The grief of losing a loved one is painful by its very nature, but it is even more difficult when you are carrying a sense that you have failed them in some way. Maybe you feel you’ve let your loved one down, that you didn’t meet their expectations, or that they see you as a failure. You may feel guilty that you were not with them in their final moments, or worry that you were not a good enough son or daughter. These kinds of doubts can weigh heavy in your heart, mind, and body, making it difficult to go on with your life. While you might need to just feel your grief, you may also find it helpful to think about your loved one differently.
Many of my patients who have had these kinds of thoughts and fears imagine that their loved one is looking down on them in judgment. Even when they don’t fully believe in an afterlife, they still struggle with a feeling of being judged.
As we discuss the situation, they acknowledge that if there is an afterlife, they imagine that their loved one is a more fully realized version of themselves. Their physical and emotional pains are largely lifted. Their inner tensions and struggles dissipate, leaving them at peace. With further thought, my patients realize that this “enlightened” state means that the person who died has a fuller understanding of life, making them more loving, compassionate, and forgiving.
Though these patients know they really can’t be sure what the afterlife is, all of this feels true to them. It seems natural.
We then explore the implications of this and find deeper meaning. Consider Linda (a fictional patient). Her father had been an alcoholic and was often verbally abusive, especially when he drank. Despite the emotional pain he caused her throughout her life, she still felt guilty for not being present when he died of a heart attack.
When she thought about the situation from his perspective, she at first imagined him as being angry with her, as he often was in life. But then when I asked what she imagined him to be like in the afterlife, she said that she thought of him as being free of his alcoholism, like he was when she was young and before he struggled with alcohol. She imagined him as smiling, happy, and loving. With some prompting, she realized that this version of her father would look at her with compassion, understanding how she could not have realistically been there when he died. He would also understand and be forgiving of the anger she continued to feel toward him. Once she thought of him as free of his own demons, she could also see herself through the eyes of her father as the loving man he could not be in life.
Importantly, this view of him also allowed her to fully accept who he was -- both the good and the bad. By accepting him as a whole person, she realized that she was more respectful of him than when she would unrealistically try to deny his flaws.
If you relate to feeling like you’ve let a deceased loved one down, you may find this mental exercise helpful. Imagine your loved one free of their inner demons, able to have an honest understanding of who they were in life while also viewing you with a clear mind and loving heart. In seeing your loved one in this way, you may finally experience more peace, even as you grieve.