Guilt is the big ugly five letter “G” word for many people. Just mention the word and you can see people cringe and wrinkle their cheeks, squint their eyes and look away. For some it brings up painful memories and unfriendly emotions. For others, guilt is something they are currently in an emotional battle with and trying to seek relief from its ugly pain.
For myself, I felt guilt years after my late husband, Roy died from adrenal cancer. In 2007, he first went to the doctor around Labor Day weekend with a persistent cough. He was given antibiotics for what he thought was bronchitis. Little did we know that he had advanced adrenal cancer and that nasty cough was due to a mass on his lung. The cancer had already spread to his lung and other parts of his body.
I know that I felt guilty after Roy died. He seemed so normal, even healthy. Although, we received the diagnosis that he had adrenal cancer, and we knew no treatment was going to prevent him dying. But he was gone, I had doubts about what I should have done: I should have known something was wrong. If I had recognized the symptoms early enough, maybe his life could have been saved. The guilt stayed with me until I went back six years later to the Cancer Center at the University of Michigan Hospital and talked with Dr. Gary Hammer. I voiced my guilt to him.
Unfortunately, adrenal cancer is asymptomatic for most patients, like Roy. And although, Roy’s bloodwork was normal and he was able to walk on the treadmill, his body had little chance of recovering from the disease.
Dr. Hammer took the time to explain the pathology of the disease. I was choking back tears and there was lump in my throat and I was struggling to comprehend everything. He sensed my guilt, “Kristin,” he said, “You did everything you could have done.”
And those words slowly began to fill in the deep void in my heart caused by this guilt. A widow’s guilt usually comes in the form of self- doubt, regret, or self- recrimination. However, other situations can cause guilt as you may well know. Maybe there is something you think that you could have done to prevent a situation. Maybe there is something you said or failed to say, that you cannot undo.
Developing self- compassion is a way to cope with guilt. This is not to be confused with being narcissistic or having an inflated sense of self- worth. Instead, it means being gentle with yourself. Being hard on yourself by constantly piling on more blame, feeling more anger, and striving to be more perfect will only create more anxiety. In the book, “The Places That Scare You”, American Buddhist nun and author, Pema Chodron, offers this view on compassion towards oneself, “When we practice generating compassion, we can expect to experience the fear of our pain. Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allow ourselves to move gently towards what scares us.”
If you are not in the habit of practicing self- compassion this concept will seem foreign and even difficult to embrace, but loosening your grip on fear is a step toward letting go of the guilt. It will often lessen the intensity of the pain. Giving yourself grace is something that will being to open the door to healing.
Kristin Meekhof is a master’s level social worker and graduated from Kalamazoo College with a major in psychology. She completed the master in social work program at the University of Michigan. Parts of this piece contains excerpts from Kristin Meekhof’s forthcoming book, A Widow’s Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years. More information about this book can be found here.