There are so many ways a widowed person feels guilt: survivor’s guilt, parental guilt, guilt for not saying the right thing before their spouse died, guilt for doing something that might’ve have changed the course of history, and guilt for feeling relief that “death did us part.” It’s ridiculous how many ways we and other people impose guilt on us.
It’s been on my mind a lot. I had a conversation about guilt with one of my dearest friends, recently widowed, about this the other day. I’d already started writing this post, but our conversation was thought provoking. It’s gotten pretty long.
My boyfriend told me a story about how when Attila the Hun died in his tent, his wife was accused of killing him. We’ll never know if she did something to kill him or didn’t do something to save him, but she was declared guilty anyway. Guilt has been given to widowed wives to carry for millennia. It hasn’t been that long in some countries where a widow was expected to throw herself on the burning funeral pyre or be shunned for living.
We don’t have to impose guilt on ourselves. In fact, our lives can be healthier and happier and stronger if we can be kind to ourselves and shed the feelings of guilt as soon as we feel them–or as soon as we can process them.
First, I have come to realize that being widowed is not something we could’ve controlled.
The thoughts that our spouses might still be here if we hadn’t gone out to get that ice cream or if we’d made them get a checkup or that we should have done something, anything, differently or whatever–those thoughts are all junk muddling what we need to be doing: healing and living.
Did I sometimes wish my late husband would die? Yes, especially during the relentless abuse he inflicted. Did that give him liver cancer? No. Should I feel guilty about his passing? No, absolutely not. He chose to drink himself literally to death. He chose to keep his illness a secret. He chose to give up on treatment on a terminal condition. He chose.
Second, no one has the right to tell us how to grieve. We should not feel guilty for cleaning out his closet one month later or ten years later. We don’t have to explain it to anyone who asks intrusive questions about how we handle things.
A friend’s mom passed away over twenty years ago. Her dad still hasn’t cleaned out her closet. His choice. I may have mentioned this story before about my newly-widowed next door neighbor. I’d just moved in and told her I was getting the old fence replaced. She insisted on taking the fence pickets that her late husband had put on a section of the fence so he wouldn’t have to look at how ugly it was. These were boards she didn’t need and would never use. I wanted to tell her that he didn’t care about the boards anymore and that she shouldn’t feel guilty for not adding them to a dead man’s pile of hoarded junk that was visible in her backyard. I didn’t though, because it wasn’t my place to tell her how to handle things. I could tell she would’ve felt the guilt of not following his wishes to get those boards back someday.
Third, some people will try to make us feel guilty for not giving them a specific thing by which to remember the one who passed away. Whether it’s a particular kind of funeral service they expected or a gift they’d given or an object they felt they wanted, it doesn’t matter.
My former mother-in-law asked me to collect mementos for the family just a few months after. I didn’t have the emotional energy to go through his stuff yet so that they could have something of his. While I understood they were all grieving, the burden was placed on me (again) to find something that would console them. I told her that I hadn’t sorted through anything yet, but that I would keep them in mind whenever I got around to it. No timeline. It’s okay to set boundaries and keep them.
We don’t have to feel guilty that we did things a certain way or kept the things we wanted to keep or sold/donated the things we couldn’t bear to keep. When I finally cleaned out some of his stashes, I loaded up my SUV with things my kids and I didn’t want and took it to their house. I gave them two carloads of stuff that had more meaning for them than for us. But I did it when I was ready.
Fourth, if the late spouse was the root of abusive behavior in the household, we do not have to feel guilty to be relieved that the abuse is over. We can feel happiness returning to our lives. We can allow ourselves to heal and move on.
I refuse to feel guilty that I’m glad he won’t yell at our daughter or drag her by her hair. I refuse to feel guilty that he will never again gaslight me into thinking I’m not good at anything or not capable of making decisions. I refuse to feel guilty that I never again have to smell the whiskey permeating from his pores…
Fifth, it’s our choice of when and if we decide to date again. No one has a right to tell us it’s too soon or that we should get on with our lives and find someone new. Seriously, the cultural, emotional whiplash is ridiculous. We are the only ones who know if and when to start dating. And if it’s too soon, we can stop and give ourselves more time.
When my boyfriend asked me out, I wasn’t sure I was ready. But I knew I enjoyed his company, and the attraction was hard to ignore. Some people said supportive things, but their actions weren’t supportive at all. My former father-in-law made disparaging comments about his nephew’s young widow and how she’d remarried and had more babies as if she’d committed a crime. She wasn’t guilty of anything, and neither was I.
It took me a long time (and some very difficult reading and therapy) to realize all these things about guilt. After he died, I felt the most amazing peacefulness. At the time, I attributed it to being with him when he died peacefully after so many months of suffering. Later, I realized that I also felt freedom and relief and empowerment from the change in our environment. It took me some time to process that I could be happy and excited about life without feeling guilty that I was glad about it all.
I listened to the audiobook of Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. I highly recommend it. It helped me think differently about guilt and shame and even the roots of my late husband’s own shame, which caused so many of his abusive behaviors. (Here’s a link to the book on Libro.fm, which supports independent book stores. I have no affiliation with them.)
We have to start healing somewhere. We need to allow ourselves to process our grief the way that’s best for us. We can kindly tell people to STFU when they try to impose guilt upon us. We can also squash our own guilty thoughts as they come up and change our internal dialog to be more forgiving.
Be kind to yourself, friend.
What are your thoughts on grief and guilt? What other types of unfair guilt have you encountered?