Guilt, Grief and Regeneration

A breakthrough to healing can come at the most unexpected time. The other night I was trying to divert myself by watching a mystery episode from an old British series. Instead of taking my mind off things, this story pushed me into a past history I had long kept at a safe distance.

The film built its story around a soldier haunted by his experience of violent death in Bosnia, especially the sight of a basement floor piled deep with the corpses of women and children. Much later, after his return to civilian life, the shock of another act of violence brings back the Bosnian memories and plunges him into such an intense guilt that he loses his power of speech. A minister, he somehow internalizes guilt for such horrors that have nothing to do with his own actions and is even driven to seek atonement for them. And so he tries to find punishment by confessing to a killing he did not commit. It’s based in part on Pat Barker’s fine novel, Regeneration, about a World War I combat veteran slowly brought back to health through the efforts of a gifted psychiatrist. These stories bring to life the hard work of recovery.

Certain dramatic scenes often have powerful resonance for me, often triggering grief and tears, but I have never been able to understand what was going on. Why should such powerful feelings fill me in response to fiction? I could see reasons for such reactions when brought on by the real-life stories of veterans suffering complete collapse from the traumas of combat. However, I thought of that more as empathy for their suffering rather than as response to my own far less violent family disturbances. The other night, though, things began to get clearer.

I could finally feel that a gradually unfolding childhood in a family full of anger, blocked love, passive abuse, the refusal to show affection, all of it was a prolonged losing battle, a slow-motion shock. Over and over again, it seemed I didn’t measure up, couldn’t do things in quite the right way, didn’t take sides as expected to in the bitter arguments, the fist fights, the threats, sometimes with guns. But as a kid, unable to find acceptance from parents too wrapped up in their own sharp-edged disappointments, I could do the natural thing – take all the destructiveness on myself, find myself guilty of failing to set everything right, of being a coward, running from battle, a soldier trying to hide from confrontation. Instead of jumping into the combat, I watched it passively as it played out in front of me. It seemed to go by like an endless movie in which I had no role. Of course I was guilty, deserving scorn for emotionally stepping outside the raging feelings around me. There were times when I played the part and did small things I could really feel ashamed of – petty vandalism, lies, cheating. If everything else had failed, perhaps being bad would meet my parents expectations and win me a perverse place in their lives.

Repression is an unconscious thing, a costly mercy. A great trauma hits, especially when you’re young, and something clicks. Mind and feelings hide the whole thing away. In this case, I managed to get through the violent, angry scenes by losing awareness of all the intense feelings, the fear, the hurt, the rage that must have been there. All the feeling that I knew was the guilt. And so in time that part of my past receded more and more. I left it so far behind emotionally that I could joke about it with college friends after I had moved away and no longer had to deal with that life. Emotionally, the past became a non-event. It was taken care of without need for a thought, for a feeling, certainly not for the persistent guilt of childhood. Problem gone.

Many years later, something finally began to break open, and I could feel with the intensity I had pushed below memory. Mostly, though, the feelings rising to the surface come out only in the form of a deep grief. At first that baffled me – where was this coming from? I well remembered all the events of growing up but emotionally could not make the connection. I would just be moved to tears by stories about the losses and triumphs of others, their guilt, their regeneration into life, but not mine. For a long time, I didn’t know what it was I’d lost. There were only the grief and the tears that surged out unexpectedly.

Then I read Peter Kramer’s line in Against Depression that grief is not a common thing for severely depressed people since their feelings are so blunted and inaccessible. Grief is linked to resilience, to whatever life force is left to fight off suicide, to refuse, ultimately, to let your life be lost to this illness. It is a sign that life is flickering back up, that something good is finally coming from all that shutting down.

The story on film unlocked grief about the past, not guilt. Grief for what? Perhaps for everything lost, every bit of rage and hurt I might have let loose at the time, the loss of love, the hurt in the whole family – I still can’t get it quite clear in mind – though it’s clear enough in feeling. Such intense moments come back to me when listening to John Hiatt, who knows this experience so well:

I’ve cried till the past nearly drowned me

…. And I need to cry 30 years or so

These are tears from a long time ago

Are there breakthrough moments that you can share?

