Summary: Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief By Claire Bidwell Smith
Summary: Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief By Claire Bidwell Smith

Summary: Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief By Claire Bidwell Smith

When we lose someone suddenly or unexpectedly, it is almost impossible to escape feelings of guilt or regret. There is often much left unsaid between you and your loved one, not to mention many feelings of regret over actions taken and not taken on both parts. Anger often plays a huge role in the processing of sudden losses. You may find yourself angry with your loved one, with others who you believe could have prevented the death, and also with yourself.

When we dig deeper beneath the anger, guilt usually surfaces. We may find ourselves feeling guilty for being angry at our person or feeling guilty about something we did not do to change the outcome. Admitting these feelings and letting yourself process them openly will help to soften them. Pushing them away will do the opposite and create that feeling of unease that leads to anxiety.

When we carry regret and shame around inside us, it manifests in other symptoms—anger, depression, self-hatred, and, of course, anxiety. Finding ways to release the guilt and forgive ourselves is vital. So how do we go about releasing the guilt? First, we must recognize that it is fueled by our personal beliefs about ourselves and about the situation. The first step to reckoning with it requires an honest examination of the beliefs we are holding on to.

Sometimes grievers hold on to guilt as a way of holding on to the person they have lost. Some part of them feels that if they were to release themselves from guilt, then they might also be letting go of the person they lost, that if they let themselves feel free and happy again, they are not honoring the person who died. Dr. B.J. Miller suggests:

When situations like this come up, I urge people to ask themselves, if your person were here right now, what would they tell you to do? And almost every time the person says, “Oh, well, he wouldn’t want me to suffer.” Of course. Because if you’re really trying to love and honor that person, what would that person tell you to do right now?

In my experience as a physician, I do believe that we as a society could do death better. But when I really think about the person who is actually doing the dying, most of the time they’re doing all right. Even if there is pain involved, even if there’s lots of pain. We just don’t know what those shoes feel like. Most of the time the hard part is for those of us who have to keep on living.

What we as onlookers are witnessing of the dying process—the death rattle and these other things—that person is not actually feeling at all. That’s our pain. The hazard of projection is a huge one. But alternatively, let’s say your loved one did suffer. He’s not suffering now. You did what you could at the time. Suffering isn’t always bad. It teaches us things. Perhaps someone suffered and then was able to feel the relief that his death presented him. I do think so much of the anguish is in the family members who have to live on and witness these things.

If you have found yourself in a similar situation, ruminating on a circumstance that perhaps does not call for as much guilt as you are feeling, ask yourself some questions. Ask if you might be holding on to guilt because you are afraid that letting go of it means also letting go of your loved one. If the answer is yes, then examine this idea.

The truth is that we never truly let go of the people we love. Releasing negative emotions around the death, and finding meaning in our lives again, does not mean that we have forgotten our loved one or that we no longer miss them. Once you are feeling ready to release your guilt and forgive yourself, the next step is to examine the guilty thoughts. What did you expect of yourself that you were not able to do?  Were those expectations realistic?  What could you have done differently?  Were you hindered by emotional stress?  Would your loved one forgive you now, given the opportunity?  What would you tell a friend who made the same mistake you made?

If after answering these questions you feel that your mistake was legitimate and that you truly failed in your expectations of yourself, then can you own your failure and take responsibility for it? This is called healthy guilt. This is the kind we learn from and grow from.  If after answering these questions you realize that you are being hard on yourself and have been holding on to unrealistic expectations, then it is time to begin to release the guilt.

Over the years, working with so many clients who have all needed to find various ways to make amends, the author has come up with some creative ways to repair the things you may feel remorseful about. Here are some of my favorite exercises that you will find really helpful.


Write a Letter to Your Loved One

You can write your letters by hand or on your computer. Choose a day in which you have some privacy and a time that is not followed by any demanding activities, as you may feel a little raw or drained after writing the letter. Sit down and begin with their name, and then write whatever comes. You may want to apologize for something, or you may want to say good-bye in a way you weren’t able to. Take as long as you need to write the letter. Anticipate that you may feel quite emotional as you do this exercise.


Write a Letter to Yourself Forgiving Yourself

Imagine stepping outside of yourself just a bit, and sit down to write a letter to the person you were when you made the mistake. Forgive yourself. Be kind and reassuring to yourself, and try to feel real compassion for yourself, even though you may be disappointed in the actions of your past.


Visualize Saying Good-bye or Being There If You Weren’t

Find a quiet place where you can lay down uninterrupted. Close your eyes. Take some deep breaths, and let yourself fully relax. Now visualize your loved one before you. Take a moment to really feel their presence. Next take as much time as you need to say all the things in your mind that you need and wish to say to them. Say good-bye if you didn’t get to say good-bye. Apologize if you need to apologize. Tell them you love them, if that feels good. You can return to this exercise as often as needed.


Do Something in Honor of Your Loved One

one of the most beautiful ways of making amends is to do something in honor or in service of your loved one. Perhaps they were passionate about a particular cause that you can contribute to in some way. Or you could simply support an organization that they would have felt good about (for example, if they were an animal lover, donate to a local shelter or wildlife conservancy). You will find that doing any kind of good deed in their honor will feel good and give you a sense of reparation.


Visualize Your Loved One Forgiving You

Similar to the exercise above in which you visualize speaking to your loved one, this time you will focus on hearing from them. Find a comfortable place to do this where you will be uninterrupted. Lay down, close your eyes, and begin to relax. When you are ready, invite your loved one into your mind’s eye and be open to the idea of receiving a message from them. Perhaps they have a message of forgiveness, or advice, or simply love. Receive your message, and feel it throughout your heart.


Each Time You Find Yourself Having a Negative Guilt Thought, Replace It with a Positive Memory

Sometimes when we’ve focused on a negative thought too many times, it can be difficult to make that thought stop popping up, even when you’ve done the work to actively release the belief behind it. Retraining your brain to stop the thought from occurring takes a little work in the beginning but then quickly becomes easy. In this case, each time you have a negative thought like, “I should have been there,” stop yourself from going further with the emotions of that thought and replace it with a positive memory of you and your loved one.


Find Someone You Can Talk to About Your Feelings of Guilt

Talking about your feelings of guilt to a therapist or a bereavement group who understands can greatly alleviate the heaviness of carrying those feelings around. Finding these outlets can provide a healing place for you to process these feelings and help you normalize your experience.