After my husband died, we had many friends and family who came to visit. People brought us meals, cards, and abundant gifts for my girls. But there were two uninvited guests who kept showing up at my door at the most inopportune times. Their names were Guilt and Shame.
After an intense and harrowing four-month cancer journey, I was especially haunted by guilt that I didn’t do more to save my husband. I agonized over whether or not we had chosen the right treatments. I questioned God if I should have done this or that to make my beloved more comfortable in the end.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I found the peace I needed to release my guilt. A friend reminded me that when my husband was diagnosed with cancer he was already in stage four. There is no stage five cancer. There was not anything I could do to “save” my husband at that point. In fact, now I realize it’s arrogant for me to even entertain the idea that the treatments we choose will “save” a life. We do our best and follow His leading, but the number of our days is up to God alone.
I also felt guilt about not allowing more visitors to see my husband in his final days. I know many of our friends and family felt guilty for not seeing my husband or reaching out to him before his death. No one realized how aggressive his cancer was. I felt very protective of him in his final days. I knew he was very weak and wasn’t himself. I had to make that hard call to limit the visitors. Later, I took on the guilt of our friends and family who did not get to say their final goodbyes.
When I became a widow and an unexpected single parent, I began to feel guilt and even shame about asking people for help. Without my life partner, I suddenly needed assistance with common household tasks and repairs. Some of these things I weathered through by myself. I learned to do things like taking out the garbage and locking the doors at night – tasks my husband always covered. On some things, I allowed friends to help me. One friend came to fix my garbage disposal, another walked around my home and found things that needed to be repaired.
In that season, I grew an empathetic heart for single mamas. I realized how difficult it is to arrange childcare and to taxi drive kids to events when you’re the solo parent. I would ask for help, but sometimes I felt guilty. I’m grateful for the friends who generously offered up time in their busy schedules to love on my kids so I could attend meetings and work.
I felt guilty for leaning on my friends so much for emotional support. Of course, my tribe wanted to be there for me but it was an emotional shift for me because I was used to being there for them. I had to allow myself to be vulnerable and invite them to sit with me in my grief.
In the last few years of this grief journey, I’ve discovered through research and friends’ experiences that it’s common for widows to feel guilty after a spouse dies. It’s also characteristic for children and other family members to take on guilt. We have a lot of time on our hands to mull over what we could have done differently and guilt sneaks in. For some, this becomes an even deeper battle against shame.
Brene Brown, shame researcher and author of Daring Greatly, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” She differentiates in her book that guilt is best understood as the attitude “I did something bad,” while shame is believing “I am bad.”
For me, I realized I really had to put my self-talk in the check. There were times when I was particularly sad or feeling insecure because of my grief that I found myself swimming in self-doubt. I wondered if I could go on. I doubted if I could be a good mother to my three girls who desperately needed me to lead and love them well. I wrestled with simple decisions. I found myself resenting household and mothering tasks because I had to do them alone. In those times, my guilt could quickly move to shame if I let it.
When I find myself sitting at the table with shame and listening to her lies again, I have to remember the weapons of what Brene Brown calls “shame resilience.” She says “shame derives its power from being unspeakable” so the first weapon is to call out or name guilt and shame. I learned to just tell my people, “Hey, I’m having a hard time asking for help today but can you help me with…”
My second strategy is one I learned years ago through Beth Moore’s Bible study, Breaking Free. She taught a method for visualizing and taking captive any controlling thoughts. The idea is that you recognize the lie you are hearing in your head and you stand up against that lie with God backing you. Then you tear down that lie from the walls of your mind and put up truth from God’s word. Finally, you make that lie bow down to the truth.
Beth writes, “Taking thoughts captive to Christ doesn’t mean we never have the thought again. It means we learn to ‘think the thought’ as it relates to Christ and who are in Him.” Beth’s method and values help me put things into perspective. Feelings of guilt and shame are natural for all humans but what we do with those thoughts and feelings is important in allowing us to move forward.
I want to encourage you fellow widow mamas and others on the grief journey to bathe yourself in the grace and compassion of Christ in this process. Let these words from Hebrews 4:16 wash over you: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Friends, we are not meant to walk this journey alone. Today, with God’s help, I’m inviting Courage, Resilience and Grace to my table.