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Grief Questions: Shame, Blame, Guilt Spirals

Grief and loss are universal experiences that touch us all at some point in our lives. Whether we're mourning the loss of a loved one, a cherished pet, a relationship, or a part of ourselves or our lives, the journey through gries often filled with a landscape of emotions and challenges that can shift and layer like the weather. In these tender times, as we navigate the depths of our sorrow, it's natural to question our worthiness of love and belonging, or even have anger, blame, and confusion about others or the events.

One of the most difficult aspects of grief is the in-between space we find ourselves in. This space is neither the past nor the future but a liminal space where we're trying to make sense of a world that has been forever altered by loss. It's a place of constant flux, where we may find ourselves oscillating between numbness and overwhelming emotions. The between space is between the way things were to what they will be when we are “through this,” which what people say is the goal. “You’ll get through this.” So, we look to that as some misty comfort, like we'll pass through some curtain and arrive into our other life. Or, feel some pressure to do so.

In this foggy space, we often engage in a process of assessing and reassessing everything in our lives, wanting to get back to feeling some recognizable sense of self and life rhythms again. We may find ourselves replaying past events, wondering if we could have done things differently, or if we or another is somehow to blame for the loss we've experienced. Maybe they actually did do some awful things. Any of these thoughts can be distressing, but spinning in distracting lists, memories, re-countings can also be a form of self-protection, a way for our minds to make sense of the incomprehensible. This can even happen years later, say, on an anniversary or an important life event, or a moment trips a memory and the absence of them is pronounced.

Inner Grief Spirals: Sneak Attacks, Sense and No Sense

For example, on the tenth anniversary of my mother's passing, I found myself consumed with guilt and self-doubt. I questioned if I had done enough to save her, if I had taken different actions, if I could have somehow prevented her death. That was not only not possible, but also, not within her wishes to prolong her struggles. The thoughts of sitting there while she died and "doing nothing" were painful, but this focus on that one statement was also a way for me to cope with the overwhelming wave of grief I suddenly felt again after all of these years. It was about three weeks of spiraling in these questions and emotions. Sometimes, we use guilt, blame or shame as a placeholder for an experience that is so endless and large, it seems like a better option. At least it has a beginning, a middle, an end, as opposed to the less mathematical loss that seems to have no sensical conclusion. We are problem solvers by design. If something is wounded, our automatic being sets about tending to it, a germ, a scratch, a broken bone, a broken heart, even if it can't reset it in the best position.


Here’s a personal example:

On the tenth anniversary of my mother’s passing, I somehow began wondering, then emotionally preoccupied, if I might’ve killed her simply because I was present and alone with her for a couple of hours when she passed and “did nothing to stop it.” As if I had some power to stop this train, or that it was even her will for me to prolong what was happening to her.

Here's what actually happened:

Of course, when I arrived, I quickly realized what was happening, and I did exactly as she needed. I called the hospice nurse number and knelt beside her, maintaining eye contact with her for hours, holding her hand, talking with her, who could only speak to me through her gaze, until her breath stopped. I crumbled, in fact, panicked for a brief moment at her last breath. Her eyes shot open wide, as she gasped, staring at me like she was so surprised, surveying me steadily, as if to be sure I was actually going to be ok, until her eyes relaxed as I focused on her entirely, and her actual final breath came and went. This felt to me to be a most profound experience of love, maybe the most loving moment between us. She and I would be alone for a couple more hours before anyone else arrived, and I stayed beside her until then.

When the hospice nurse arrived, she was quietly tending to some whatever she was doing, and I attempted to wash my mother's face. I could not. Instead, I laid next to her in the bed and cried. In that moment, I was not a hospice nurse, an interfaith minister, or anything or anyone other than a daughter whose mother had just died. It was a profound ending of something my being didn't understand.

She was barely started in home hospice and it was surprising that this was her last morning, no question. It was perfect timing that I was there with her as she was, even though it was the plan for me to arrive when I did. She was joking the night before that she, "couldn't even die in peace," because I was there, the phone was ringing as I was lining up all the new home hospice arrangements with her insurance, etc. There were several funny things the night before. She wanted me to come an hour later than I had been to "give her a break," so I did. I had arrived ready to paint something joyful and symbolic for her to look at with her changing vision. I brought an antipasto for myself for lunch and a steak bomb sub knowing she couldn't eat it but would enjoy smelling it and it would be funny for both of us. Her humor and stamina seemed very much intact the night before. My brother was flying in that night. I was not expecting her to be in the state that I found her in. She was unable to speak, laying on her side, in bed. When I got home late that night, there was a message from her on my voicemail from much earlier that morning, maybe an hour before I got there? I was dropping off the kids, getting lunch for later, and then to her. The voicemail imprinting her final voice said to me, "I love you, thank you, good-bye." She had a sense of whatever was changing in her. She was calm, clear, not asking for me to hurry. She knew I was on the way. The coroner report said cardiac arrest, natural causes as cause of death.

Here's what my brain decided:

I should have spent the night. I should have gotten there earlier, called an ambulance, anything... something. How could I just watch? What does that make me capable of? Did I want this?

