Monday, June 6, 2016

In Grief: Feeling Guilty for Feeling Happy

[Reviewed and updated March 5, 2024]

“And I can't be running back and forth forever between grief and high delight.”  ~ J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey

A reader writes: Six months ago whilst my world was going good for a change and I was expecting the birth of my beautiful baby girl, I got a phone call from the police in the middle of the night, informing me that my 19-year-old brother had taken his own life. This was two weeks before my due date. I was devastated and very confused whilst trying to figure out if I should be upset or happy that I was soon to be a mum. Being in such shock I was admitted into hospital so they could monitor my baby and give me something to help me sleep. Making things worse, his funeral was planned and took place on my due date. Knowing that I had to keep my baby safe, I spent the week keeping it together and trying not to get upset or cry. Although ten days overdue, my gorgeous little bundle arrived and I could not have been happier -- but I'm still riddled with guilt about being so happy at a time when I should have been in the pits of despair. At the same time, I have had to put on a brave face and smile even though most of the time I want to break down and cry. And I cannot let my baby see me sad because this is supposed to be a happy time.

I am still struggling to grieve as it's almost like I just haven't had the time to do so -- but the guilt of being so happy at the same time is eating me up. It makes me wonder whether I was as close to my brother as I thought I was or something? We are also still waiting for his inquest which they keep postponing, and I don't feel I can put any closure on it until that happens. 

My question is this: Will this guilt pass, and is this normal?

My response: My dear, I am terribly sorry to learn of your brother's death by suicide. Please know that for those left behind, this is one of the most difficult losses to understand and to process.

I can refer you to a number of resources that offer good, reliable information and support, and I hope you will take advantage of them (see Related Articles listed below).

That said, I assure you that what you are feeling ~ the simultaneous feeling of sorrow and joy ~ is completely normal. We human beings are perfectly capable of holding two (or more) completely opposite feelings in our hearts at the same time. Let me give you an example from my own experience. 

For many years after they were married, my younger son and his wife struggled with the disappointment and pain of infertility. Wanting desperately to conceive a child, they suffered through three failed attempts at in vitro fertilization (IVF). To them and to me, each of these failures felt like a death in the family, and each time we felt devastated, cheated and overwhelmed with grief. Over and over again our hopes were dashed, and my heart was breaking for both of them.  

In the midst of all this pain and sorrow, I was helping my older son and his fiancée plan their wedding. Barely a few months after they were married, they joyfully announced to the family that they were expecting their first child. Can you imagine how this announcement felt to my other son, to his wife and to me ~ how unjust and how unfair it seemed to be? And yet, at the same time, a part of me was ecstatic at the news that I was about to become a grandmother. For quite some time, I had a terrible time trying to reconcile my joy at becoming a grandmother to one son's baby with the excruciating pain and sorrow I felt for my other son and his wife, who had tried so hard for so long to get pregnant and still remained childless. 

As I worked my way through this difficult experience, I learned first-hand  that I could indeed hold two opposing feelings in my heart at the same time. By acknowledging what I was feeling and understanding why I felt that way, I was able to process and let go of any guilt I had been harboring.

If you read anything I've posted here on my blog or in the online grief discussion forums I moderate, sooner or later you'll find me saying that guilt is a feeling, not a fact and not a behavior, and oftentimes our feelings are not rational ~ neither are they right or wrong. They just are. What matters is what we do with what we are feeling.

So I encourage you to think about and acknowledge what you are feeling about both of these major events in your life, and allow yourself time and space to process and come to terms with all of it.

When your precious baby girl is napping, or when you're in the shower, you can use that time away from her as your grieving time. By that I mean you can find a quiet, private place and simply give in to your sorrow and pain. Let your tears wash over you. Scream at the heavens and at your brother if you need to do so. Pound a pillow or rip up some newspapers. The point is to get in touch with your feelings and let them out in a safe place. You might also consider a couple of sessions with a qualified grief counselor to help you sort through your reactions to this horrific loss. Once you find a safe container for your grief and a private time and place to feel your feelings, you'll be able to come back to your precious little one and rejoice at the sight of her without feeling guilty, and you can do it over and over again.

Here is an article I hope you will read, as it contains a list of Resources for Survivors of Suicide Loss, and be sure to check out the Related Articles and Resources listed at the base: Surviving a Spouse’s Suicide. See also Grief Support for Survivors of Suicide Loss ~ and know that I am thinking of you and your baby girl, as I send wishes for peace and healing to your aching heart. ♥

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