Let Go of the Guilt October 6, 2009Posted by johnbohlinger in Dealing with Grief after Losing your child., Guilt and Grief.
Tags: Death of a child, grief, Guilt, parenthood, Recovering from loss
I attended a dinner party last night with some of my favorite people. A film producers, a publisher, the former head of a record label with whom I’ve done some television, a college professor, a PR person and me. The host chose an eclectic crowd to make for a fun night of stimulating conversations. Of course as the wine flowed the conversation sunk lower with every round until we bogged down to the topic of celebrity’s train-wreck lives. This conversation was dessert, the intellectual equivalent of empty calories. Topics like: who’s gay, who’s in what weird cult, who’s had what sort of cosmetic surgery, all insipid yet fascinating subjects.
Eventually John Travolta’s sad story entered the fray. Although I’ve been quietly following the Travolta family’s grief since the loss of their son, I remained mute on the topic for fear of my own sad story being revealed. One of my friends said, “It’s just a Karmic payback for the transgressions of John Travolta’s past.” I excused myself and hid in the bathroom until the topic changed.
You can’t apologize for your friends, even the best and the brightest say the stupidest things. If I were to guess, my friend’s ridiculous deduction made about the Travolta family’s tragic loss came out of a need people have for a clear cause and effect. We all want to believe that if we do the right things, we can avoid tragedy. This gives us the illusion of safety and control which helps some of us sleep at night. No matter how intelligent a person is, it’s difficult to wrap our brains around the fact that terrible things happen to good people for no reason. That’s hard to accept because if a nice family can lose their son through no fault of their own, than it can happen to you and me. Given this “logic”, if somebody’s child dies the parents are some how responsible. Here’s a mis- conclusion that tortures most of us.
I keep beating myself up wondering what I did wrong to cause my son’s death. I have a long, stupid list of possible answers.
August began changing from the A student who did everything right to a rebellious artist drawn toward everything dangerous during his eighth grade year. By the time he was an 18 year old senior in high school, he had pretty much quit listening to me, though I could not stop talking, advising, questioning, warning, etc. This made for incredible stress on a marriage that was already teetering precariously close to a sad demise. Aug’s mom, a wonderful loving mother, completely disagreed with me on how to handle Aug’s rebellion. Our disagreements made for more tension in the house compounding problems on top of problems. Aug’s mother and I divorced when August was 18, about a year before he died.
No point in pointing out that divorce is a terrible, painful ordeal; even if people are running for their lives, they rarely make this enormous decision free of reservations and inner conflicts. Now, with August gone, I wonder if his mother and I stay married, would have made any difference? This is a hellish question that has no answer. I bringing this up not in hopes of finding this nonexistent answer but to illustrate that we as humans need a concept of cause and effect: somebody died because somebody did something wrong; karma is a bitch.
The fact remains that August died because he did dangerous things. Play with fire long enough and you will get burned. Regardless of his own culpability, I know that many people who knew my son died have at times whispered “well, they really had some problems at home” or “they probably had their own drug problems and set a bad example. John’s a musician you know. That’s what musicians do.” or “the were overly protective, of course he had to rebel” or “God is punishing them for their sin in their life” or “they put too much pressure on August” or any other crazy explanation that these whispering finger pointers can invent.
When I’m thinking clearly, I know that these whispered rumors I hear and imagine come from scared people needing to make sense of a tragedy that doesn’t make sense emotionally. When I hear my own thoughts bludgeoning me with blame I try to let it go. If you are attempting to rebuild your life after losing a child, you have to let go of the guilt and instead focus on the good things you shared with your child. You can’t move forward endlessly re-addressing guilt. If you look back, find the positive.
Guilt has a purpose; it’s our inner voice, soul, that human part of us that knows right from wrong, telling us to change our behavior because our actions are destructive to ourselves or others. But this emotion of wrongdoing is often misdirected when a child dies. More than likely, your actions, thoughts, or lack of actions did not contribute to anybody’s death; if they did, it was a terrible accident. Accidents, like death itself, are part of life. You can not change the past, but you can improve the future. Put your energy into life.