Yes, guilt can kill you. I didn’t know this until after my brother Mark died. And I witnessed my mother getting trapped in a cycle of grief and guilt. She kept replaying the horrible tragedy of his suicide over and over in her mind.
Mom felt guilty for not recognizing Mark’s despair. She kept beating herself up saying, “If only I had…” If only, if only.
Two years later, my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I believe the tumor developed because of her overwhelming feelings of guilt.
My experience with grief and guilt
It wasn’t until my own son, Reed, died by suicide that I recognized how harmful it was to keep rewinding the story of his death. For months I wallowed in grief and guilt – playing the details over and over in my mind.
Then one day, I realized – I had become like my mother. At that moment I knew that if I kept going over the details of that evening leading up to Reed impulsively taking his life, I too could end up with a brain tumor. Guilt would kill me.
And I made a choice
From that moment on, every time an image would come, I’d say out loud, “Cancel, cancel, cancel!” Often, that would be enough to cancel the image.
But sometimes, another step was needed. Then I’d take a deep breath, look around my immediate surroundings and focus on something outside of myself. Something in the environment. Maybe it was a beautiful flower arrangement or the sun breaking through the clouds.
Or, I’d focus on a task I was doing – Oh, yes, I’m going back to baking these muffins.
With some especially difficult moments, a new perspective was needed. I would physically turn my body 90–180 degrees and take a deep breath. This would give me a different viewpoint and bring me back to myself.
Mind your neural pathways
In the book, The Brain that Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge says laying down new neural pathways is imperative during the healing process. That’s what you’re doing when you practice these steps.
Going over the same images again and again lays down deep pathways in your brain. And you don’t want that to happen. That’s how you get stuck and sick.
Doing something as simple as saying, “Cancel, cancel, cancel” can interrupt the pathway sequence and allow you to lay down new neural pathways.
Becoming conscious of your thoughts and feelings is the key.
When you begin to think, “If only I could’ve, would’ve, should’ve…” STOP! Take charge of the moment and do battle. Cancel those thoughts. Immediately look for something else to focus on.
Powerless to wholeness
Grief can render a person powerless until they remember they have a choice.
Kathy-Anne Lewis says, “We will always be as powerful as our inner and outer dialog allows us to be.” Are you going to give your inner dialog power over you?
I began my road to recovery when I realized the grief track in my brain is up to me – it’s my choice. I can rewind the image and let it play over and over. Or, I can say, “Cancel, cancel, cancel.”
An additional note
If, after trying these refocusing ideas, you’re still struggling, you may need help.
There may come a point when none of the above is working and you may need to just surrender and say, “These thoughts are overwhelming me.”
Then, seek help from a Higher Power. And consider seeking professional help too. Sometimes we simply can’t do it by ourselves.
Guilt can kill you. It killed my mother.
If you’re also grieving the loss of a child, or know someone who is, you may find this article helpful: Coping with grief after the loss of a child.
Love all around, above, below, to the left and to the right, before you and behind you,
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One million people die by suicide every year. The World Health Organization estimated suicide at the 13th leading cause of death around the world.
By the end of 2020, suicide became the 10th leading cause of death in the US.