When I was in college, I was called to visit a family whose family member had died that evening. As a young ministerial student, I was shocked by what I witnessed in their home. Mistakenly, I was under the belief that when people are grieving, they express it in two ways: crying and sadness.
When I entered the family living room, I was confronted with an angry mother and a guilt ridden husband of the deceased.
The mother was accusing her son-in-law of neglect and other failures. He did not respond to her criticisms but kept his head down in guilt. He made no eye contact with her or with me.
As I became more knowledgeable concerning the grieving process, I realized that grief uncorks all the feelings. We will feel such feelings as anger, guilt, relief, sadness, rejection, and anxiety. We may be angry with the doctors, with ourselves for not doing more, and even at the person who died. Why didn't she stop smoking? We asked her to stop but she refused. She could have lived longer. We are angry because we feel cheated.
Then there is guilt. When a person dies, we go through our memory bank and remember times we had with that person. Sometimes we feel guilt over things we said that were hurtful or for the lack of time we spent with that person. I know when my father died, I thought about the time we were fishing on our boat. I was upset with him when he ran the boat onto a sandbar. After he died, I remembered that incident and felt guilty.
Words spoken in anger are often remembered. Grief brings regrets to the surface. Unfortunately, death has taken away the opportunity to say, 'I'm sorry.' We need to stop beating ourselves up for being human because we are human and humans say and do things they will later regret. We have to learn to forgive ourselves.
We all have heard of or have experienced families having heated arguments and hurt feelings after a family member such as a parent dies. We hear statements such as, 'Mary is so greedy. She is trying to get everything. She always got more because she was the favorite.' In some families we see intense anger and there are accusations about things that person did in the past. Grief uncorks what I call 'historical' feelings.
These were feelings we tucked away about how the parents related to their children and about some of relationship games that were played. At the time, we did not say anything but now grief is uncorking and bringing them to the surface.
Unfortunately, feelings that are sat on for a long time ferment, become more intense and all encompassing when they are finally expressed. For most families these skirmishes are resolved but other families never mend.
Dr. William E. Austin is a licensed psychotherapist and holds a Doctor of Divinity degree. He is a therapist with Tidewater Pastoral Counseling Services . He is well known for his warmth and sense of humor. His book, Creating Our Safe Place - Articles on Healthy Relationships, can be purchased through www.amazon.com.
Tidewater Pastoral Counseling: 623-2700
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