One of the many normal feelings experienced after child loss is guilt and it is often accompanied by fear and regret. No matter how your child died, you have likely pondered if your child still would have died if only you had done something (or not done something) differently.
My daughter Katie died in a car accident. My husband felt guilty that he didn't wash her car as he originally had intended to. He felt that if he had taken her car to the car wash that she wouldn't have been able to leave the house and would not have died. On the other hand, I suffered with guilt over the argument that Katie and I had had the night before. Now, it seems so senseless. I wasted my last night with her over something as stupid as a messy room. Talk about guilt.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. Everything seems clear after the fact.
But what we all need to know is that we were good mothers and we were living our human and unknowing lives. We had no idea what was coming around the bend. Would I have argued with Katie if I had known it was her last night on this earth? No way! We would have stayed up all night hugging and talking and focusing on what was really important and sharing our love.
I remember telling a counsellor that I felt guilt over Katie's accident and that I felt like I failed my daughter. I knew even when I said those words that it was an accident and there was no one to blame. It was an accident. However, as mothers we have a primal instinct to protect our children and keep them safe. Even though it wasn't logical, I still felt like a failure.
We put ourselves on trial and focus on all the negative things that happened leading up to our child's death. We criticize every conversation we had with our child, things we did, things we didn't do, and heap it all on our shoulders.
Inevitably, we feel as if we could have prevented their death.
I have a done a lot of work around my guilt. I wish with all my heart that we had stopped Katie from leaving the house that night, but I know that no amount of bargaining or wishing will change anything. I've learned to forgive myself for that stupid argument and know that I am not responsible for her death. But it has taken time and talking it through with my counsellor.
We need to forgive ourselves for that last argument, for not taking them to the doctor sooner, for not seeing the mental health struggles, or the addiction. We simply did the best that we could.
After forgiveness, we need to practice self-compassion. Treat yourself with grace. No matter how your child died, you loved them with every ounce of your being.
How do you practice self-compassion? It seems to be a buzz word as of late, but I assure you it is so important. Self-compassion is about survival and coping and it's essential. It means being understanding and kind to ourselves instead of being so harsh and critical.
Now let's talk about the guilt of living or smiling or laughing after your child has died. We all struggle with this at some point and this feeling can last a very long time. In the beginning, it seems impossible - all of it - smiling, laughing, and even living, but in time there is a tiny shift. You may not even realize it has happened. At some point you may find yourself having ok days, then good days even though the sadness and grief are still there. It is possible if you let it.
Try not to feel guilty.
It’s ok to live. It’s ok to laugh. It’s ok to answer “I’m good!” when someone asks how you are doing. It’s ok to be ok after your child dies. You don’t have to be ok with the fact that your child died, but you can be ok sometimes. I think that often we feel we can’t be ok because people will think we didn’t love our child enough if we’re not sad all the time. Not true. And who cares what those other people think anyway?
I come back to a phrase that is so meaningful to me — “I can hold my grief in one hand and joy in the other”.
I will have a hole in my heart forever. It will never heal or go away. But I am learning how to live again with my grief. I can still be ok and even laugh and I have let go of the guilt. I do this because I know that's what Katie wants for me. I was once told by a psychic to give her something amazing to watch, so I do my best.
I miss Katie with every ounce of my being and every second of the day, but I’m ok most days and I live my life for her.
Sending love and light,
PS: I have created a free video course for grieving mothers. In this 5-part series I address the most common struggles and questions that moms face after losing a child. You can request it here.