Got Guilt?

If you’re expecting a work-related post, you can stop reading now. Today I’m writing about

Guilt, an emotion with dementor-like power to strip away our happiness and joy

This morning over coffee, I scanned the news, social media, and my email as part of my daily routine. I came across a note from a man that affected me so much that I sat down and wrote him a reply.

Here’s a paraphrased version of what the man wrote:

“My only child died, and I wasn’t a very good father to him. Every day I have guilt and grief, and I know that nothing will fill that hole in me. I’ll carry this to my grave. How do I turn this around?”

Let me distill his words a bit more: I’m overcome with guilt.

In the event that you, too, struggle with guilt, read my response:

Dear Friend:


I saw your post, and I’m very sorry for your loss. I don’t know that that kind of pain heals completely, but I can share with you my personal story and what I’ve done to move forward.


Years ago, I served a crisis counselor working in some of the “worst of the worst” abuse and neglect family situations. More than once, I needed to make judgment calls related to the safety of a child remaining in his home. One time, a child died at the hands of his “caregiver” on my watch, and I blamed myself for not intervening differently, sooner, better, whatever.


I carried that guilt with me for nearly 20 years. During those years I tried one self-destructive thing after another to shake my constant sorrow.


Then a friend shared a concept with me that he learned at Alcoholics Anonymous called “a living amends.” The concept of a living amends is that we don’t always have the chance to say “I’m sorry” directly to those we most wish to receive absolution from. How do we make peace in those circumstances so that we can begin to move on? We can live our lives each day as a living amends, making sure that we touch everyone who crosses our path for the better.


Fast-forward 20 years. Since I started practicing the concept of a living amends, I have purposed to touch the lives of as many people as I can. Yes, I still have periods of remorse, feeling unjustifiably responsible for the death of that child. But when those feelings creep in, I use those emotions as fuel to propel me to care for others, not to drag me down to the bottom of a bottle or to paralyze me from making any positive progress in my life. I take my regrets of yesterday to change how I care for people today, and it shapes how I listen when people are hurting.


And when I’m around children, I hold those moments sacred, believing in some way that I now have a second chance to make a difference.


No, there is no “do over” button. We can’t change yesterday, but we absolutely can learn from our errors to do better today. How do you remove guilt and grief? You get lost today helping the next person you come across. It won’t bring your son back. But you might help that person avoid the path you’ve walked. And you might get so lost in helping others that guilt starts to fall from center-stage and into the shadows where it belongs.


My best to you, friend.

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