In short, when 10 years had passed like a blink, my mind created an exquisite, protective diversion like a placeholder. We do this when the actual pain is too large for us to wrap around. A loss can be too striking, so infinite we can't quite make sense of it. I was even a little mad she was gone before we got to be and do some pretty ordinary things. If I saw older mothers and daughters out to a simple lunch together, I was envious and cranky. And now, 10 years later, my mind-heart gave me a placeholder for something too big and endless, unsolvable, to give me a place to land. A big, ugly, scary story with a beginning, middle, end, like a mathematical placeholder to noodle, can seem preferable and even protective to our subconscious/conscious mind, until we are ready to snap out of it, and take another step, if we allow ourselves...thankfully.

A commonality in these stories, this math we create, is a sense of unworthiness, a dark secret, which can show up as shame or guilt, blame of self or others to sift and sort, release, rewrite, converse with, explore. When we create a story, we shift the pain toward ourselves or others rather than the vastness of the loss itself when we may have no idea what to do, feel, or resolve about it. How often do we turn on ourselves in a complicated situation because approaching it from any other position is too confrontational or too challenging? It's somehow easier to blame ourselves than to allow a situation to simply be painful. We want to solve everything.

What is fact? Learning to Trust Grief is Messy

Whether your loss is from a new, life-changing diagnosis, a divorce, a death of a loved one or something else, it's easy to relate from this share how thoughts can create a narrowed perspective that leads to feelings of guilt, shame, or blame, and surprise us even much later when we thought we did this work already.

We can approach these feelings with kindness and compassion instead of dwelling on what could have been done differently. When locked in a mental spiral of harsh reflections, try asking yourself, "What else is true?" This can help shift your perspective and open you up to new possibilities. As you allow your system to respond to this seemingly simple question, you allow your mind, body, spirit to recognize lived experience as well as possibilities that don't quite fit the harsh spiral, but that you can accept as true and find an anchor in to rest with.

As you can see in the very personal share of mine, "What else is true?" is an excellent option to re-track the spiral of my mind loops and there are many other elements to what was true, accountable, and anchoring for me to redirect my mind formations as I emotionally, physically, spiritually continued to reconcile the loss of my mom. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers or timelines in grief, only your unique experience and journey, which has many paths. Mastering the interactions with our mind loops of our mental spaces gives us an opportunity to welcome a heartfelt peace. Focusing on our interactions, my actual actions, her call, allows a heartfelt peace to walk side by side with the sadness of being without her, of all the moments I will likely always wish we could have had.

Grief is messy and non-linear, and it's okay to feel a range of emotions, even ones that seem contradictory or irrational. What could have been the consequences if I gripped these ideas as fact? What if I went to the police and turned myself in? That's extreme, but it is an example of how seriously we take persistent thoughts and feelings. It's a reminder that good self care is knowing when to loosen the grip and creates space for more thoughts and feelings. People feel in grief that their lives are no longer worth living, that relationships once enjoyable, they find anger, impatience, and blame and are no longer tolerable. There are many extremes we arrive to when we hold these moments too tightly that ripple with great consequence into other areas of our lives. It is good to experience these feelings, waves, questions, thoughts more like all manners of weather that come and go like a season than as something to be solved, resolved, decided into.

Outer Grief Spirals: Relationships and Grief

Healing, embracing life after loss and upheaval move in and out like tides of reflecting and re-evaluating our relationships, both with ourselves and with others. It's about understanding who we are as individuals and together as we connect with what we need when life is steady, shifting, or re-sculpting in the wake of this loss.

We may blame ourselves or others for the loss, or we may feel we have an unlovable secret and turn away from support when others try to reach for us. We may feel they don't understand or wouldn't care for us if they knew the truth about us or the situation. These feelings are a natural part of the grieving process. We have a sense of what has happened and also, it makes no sense to us. Here, it's important to remember that these feelings and thoughts do not define our worth, AND they may be true distortions of the events.

A sign we may be living into protective ideas and prefer no sense of comfort, is we grip tightly to a painful "truth" and no one can seem to convince us of anything else, no matter how true or rational their viewpoint is. When we start to question our very value, our worthiness, or the worthiness of another, it is a slippery slope of belonging, importance; and healing our own loss and place in the world becomes harder to reach.

In addition to feelings of being ashamed of our perceived failures or shortcomings, or being angry at ourselves or what won't get to be, we may be angry or upset with others for the loss we've experienced, or the ways others conducted themselves, decisions that were or weren't made. We can become very rigid about this. We might find ourselves questioning our own actions or the actions of others, or we might face limitations due to financial constraints or difficulties accessing healthcare or communication and cast blame there. It can also be challenging when well-meaning people try to convince us otherwise.

Our relationships are complex, often filled with histories and dynamics that we've learned to navigate carefully. Sometimes, trust and roles within these relationships can be deeply compromised, leading to estrangement before, during, or after our loss. When faced with expectations due to our roles, titles, or legal responsibilities, we can find ourselves questioning roles and belonging, considering what is a burden, who is capable, trustworthy, and how does everything fit together in this time, and it can add to the vulnerabilities we feel. It can even become the basket where we unload extra feelings and thoughts we don't know what else to do with.

