Relief and Guilt

“I’m a relieved it’s over and I feel guilty for that.” When a loved one passes, we may find ourselves for a time in an unfamiliar landscape with a confusing mix of emotions. We expect to be devastated, but we may also feel relief. Many of us feel ashamed and confused by these raw emotions. And, historically, our society hasn’t done well acknowledging and talking about grief. Says Lee. L. Pollak, director of The Bereavement Center at San Francisco’s Jewish Family and Children’s Services: “We don’t do a real good job of saying goodbye to one stage before moving on. We’re a fix-it society: We like smiling faces and active, happy people” says Pollak. “There’s not a lot of room for the devastating sadness that comes with grief…or for acknowledging the huge range of normal feelings people experience.” Fortunately, our society is getting better at talking about end-of-life issues. This can give bereaved caregivers a welcome opportunity to explore their journey and make peace.

Your Feelings Are Perfectly Normal

“It is perfectly appropriate to feel relieved at the same time you are feeling devastated,” says Rabbi Earl A. Grollman in his Decalogue: Ten Commandments for the Concerned Caregiver. It doesn’t means you haven’t loved fully, or cared for the person to the best of your ability. In fact, as a caregiver, you may have had to watch your loved one suffer for a long time. Feeling relief that that suffering is over is actually an appropriate response.

Get Honest—You’ll Feel Better

Phil Garrison, a long-term hospice and respite professional, has observed that it’s hard for most caregivers to recognize—let alone talk about—the resentment they feel over always having to be the responsible one. “Then they feel guilt, or worse yet, shame, for their sense of relief when the loved one dies.” Recognizing resentment/relief as part of the emotional fabric of caregiving is an important first step to ensuring a healthy recovery from the loss. “It is the honest recognition of what it means to live with suffering that empowers people to grow through the process of grieving the death of their loved one.”

Bereavement Can Be Lonely Business

Others certainly miss your loved one, but they may not have the same experience of absence, disruption and loss. These feelings can leave you feeling depressed and/or isolated. This is normal too. And if you need help—talk to someone!

Get Past the Guilt

Death can leave us with a sense of unfinished business. We may regret feelings we didn’t express, or apologies we never made. In her book, I’m Grieving as Fast as I Can, Linda Feinberg describes “death guilt” or the feelings of:
  • Torment over not having done or said everything you wanted
  • Regret that you couldn’t or didn’t do more
  • Guilt because you were not overly fond of the person anyway
No matter how much we have done as caregivers, it can take time to accept that we did enough, and what we left unsaid or undone is OK. Feinberg advises: “Widowhood is the time to be kind to yourself and not be your own worst critic.”

Take the Time You Need

Grieving is an individual process, and it marches to its own seasons. You may think you’re “past the worst of it,” and then get hit by certain smell, food, song, activity, event or occasion that triggers your grief anew. The emotional landmines can make us vulnerable or catch us by surprise.
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