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16 Responses to “Guilt, Grief and Regeneration”

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  1. Donna-1 says:

    Grief. I just recognized it in myself a few months ago. Something was different, I could tell. I was still labeling the pain “depression”. But it wasn’t. Depression had turned into grief somewhere along the way. This new thing wasn’t the old plague of Black Death I had been fighting for years. Rather, this new thing was what I was feeling as I looked back over the accumulated destruction. I could accept grief, whereas I could never accept depression.

    If there were a depression vaccine, would I take it? If there were a grief vaccine, would I get in line? Apparently I have no natural immunity to either. I don’t think anyone does. Yes, I would roll my sleeve up and let Lilly or Pfizer or Merck inoculate me against future depression. But grief? No, I need the grief. It keeps me in line. Grief does not shame me or beat me down; it only agrees with me that something precious is gone.

  2. Doreen says:

    this is a great post!
    I repressed most of my childhood due to it being traumatic and still have trouble dealing with it.
    Dad went to Nam and came home a changed man – he had PTSD tilll he died 3 years ago and he put us through hell when I was a kid.
    Some movies and music will trigger my emotions.
    The scariest thing that happened to me was when I was 18 and home alone with dad one Friday night. A mate of mine threw gravel at the bedroom window and got dad’s room instead of mine. Dad woke up went straight into a flashback, loaded his rifle and went outside and shot at the tree (mom and dad had two really big bushy trees)and just missed the guy by a inch. I had to get in front of dad and speak to him like he was a soldier and disarm him, then took him back inside and put him to bed. Then I hid the rifle and ammo.
    I still have nightmares about it now! Didn’t tell mom and dad until 10 years ago because I was so freaked out about it and dad had no memory of it of course.
    Mom said dad did a lot of scary stuff when we were kids that she’s never told anyone about.

  3. Traci says:

    “Repression is an unconscious thing, a costly mercy”… how true. The poem? Rings true as well.

    I’ve lived through EXACTLY what you described in your childhood… I had that; and a mother who turned into a drunk because of my father’s philandering and his emotional detachment of love, commitment and protection of the women in his life, and women were one per generation, so there weren’t many females to look up to. My father wanted all boys for children, and he got me, a girl, so they tried again, I got a younger brother.

    I tried so hard to earn my father’s praise, it has NEVER been forth coming. To be appreciated for the wonderful human being I really was… But it never materialized with him. Even to this day.

    But I met a wonderful man who became my husband; and for almost 16 years, we were happy together. The first time I remember being happy since I was 7 years old or below. I became a widow at 43, 2 days after our 13th wedding anniversary. My husband was just to turn 48 years old in 2 months and 2 days. We had a home-based CPA business, my husband being the CPA, the company had to be sold. It went to his estate. Not to me. So from rags to riches (mostly rich in the emotional realm, but the money went away along with the emotional contentment), back to rags…

    I suffered a nervous breakdown and a diagonosis of PTSD.

    I was put on antidepressants, but the side effects caused me to become horribly allergic to the medication. I fell drastically ill EVERY TIME there was a change… I had no choice but to go off of them.

    The biggest problem I had was guilt. And no sleep, because of the guilt, nightmares flowed like water. Survivor’s Guilt, guilt that the stress my husband was under was never expressed to me. So many different facets of guilt which ran my life, my attitude, my world.

    Now, 2.5 years after my wonderful husband’s passing, I am finding that I need to replace guilt with wonderment.

    Focusing on the blessings I have, not the family I was born into.

    I’ve not been on my parents’ radar for over 38 years, definitely last to both of my brothers. My father helped with certain things after my hubby’s passing, but always with strings attached. Always with anger and accusations directed toward me.

    I finally confronted my father as to WHY I seemed to always be a thorn in his butt. I listened to what he said, “I pushed his buttons”… Huh???? What are the buttons?

    I found the “buttons” were all his perception, not grounded in my reality of who I truly am. So, I gave him my rendition (not that it corrected him as much as it allowed these feelings to be expressed in a constructive way for ME); and I laid down my law (boundaries) as an adult; and EXPECT him to follow them.

    If not, then we do not have a need to communicate. I love my father, but I don’t like him. I love my mother, but I hurt for her addiction.

    I have hope that my “spoiled” brothers will realize when my folks are no longer alive, that we have each other. At least I hope it will be that way. Time will tell, but if they don’t want to deal with me later in life, I have found that is fine too. Both of my brothers have an attitude that the world owes them. Someday, they will hopefully see what a futile fantasy that really is.

    Finally, my own mother told me to QUIT trying to please my father. I’ve thought about that extensively; and she is thoroughly correct.