A clue this is happening is when we have a much more intense reaction or preoccupation than we might otherwise have. We choose an element that is already loaded with truth and pile into it. Are your thoughts, emotions, sleep, other conversations preoccupied with this? Some gentle tlc and support may be helpful here.

In mental, spiritual and emotional spirals, as we spin up, down, in twirls and swirls. 

It's important to consider our relationships in a non-transactional way. This means moving away from a mindset of "if this, then that" and releasing the sense of worthiness that can be tied to outcomes or expectations. This redirects us back to living into our own values, integrity, and life path.

Learning to connect with our relationships in the midst of our pain is a huge challenge. We may or may not know what we need and find ourselves questioning, feeling disappointed or resentful towards others for not understanding our pain or for not supporting us in the way we need. We may have strong ideas how they could be engaging the situation that we perceive as being the most helpful, and that could be not happening. These feelings can be isolating, but they can also be an opportunity for growth, understanding, and healing.

Although overwhelming, and seeming to wreak their own brand of havoc, these relationship challenges are also a normal part of the grieving process. Just as before, while the thoughts and feelings may have some fact, it is also possible to allow them to be held more loosely, like the weather in seasons that we don't control or solve, instead of making harsh and difficult decisions. Healing and rest needs some space to reveal itself, for whatever that will become. We can employ our question of "What else is true?" here as well to allow a little breath as we heal for a wider lens to show itself.

These emotions and relationships can be an added challenge to what we are already experiencing, but it's important to honor your own process without shutting yourself off. Seek support from friends, family, or a therapist, and engage in self-care activities that nourish your soul. We may hear from others to approach ourselves with kindness and compassion. What does that mean?

Instead of judging ourselves or others in perceived failures or shortcomings, try to practice self-compassion and curiosity. Remember that you are worthy of love and belonging, no matter what you may be experiencing. Guilt, shame, and blame can often be snapshots of a moment we grab onto as placeholders as we are sifting the much larger wounds of the loss, and whenever possible, to extend beyond your grief to allow this grace to another person, even if there are questions, hurts, and unresolved spaces that arose during the time of the loss. This frees your emotions, thoughts and spirit to focus on your values, integrity, emotions and self care without placeholders as distractions. They can be a them, you can be a you.

If we strip away pointing fingers of shame, blame, guilt, etc, we can ask ourselves:

  • What determines someone’s value, someone’s worthiness?

  • Who’s truth is more true? The way we criticize ourselves when we are lost and in pain? The way a loved one looks at us and relies on us when they are in their most vulnerable or tender times? The way we keep track of the wrongs of the past? The way someone treats us in the present? The way we know ourselves in our core, our values? The way we show up in the world? Some mix of them all? Something else?

  • How do you reconcile these places?

What is the truth, and whose truth is more true?

We can ask to get the curiosity moving, “What else is true?” to help make a new list, and open us beyond the spin of assessing and reassessing the same things over and over,

...moving into what else could be possible. More than 1 thing can be true. We know this. We explored this here.

Your Grief Lens: Open Perspective

Really we are talking about pain, compensating for a loss of any sort that we are having trouble making sense of, or embracing life after loss. We can see from what we explored here: shame, guilt, overwhelm, rejection, blame, anger, that it is in our power to reconsider our present and our future, and even our past, to see our pain from another perspective, or a wider perspective, and to allow that to create shifts within us, change our view in the moment and over time, to crack the shell of our place holder-grief into grieving, which is a sorrow that does not close in on flaws, but is reflective and compassionate for the other, and also explores, eventually embodying the relationships and memories within ourselves in some way... and then chooses life.

We are not leaving someone or something behind, we are going forward, starting with the present.

We enter this new place of understanding, curiosity, conversation by asking:

What else is true? What is value? What do we value? Who am I now? How am I more for knowing this person? For who I have been? How can we have this conversation with ourselves tenderly, spaciously?

-> Consider writing some part of your loss story, your grief where you may feel you are in the between space, trying to find your way "Through It" by making those lists, assessing and reassessing, no matter how near or far a loss was. Use my share of my experience with my mother as a model if you like.

What do you keep hashing through as you could’ve done better or weren’t enough or someone else was a thus and such?

Ask, tenderly, What else is true?

If it comes with images, colors, shapes, music, song, lyrics, poetry, memories, smells, include them.

Please remember, no judgement of right or wrong answers. Be with yourself where you are. Be in the conversation you are wanting to have, whatever it is. Begin Peace now. Begin again. Begin again. Every now is new. It is on your time to be your own witness and your own caretaker, just as you are.

Grief and loss are transformative experiences that can challenge us in profound ways. By approaching ourselves and our relationships with kindness and compassion, allowing these spirals of thoughts and emotions to move like weather and seasons instead of cementing them as truths or problems to be solved, we can navigate these challenges with grace and resilience. You are not alone in your experience; support is available to help you through this difficult time, and we are all in it together.

I am glad you are here, and I am with you,

In Kindness,

Dr. Birdi Sinclair

Spiritual Guide, Peace Coach

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