. On today’s early morning walk, I passed just such a cottage (pictured below).

The sign for Primrose Cottage 

Instinctively, I turned to point it out to Fiona – but could not, for obvious reasons. With a smile, it struck me that she had already booked in there, so to speak.

With that, the guilt vanished, at least until next time.


Are you dealing with guilt like Richard?

If you too have lost someone close to you and are dealing with guilt, regret or remorse – whether you're plagued with "what if?"s or are feeling disloyal for moving on with your life – please open up to others.

You may find it helpful to visit a safe and supportive space where you can remain anonymous, such as our online community, or to read expert practical advice on coping with your emotions longer term, such as 'How long does grief last?'

Please reach out today.

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