What ifs and if only: Coping with guilt and grief

Coping with guilt and grief, Tolu Olajide siting on a bench in the woodland | Balanced Wheel | BW

I wouldn’t consider myself as someone who enjoyed writing, my family members can testify that I often prefer speaking to writing.

Chidinma and I would often decide the following year in November and make adequate preparations for the goals we set. 2020 was a year when we decided to pick up a family skill which was journaling.

I found journaling my unfiltered thoughts helpful, it meant I didn’t have to worry about anyone’s feelings or reactions as I wrote about my natural responses during the different stages of grief. Sometimes I wonder what the reaction of my journal pad would be if it has emotions.

In the period that I was withdrawing from everyone even from friends and family, I found myself a pen pal. It was a divine orchestration because I had never imagined I would be writing to a penpal in this day and age.

Did I just see you look puzzled, almost scratching your head and wondering what a pen pal is?

A penpal is someone you write friendly letters to and receive letters from, although the two of you may never have met or in some cases, have met and don't know well.

There seems to be a bit of confusion on when the first official Pen Pal relationship was formed, but most of the dates I discovered were in the 1930s. It dates to 1936, when its founder, a teacher, wanted to add spark to his classroom. He decided that students writing students from other countries could stimulate learning and curiosity, as well as a better understanding between cultures.

First, I tested the new relationship to discover if the approach of my new pen pal matched mine, etc. I then began to share extracts of my journal, especially where I wanted alternative answers to the ones, I had heard.

One of the things my pen pal helped me with was in this area of grief. We had several message exchanges. I wish I could share our conversation with you, but here’s what I will do. I will share a quick summary of our conversation and outcomes.

Writing to my penpal | Tolulope Olajide | Balanced Wheel | BW

One of the things my Digital pen-pal shared that began to help me overcome guilt was that:

  • My guilt assumes that I could have done something which could have changed the outcome, meaning that my actions could have made the difference.

  • There’s a big difference between being guilty and feeling guilty, I felt at fault even though there wasn’t much evidence by the way of our interaction to suggest otherwise.

  • The issue here is not guilt but it was my sense of helplessness and powerlessness; one statement that did it for me paraphrased was that “Tolu in the period when Chidinma was ill, you did everything you could do in good faith, and with genuine love. There was no way of knowing she would die.

  • My pen pal gently nudged me in the direction to find a way to forgive myself for the things I wished I did differently, more or better.

We often forget that the antidote for feeling is to be validated as we explore approaches to accept, integrate, and push ahead with these feelings. Guilt is a feeling and there are different types of guilt.

The feelings work differently to logic. I couldn’t stop feeling guilty because someone told me to. I wished it was like an on-off switch, unfortunately, feelings don’t work that way.

The principal step towards healing from guilt is to accept that it is a common and normal feeling of grief.

The combined emotions of guilt, grief, and regret work together to complicate the grieving process. It helps to separate each one of these emotions from the other so that one can effectively work through the grief.

You may feel overwhelmed and unable to move forward when trying to tackle all of these emotions. Take each one day at a time. My grief healing journey began when I was able to overcome grief-related types of guilt.

One of the reasons I am sharing this with you is because grief is both universal and unique, your experience and responses may certainly be different from mine.

I have this feeling that there’s probably someone whose response may not be too different from mine and I hope my conversation through this writing helps him or her. You ask me, in what way could this help?

One of the things I truly wish I had was to have someone or a resource that shared with me what their grief journey felt like.

I found that many whom I had the opportunity to speak with had healed and are carrying their grief and pain well. They often spoke out of the new place of healing they’ve found themselves.

I found some conversations to be like the “alpha and the omega experience.” For example, you will find in biblical texts about a character who has experienced a supernatural meeting with a spiritual being.

Whether through dream, sight, or hearing, in most of these texts, the character’s current situation is narrated followed by the spiritual being providing the character a piece of promising information about the future.

What I find largely omitted from these stories are the events in-between current and future. Of course, from further reading, we find out about the landmines and obstacles that the character faces to either accomplish or fail the mission they are assigned.

I find that it’s in these in-between stories that I am learning and being observant to ensure that I am walking in my own grief journey. The same is true when watching a movie. Imagine watching a new movie on Netflix, only for the movie to have shown the beginning and the end, missing out the in-between.

I suppose it is encouraging to see that there is hope.

That the emotions and the feelings of guilt one currently experiences after the death of a loved one won’t be forever as observed from people’s experience, but it doesn’t help one navigate through the mine-filled land one needs to navigate to get to this new destination of hope and thriving.

I don’t know about other ethnic groups, but I found this “alpha and omega” narrative to be true with those of African heritage especially around uncomfortable conversations such as grief and living with loss.

Those who shared their grief and loss journey with me were varied, ranging from loss of a spouse to loss of an unborn baby to loss of a baby to loss of parents to loss of a sibling.

I am forever grateful to those who let me into their journey to share the headlines of their struggles.

As your co-traveller on this journey to wholeness from grief and loss, may I ask two favours from you?

  1. Please open your gate of change

  2. Please share this post with someone in your circle who needs it

To Be Continued Next Wednesday...

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