    Once, I did concede my need to make my father proud of me and just how futile that fantasy of my own was; life really has taken a turn for the better. I’ve begun to set up emotional and physical boundaries; and most who know me, are shocked.

    But I feel much more empowered because of it.

    The boundaries also serve as a safety net. They can always be reinforced, preferably gently, but if not; forcefulness will come into play to a certain extent. If I can’t make someone understand, my boundaries… I walk the other direction.

    I refuse to allow negative people and behaviors into my life or my world. Not that everything is sugar and spice, but refusing to take on other people’s negativity is a really good start in helping yourself. I still struggle with feeling as though I “should” be taking on my friends’ (turned my real family) problems, but I do tell myself, that they can only change themselves, I can’t do it for them. I listen, I give unconditional love, but I do NOT take on the burden of their grief or guilt any longer.

    I have no strength left for that. I have strength enough for myself to crawl out of the hole I actually created by my child-self, by buying into other’s perceptions of me, instead of the REAL me who IS a kind, overly sensitive, but caring and loving woman.

    I’ve been a people pleaser all of my life. I still am one, at the core. But because of the boundaries I’ve set up for myself, and not allowing other’s situations to impact my life like I used to; it has made all the difference.

    It really has taken over a year to reach this small nook of emotional stability. I still have much more work to do with myself regarding my guilt.

    To me, guilt DOES serve one useful purpose… If I feel guilty about something past or present, it means, to me, that it is something I should analyze to find out why and IF I have the power to change it.

    Guilt equals change. Change to something better. Guilt is an indicator to STOP, pay attention to the why’s and how’s, then stop that behavior. Otherwise, guilt serves no useful purpose.

    I’m my own worst critic, but I have decided to change that to being my own best friend.

    Learning to love myself for all the great qualities I do possess, and to tackle my failings one by one; and set more boundaries that will eventually free me from the confines that were set upon my psyche long ago, as a child.

    We are not our childhood. As adults, we do have the freedom to choose our circumstances or change them as we deem necessary. Free Will can be used for goodness.

    We definitely ARE WHAT WE THINK, however, that is NOT set in stone, and we can coach ourself into changing that mindset.

    I’m far from perfect, but I feel like this is a much more healthy path for me to follow than to continue depression’s dogma, or to take a pill to cope with the world.

    There are folks that truly have a chemical imbalance who NEED to have that pill(s), but for those of us that cannot rely on them; please find a really great counselor you trust and can pour your soul out to.

    Learn to set realistic goals for yourself as well as boundaries others are not allowed to cross; you will notice a huge difference in every facet of life. And slowly guilt, anxiety and depression will lessen over time.

    Time has NOT healed my wounds from the loss of my husband, but it has given me some distance to analyze why I grieve or entertain guilt. With more time, I will strive to lesson these restraints, and allow myself to flourish in my own way.

    At 45, I’m still a young woman. Perception is everything. And perceptions of all sorts, CAN BE CHANGED.

    Seek help outside of yourself, even your family.

    Your family and friends have a preconceived recognition of you, which is NOT necessarily close to the truth of who you really are within.

    A compassionate, yet impartial, therapist is the best advice I can give to anyone.

    Participate in your own life, help guide and create your own internal garden.

    Give up pride or embarrassment, ask for a helping hand from an impartial, compassionate therapist (you may have to go through few to find one that resonates with you, but keep trying!), look hard at what motivates and immobilizes you, you will find your way, if you actually participate in your own life.

    Good luck to everyone struggling. You have it in you to change the world for the better… your corner of it.

    I’ll take care of my corner also. But make sure you wave as you pass by, I promise a smile directed toward you, and reciprocal wave back!

  4. John D says:

    Stephany – I definitely feel that crying in my case is part of a process still ongoing. Only recently have I made the connections with past events on an emotional level and that really feels like progress in this part of exploring recovery. Thanks – it’s always great to hear your thoughts.

    Zathyn – Yes, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about grief triggered by plays, films, songs etc – they’re all trying to reach you emotionally after all. Also true for me is your observation about the mind finding it easier to let go of grief in response to a substitute character or scene. I remember feeling little after the death of my father until I was driving home one day – I heard a news story on the radio about the sudden, arbitrary death of a woman and only then did the real grief come out – all at once. Thanks so much for these insights.

