Is It Time To Forgive Yourself?
By Rob Anderson in Grief Digest Magazine October 3, 2012
Each year, I’m invited to an Alumni Night by my support group. Every year, I go to let the
newly bereaved know that (if they are willing to work on it) they can survive the deaths of their
children and lead good lives again. Now, close to fourteen years down the road, my smile and
the life of my son came back to me years ago.
Near the end of the meeting, as questions and answers went back and forth, a bereaved
father said quietly under his breath, “I wonder what more we could have done? What
decisions should we have made differently?” There was pain in his voice and he had tears in
his eyes. I suspect there was guilt in his heart, too. His daughter had died from complications
brought on by diabetes. Then, someone else spoke quickly and we never got back to him. On
my way home, I started thinking about self forgiveness and what a great benefit it can be on
the journey to a better life.
Those feelings of guilt associated with, “If only…” or, “Why didn’t…” or, “Should we have…”
are common. We think back and ruminate over and over about the decisions we made (or
didn’t make). We try to figure out how it all went wrong when our child died. It’s easy to beat
ourselves up with, “What if?”
When we make a decision, we think it’s the correct decision at that time. If we think it’s wrong,
we don’t decide to move forward. Before we make a decision, we use the information
available to us based on our past experiences, advice from others and our best judgment. We
mix some, or all, of those together and sometimes it’s just a “best guess,” but when we do it,
we always, always, think it’s the right thing to do.
Even the person who gets upset with the boss and yells at him decided at some point that
yelling at the boss was the right thing to do. As he was yelling, he may have thought, “This is
wrong,” but he went ahead anyway because he had previously decided it was right. In
hindsight, it probably wasn’t the right thing to do, but at the moment it was chosen, it felt right.
That’s why second guessing can be so destructive. “Why did I decide to yell at my boss? That
was really dumb.” It only was dumb because at the choice point it lacked information.
Hindsight is always 20/20!
Some decisions work out, and some don’t. If it turns out the decision you made was wrong or
not even made (which is a decision too), you then use that experience to make a better
decision next time. Perfect doesn’t visit us all that often. We can make a perfectly round tire or
find a perfect answer to a math problem, but “humans” and “perfect” and “emotions” just don’t
go together too frequently.
Any decisions we made in regard to our children, were made in the best way we could with
the information available to us at that time. We did what we thought was right. If we hadn’t
thought it was right, we wouldn’t have made it! What’s been done can’t be undone, only
learned from. Even if we later say, “I could have done better,” there was no way for us to know
it at that time. “I could have done better,” is second guessing, and it’s not healthy or
Let’s say your child died in a car accident after you gave him the car keys and you’re now
saying, “If I hadn’t given him the keys, he wouldn’t have died.” You had no way of knowing he
was going to have an accident and die. If you had thought he was going to die, you certainly
wouldn’t have given him the keys.
For those parents whose child completed suicide, you may be saying, “How could we have
missed the signs? Why were we so stupid?” You didn’t see the signs because that information
wasn’t available to you yet. If you’d seen them, you would have certainly acted differently.
For the man who thinks maybe they could have done more for their diabetic daughter, he may
be saying, “Was there another test or another medicine or another therapy that could have
helped her live?” Even if there had been, he had no way of knowing it. Perhaps a medication
was still being formulated, but it was never seen by him. He couldn’t have done anything
different than what he did. He did his best.
What do we do with the guilt when we find that the decision we thought was right turned out to
be wrong? (Or, if we didn’t make any decision at all?) If we even occasionally say, “What if,
what if, what if,” our guilt, and the horrible emotions that brings might never leave. They can
abuse us and tear us apart, and they have the potential to destroy our relationships with
First of all, feel the guilt and try to understand why you have the guilt. Don’t run from it, deny it
or try to hide it. Investigate it and learn from it. Do your best to express it in positive ways by
talking or writing about it, beating up a pillow, crying or any other way that works for you. Let
the guilt in, experience it. Let it out through positive expression, and then do your best to let it
go. Let it in, let it out, let it go. There’s no upside to guilt if it creates an ongoing disturbance in
your life, in the relationship with your child, or with others in your life.
To move forward in your journey, try this to see if it can help. If you say, “I did the best I could
at the time with the information I had and I forgive myself for any mistakes I may have made,”
and if you truly believe that, the guilt can disappear and be gone forever.
One way that can facilitate letting go of your guilt is to speak, or write, an apology
to your child and to ask for their forgiveness. They will surely give their forgiveness! They
know you did the best you could at the time you made your decisions. You believed your
choices were correct or you wouldn’t have made them. Even if you now believe you could
have done better, you did the best you could based on what you knew at the time.
By speaking your request out loud, or writing it down, you give it a voice. It’s no longer hidden
in an unspoken thought or action. The guilt is being released from your inner prison, and once
it’s out, it can leave. If it’s never out, it can never leave. When it’s gone, you can work at
forgiving yourself. Forgiving yourself can be a significant step forward in finding your smile
and finding the blessing in the life of your child. You did the best you could; try and forgive