Posted by: Jody Glynn Patrick | 08/22/2009

Four things to consider about “Guilt Grief” vs. “Good Grief”

(1) It doesn’t matter how old your child was.

Recently, after giving a presentation to a large group for which it was appropriate to mention the fact that my son died when he was a teenager, I was greeted in the parking lot by an elderly woman who wanted me to know that her son had died the previous year.

I’m used to these types of revelations. Every time I tell my story, I hear others. But after I thanked her for sharing, she didn’t walk away. She seemed glued to the spot. I noticed then that she was trembling slightly.

“Yes?” I asked, reaching for her hand.

She gave me her right hand to hold. It steadied her a little. And when she was ready to speak, she did: “When will I get to the point that I can talk about it as calmly as you?” she asked. The poor woman looked down because the tears she was holding back were obviously embarrassing to her.  “I don’t tell strangers about it at all, because I still cry,” she admitted.

She let go of my hand to hunt out a tissue from her purse. “But you,” she continued, “you only had 16 years with your boy, while I had a long while with my son. Fifty years we had him. So why do I still feel so bad?”

“So bad about your grief, or so bad about mine?” I asked gently.

 “Both,” she admitted. “I feel guilty for being so sad when I meet somebody like you. I feel guilty for all I got to do with my child that you couldn’t with yours, and guilty for being so sad because he died after he was an adult.”

“But you were still his mother when he died,” I replied.

“Yes,” she wept. “That’s right. And I don’t think I’m ever going to get over this as long as I live.” 

This eighties-something woman’s “guilty grief” was just as consuming, having spent half a decade loving that child, as is the fresh grief felt by the mother or father or step-parent or grandparent (fill in the blank) of a deceased five-year-old child — or the young adult who dies on the eve of their wedding. There aren’t right times to say good-bye to a child. It isn’t natural, regardless of our age – or theirs.

Likewise, mothers who deliver stillborn children or a parent who doesn’t even get to see the baby’s face because of an early miscarriage or an unwanted abortion (this isn’t a political or religious statement about pro-life or pro-choice or pro-abortion) – their grief for lost futures and their feelings that they lost a beloved child who had a personality and a presence in their lives is as reasonable and human and “right” as the old woman’s grief.

 (2) The quality of the relationship you had with your child, or the “quality” or method of your child’s life or of their death, doesn’t determine your depth of grief.

Parents who have chosen to be estranged from a child (and I use the word “parent” and “child” loosely, not based on age or legal definitions) must be afforded the privilege of respected grief, without defining or lessening the compassion in our hearts. That sounds counter-intuitive, but we can’t begin to understand the complexities of the parent-child relationship over the previous days or weeks or months or years, and we are not called to judge, but to support our grieving family, friends and neighbors.

Even when the death is “a relief” – at the end of early onset Alzheimer’s, after the child has suffered through chemotherapy or drug dependence, or was traumatically paralyzed, or even put to death by the state for horrendous crimes – when the monitors go still,  someone (or many) likely suffer a tremendously powerful, if even unexpected,  remorse.

Since I’ve counseled many people who have struggled so much through the course of their grief because of the quality of their relationships, or circumstances that impacted their child’s quality of life, I better realize how blessed I was that Daniel  and I were very close, with easy “I love you’s” and kisses. We laughed and hugged each other and left notes with “love” written on them. I wanted him with me, and he knew it. He wanted to be with me, and I knew it. We were fortunate that way.

I’ve met many parents who were really emotionally estranged, and those regrets made it difficult for some to believe that their child would choose to be “with them” in spirit after the death. And friends or neighbors who know they were estranged are sometimes expecting them to “get over it” more quickly.

Well, that just ain’t necessarily so, nor should it be the expectation.

 (3) You can’t sustain your own energy – your own life force — if you mentally or physically block your body’s natural defenses. And one of those defenses may be numbness.

Your brain and your body may induce natural periods of numbness or indifference in defense of a great shock to its system. And that may feel “wrong” to you, as if you are being disloyal to your loved one not to suffer all the time. Or perhaps your significant other isn’t grieving as “hard” as you expected, and perhaps that is because (while grief is necessary and natural, too) not everyone can bear tremendous psychological or physical pain 24/7 for extended periods of time.

“It is then that I carried you.” You may recognize those words. If you don’t, I would want to refer you to “Footprints in the Sand” and ask you to consider allowing yourself to be carried – if not by God or whatever you call your higher power, then by your own survival instincts, which insist that there ARE periods where you can sleep and eat and be numb.

Hearts really do break, and boundless grief really can destroy many lives.

