Warning: this post is about sorrow, grief, sadness, regret, guilt, etc. It is probably not uplifting, certainly is not humorous, but these words are echoes in my mind and I need to write about them. I won’t be upset if you choose not to read further. You who are bottom-liners should absolutely read no further–you will not understand and I will make you crazy. Seriously. Just move on. For others, maybe these “word games” can help you.
I receive a weekly newsletter from PBS Next Avenue (that I highly recommend to seniors and almost-seniors), and today there was another article about grief. The article referenced George Bonanno, who describes three kinds of grief (acute, chronic, or resilience), and it, as have other articles about emotional effects of loss, brought tears to my eyes as I related what I was reading to Bob and Mom and Dad. There are folks who will tell me to simply not read such articles, to not think about my losses, and just get on with whatever. However, while that strategy might work for them, it does not for me. What does happen, though, is that I begin to think about the meanings of the words we use to describe various emotional states and the power those words have to define (sometimes falsely) how I feel. So, after a morning of tearing up while at my local, I concluded that I should just go ahead and think about these words and how they do or do not describe my ongoing and changing feelings. Maybe doing this will help me understand what I feel and help me move to a place of contentment.
Grief is defined as sharp sorrow or keen mental suffering over loss. I think this is what I (and most others) felt immediately after each death. It physically hurt, and such phrases as “it brought me to my knees” would be accurate in describing the effect of grief in the relatively early times of loss for me. From the Irish, a keen is a wailing lament for the dead, and for me, grief did bring on such a response in the early days. Perhaps these reactions help move us away from that severe and sudden anguish and heartbreak that each loss causes. We call those whose loved one(s) die “the bereaved”, which means made desolate (alone, abandoned) through loss. If this bereaved feeling continues it becomes despair, and this is probably a part of the chronic type of grief that lasts eighteen months of longer (acute grief describes a person who recovers within eighteen months, and resilience describes those who return to mostly normal functioning within six months [the majority]). For me, grief does not seem to describe how I feel now when these tears come to my eyes at the thought of Bob’s death. I mostly function normally and I experience happinesses and pleasure, and have done since the early days. But then, why am I still crying?
Three other words help answer the question, and all can be wrapped into one–sorrow–with just a few places where they don’t really fit so well and bulge a bit at the seams. The three words are guilt, remorse, and regret, and I recognize myself and the origins of my feelings in each of those words.
- Guilt. Defined as a state of culpability for some violation or moral or penal law, where culpable means deserving blame. Blame is the laying of responsibility for a fault, error, or neglect on a person. Guilt, then, is a feeling that arises from recognition that my mistake or neglect has caused harm and I have taken the blame or the blame has been put on me by others for that harm. You recall the harsh word or the loss of temper–maybe due to lack of sleep or hope. You recall the words said and unsaid. You recall things done or not done. You recall promises made but not kept. Of course, there were reasons, but when you get right on down to it, reasons don’t count–actions do, and harms were inflicted, and they cannot be taken back. So, guilt. Rightly or wrongly, there it is. Guilt compounds grief. The dead cannot forgive.
- Regret. Regret is distress of mind, a sense of sorrow about wrongs committed or errors made. Regret is similar to guilt, but I think it is easier to lay aside. I can regret my actions but not take on serious guilt that, once taken on can rarely be shaken off. Regret also seems to me to be personal, while guilt and blame can be laid by others. Guilt becomes part of the external image we believe others have of us, but regret may not. Sometimes that can be worse, as we start to wonder what would the other person think if they really knew me. That road can lead to isolation and despair. It is possible, I think, for regrets to be felt and then left behind–something that guilt does not let happen easily, especially when it is assigned by others.
- Remorse. Remorse is a deeper form of regret. It is emotionally painful, a distress due to conscience. It arises when I believe that I have committed a moral wrong–even when others would not agree that my act was in any way wrong. A promise not kept because it became impossible. It seems to me that remorse involves taking an action that I believe is wrong but take anyway. The act may in fact not lead to any harm to others, but may lead to my perception that I am not a good person because I knowingly acted against my own moral code. In this way, remorse is akin to guilt. I take the blame for my action (or nonaction) and am unable to forgive myself.
These states of mind all belong within sorrow to some degree. Sorrow is distress caused by loss, or affliction, or disappointment. Grief can bring sorrow, as can regret and remorse, but they are not the same thing. Sorrow is the more general word describing distress. I think that the lingering feelings of distress and the teary-eyed moments that seem to come from nowhere are sorrow, but not grief. Sorrow can be triggered by many things, including grief, but to focus solely on grief as the cause may be unhelpful if we ignore the others aspects of sorrow that may need exploration that can lead to healing. Grief may surely have been the initial trigger, but once the staggering anguish of loss has lessened, these others–guilt, regret, remorse–may come to the fore or be added on top. Grief resulting from the death of a loved one does not lessen from forgiveness. There is no need to be forgiven for a death that I did not cause. The sorrow that comes from grief when the death happens will not be eased by forgiveness, but only solace and time. But these other sorrows might be. The burdens of guilt, of remorse, of regrets can be overcome or eased, but only after they are recognized as sources of my distress. If I believe that I am suffering chronic grief, that I am abandoned and alone without hope, I will live in despair. If I believe that I am suffering distress due to feelings of guilt, or regret, or remorse, then hope has not been lost, but remains to be reached toward and perhaps found.
Words, names, all. But I am a person who believes in their importance and their power. Discovering their real meanings allows me to think about how I can distinguish between various states of mind and paths to enlightenment and healing. I aspire to a life of contentment–ease of mind, happiness from satisfaction with my place in the world. I think that understanding my feelings helps me achieve that aspiration. I hope that you have been helped,too.
[All definitions are from The American College Dictionary, 1967.]