Monday, October 3, 2011

The Cycle of Guilt: Insights for Grief and Life

I have been reading an excellent book entitled, Lose-Love-Live:  The Spiritual Gifts of Loss and Change by Dan Moseley (Upper Room Books, 2010).  This book offers so much more than euphemistic “pat” answers to the struggles faced by those who have experienced a significant loss in their life.  Whether the loss is job related, the death of a relationship, the loss of health or the death of a loved one, Moseley offers an in-depth and personal perspective on the experience of growing through grief.  This is not, in my opinion, a book for the recently bereaved.  This is a book for one who is beginning to emerge from the darkest days of the wilderness of grief and is open to the continuing journey of living through love and loss into a new life.    
    Wayne Bell, President Emeritus of Lexington Theological Seminary states that Lose-Love-Live is a “much needed resource for pastors, church libraries and required reading for Stephen Ministers.”  One of the most helpful features of this book is the “Good Companions” summary at the end of each chapter.  The summaries articulate the qualities, characteristics and practices of true companion for the particular aspect of the grief journey discussed in the preceding chapter. 
    I was especially interested in Moseley’s discussion of the cycle of guilt in grief.  What follows is a discussion that is a blending of Moseley’s thoughts and my reflections:
    As infants we believe the world revolves around us, but very soon we learn that we cannot control our environment or the people in it.   This is a primal experience that leads to feelings of inadequacy.  Inadequacy may lead to shame.  Certainly this becomes a larger issue when some loss or trauma is introduced into the cycle, such as the death of a friend or family member or the trauma and chaos of living in a home with an alcoholic.   When we do not have the power to make things happen in a way that we think is good for us we protest (picture the 2-year old’s tantrum) and can grow to feel that we ourselves are unworthy.
    Some of us expend a great deal of energy trying to get back to that time when everything was about us.  Most of us like control very much.   We try to hold on to the fantasy that we have this power still.  We don’t, but we cannot tolerate things spinning out of control.  And let’s face it; life can be a pretty chaotic ride at times. 
In the end, this desire to be in control is really a desire to be divine, for God alone sees what is truly good for us.  God alone has this power we seek for ourselves. When we are consumed with worry that we are not doing “enough” to make things come out “right” I believe we fall into a form of idolatry.   In thinking we have this power we elevate ourselves to God-like status.     This becomes a vicious cycle because everything –in our minds – is about us and it becomes our responsibility to make sure everything always comes out “right”.  What an incredible burden we have placed on ourselves!
    This cycle of grasping for control, protesting our inadequacy and inability to control our circumstances, then feeling guilt and shame is repeated and exacerbated each time we endure a season of loss and grief. 
    One is fired from his job.  This blow leaves him reeling.  Unable to pay the mortgage, dependent on the kindness of others to provide the basic necessities for his family he feels inadequate.   His self-worth plummets.  He is consumed with worry for the future and guilt for making such a mess of his life. 
    A husband dies.  For two years the doctor misdiagnosed his cancer.  The mantra repeats over and over again in his widow’s head “I should have known.  I should have known.  I should have known it was more serious.  What if we had gone to another doctor sooner?  Would he still be alive?”
    “Guilt rides the vehicles of ‘what if’ and ‘if only’, driving us to near insanity.”  (Moseley, p. 71)  
    The alternative (and road to the healing of guilt) involves admitting that there are some things that are beyond our control and over which we have limited influence. The experience of inadequacy and guilt is a common aspect of the grief journey.  It is desirable, however, that in time we will be able to accept our humanity and acknowledge that we all make mistakes.  We miscalculate.  We make errors in our judgment.  If we knew then what we know now, of course we would choose differently, pursue a different course.  But we are not omniscient. 
    Accepting our humanity and limitations leads to forgiving ourselves (just as accepting the humanity and limitations of others, such as doctors, can lead to forgiving them).  Forgiveness and grace lead to healing of some of the most painful aspects of our loss.  This grace in turn becomes a bridge that leads us slowly to the discovery of a new normal, freeing us to come alive to the future that no longer includes the presence of that person or thing that has been lost. 
At the time of your loss, what do you wish you had done differently?

What did you say/do that you now wish you hadn’t?

What things did you leave unspoken that you wish you had said?

How would you complete the statement:  “I should have…”

If you could change one thing about what happened, what would it be?

Can you accept in this situation that you did the best you knew to do?

Can you accept that you are human and could not control the things that happened in this situation? 

What are possible  consequences of the inability to accept our humanity and limits? 

What is your reaction to the statement that our desire to be in control is a form of self-idolatry?  Is this too harsh?

 Romans 8:28
New International Version (NIV)
 28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[a] have been called according to his purpose.”
What does this promise mean to you today?

God bless your day.  I would love to hear your thoughts if you would like to share them.