I picture grief in a lot of ways – one is as a deep well; another is like a forest fire. A fire in nature is natural and necessary at appropriate times so that the forest can sustain itself. But a forest fire fanned by unusual weather patters, or burning out of control, can cause a lot of collateral damage. Being aware of what is “normal” and what is extreme, with the help of a grief counselor or other professional, can make a big difference in your future quality of life, as well as what you suffer through in the immediate aftermath of a death.

(4) You don’t know what you don’t know… especially when grief confounds things.

Once I counseled a father who couldn’t beat himself up enough for surviving a car accident when his young child did not. He tried to atone for that by actively grieving 24/7.

“How’s your sleep lately?” I asked, opening where we had left off during the previous session.

“Not really any difference there,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Well… even when I’m flat out exhausted and I really want to sleep, I just lay in bed and I keep replaying the accident over and over in my head. I just can’t make myself go to sleep. My brain don’t work like that.”

“So how much sleep are you getting on an average night now?”

“I don’t really know. I just lose consciousness for a little while here and there, and then come back to reality again. So I give up and get up and get on with it, you know? It’s not like I’m drinking or anything to fall asleep. I’m not doing that at all. That’s good, right?”

I wasn’t so sure. Moderate self-medicating with alcohol is a common tactic to deal with pain. I knew from his history form that he was a social drinker; denying himself the comfort of so much as a glass of wine was another red flag to me at this point.

“The last time we talked, I suggested you see your doctor about sleeping medication, and you agreed that was an option,” I prompted. “What’s the status of that option?”

“I guess I don’t want to, if you get right down to it,” he replied. “I don’t feel right about mediating myself so I can sleep with what I did. And you said it was okay to feel the way I wanted to feel, and that’s how I feel.”

That’s the tricky thing about grief counseling: people aren’t actively listening or comprehending clear messages when in a grief fog (or exhausted), nor are they always particularly lucid about what’s happening to them. He heard me give him a free license to beat himself up if he felt like it. But actually, I suggested he become aware of his feelings, and act responsibly on those.

His feeling was sleepiness; his behavior was active denial.

There is a difference between natural sleeplessness and forced wakefulness.

I reminded the gentleman that it took a lot of energy to grieve, and if he wanted to utterly grieve (as he clearly needed and wanted to do), he might benefit from building up the reserves. Likewise, there is a difference between guiltless grief and what he was suffering through, and I asked for permission at that juncture to build a professional team to deal with his more serious intent of spending a lifetime serving penance. I suggested we involve other health professionals in his treatment program (at the very least, his primary care physician — and better, a psychiatrist).

Every case is different, and self-help books and grief counseling are a first step. So is taking a walk and petting a dog and taking a prescribed antidepressant. It’s important to give yourself permission to do what it takes to be a little kinder and gentler to yourself so you can build back up your reserves — even if it is to sustain the long road ahead in the grieving process.

Grief is, in fact, a process, and a crazy one at that. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s death-and-dying work was groundbreaking, but even she said her five stages of grief (my next blog) aren’t always a precise recipe. Grief follows a typical process, but it isn’t a predictable one-through-five lockstep.

American society only began considering grief as a science in the 1970s – Harriet Sarnoff Schiff’s book, “The Bereaved Parent” was “the only book of it’s kind”, said Penguin Press, and it was reviewed by Newsweek in 1977 because it simply brought the fact that some children die before their parents into polite conversation then. That alone was controversial enough for coverage.

So how are we to know what to do when we are grieving? What’s normal? What’s not?

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do have some informed tips, and my last one this morning is this: grief/numb/maybe even accidentally happy/denial/numb cycling is not a betrayal of your child or their memory, or a betrayal of your partner’s grief or your surviving children’s grief. You will do a great service to yourself and to all who love you by feeling what you feel when you feel it without fighting it, and then reacting appropriately – which sometimes means getting more help to deal with threatening feelings like being overwhelmed or suicidal or sexually careless because you just want to feel GOOD (or HELD) for a MINUTE.

Grief counseling isn’t about getting a pass to be crazy; it’s about helping you maintain your sanity.

Hope to see you at the watering hole again soon.


This article is copyrighted by the author. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reprinted without permission of the author. ©Copyright 2009: Glynn Patrick & Associates


  1. Jody,

    We’ve walked this path with you for over 7 years, now, and drawn strength and energy from your friendship and your counseling. This gift you are sharing, here, for other bereaved parents is a lifeline. It can help provide the courage to move forward in a world that has stopped after the death of a child.

    Thank you for lovingly sharing and caring, as only you can.

    Donna & Dave

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