    Merely Me – I look forward to reading your post – though I certainly haven’t found the answer to dealing with stigma. Usually, it’s so frustrating – at least in this medium – that I, and many others, give up and simply refer to such folks as the ones who “just don’t get it.” I don’t see this this simply as insensitivity, though friends will mean well – but many comments are quite aggressive. Good for you in taking this on in a more positive way.

  5. Merely Me/ says:

    Wow…what a strong post!

    Yeah you never know what will trigger a memory which will then lead to an emotional response from something which happened…decades ago. I have absolutely had these moments. I fear it would take too long to talk about here. You have inspired me to want to write about this topic in a post. The feelings are always there…they were just obscured by…the need to survive. I applaud you for talking about your breakthroughs with such honesty.

    I was wondering if you could stop by Health Central…I just wrote a post about how people with mental illness are often treated with disdain and even downright cruelty by people who are supposed to be helping. Add your voice to suggestions of how we can individually change the stigma attached to mental illness which is at the root of the neglect, apathy, and lack of compassion for those who suffer from mental illness.

  6. says:

    There are certainly childhood issues that have shaped the person I am today. I’m sure they’ve also added fuel to the fires of what has happened since.

    I don’t think it’s unusual for fiction – movies, books, music, TV shows, to trigger certain emotions. My theory is that perhaps the brain finds it easier to grieve with a fictional character, or story, than face the realism of grieving for its own truth.

    I’m not yet at the stage where I’m willing to share any of my childhood online, and I don’t think I ever will be. But, I’m amazed by those who can and do.

  7. Stephany says:

    I love the Hiatt quote from the song. Some days I feel that, recovering from loss or trauma needs to be cried out, and I do cry. Unexpected tears are the ones that usually mean something needs to be dealt with or let go for me. Crying is an end to somethings, but others are continual, like a process if the crisis isn’t over.

  8. John D says:

    Traci – Aside from being a bit staggered, I’m really honored that you would share this powerful story here in such wonderful detail. It’s taking me quite a while to absorb it all – What I can say immediately is congratulations to you in turning around such hard experience and coming out with a rich and deep faith in yourself. The lessons you summarize at the end are so well put – “participate in your own life… create your own internal garden.” The determination not to succumb to depressive thinking and to turn that around through the way you live your life – that is really inspiring. Thanks so much for bringing this beautiful story.

    Jennifer – It is so strange how long it can take to pay that price for holding things together as a child. It’s a story I’ve been over and over in successive bouts of therapy without ever quite getting all the emotion that was part of it. I believe the crying is a final phase of getting past it, accepting whatever happened as something I lived through, learned from, slowly got beyond. Despite the great cost, recovery has been going on for a long time. I hope and pray that it takes far less time in your case. Thanks for coming by.

  9. John D says:

    Melinda – “Courageous in our desire to change” – That certainly characterizes you, given the child abuse, addictions and other events you’ve narrated so powerfully. The fact that you have been able to reshape yourself in spite of all that shows what can be done with the courage you describe and the sheer determination that Stephany of soulful sepulcher so often mentions. As very young children we only know the family life we’re in, however terrible. We have to get through it because we don’t yet have choices. I think that’s the basic training we get in survival. I’m glad you found something in this post – I look forward to more of the continual discovery I find in reading your work.

  10. Jennifer says:

    John — There is a huge price to pay for being able to hold things together as a child. I have had those same emotional experiences brought on by certain scenes in movies, sometimes even when reading my child a book (“when Tough Boris the Pirate’s parrot died he … cried.” And I do, too, every time.).

    It’s good to connect these feelings of grief to the containment of childhood. I have to say that I haven’t done that completely, just let the steam off here and there.

    Thanks for this post. (And for reminding me of the Regeneration series. It may be time for me to read those again.)



  11. Chunks says:

    I’m so glad that you remembered me! 🙂 I just left you a message at BlogCatalog a few minutes ago.

    I just posted new pics of my daughter as well on my blog. She’s growing up so much!

    Thank you so much for your kind words. You are a splendid person!

  12. says:


    What a great post. I do believe that our childhood shapes who we become in life–but I also think we can overcome a bad childhood to shape ourselves differently if we are courageous in our desire to change.

    The events of my childhood (extreme sexual abuse) definitely shaped how I viewed myself in adolescence and in early adulthood–in fact, I felt imprisoned by feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and self-hatred. It took nearly death for me to realize that I could change the direction of my life–and in fact, reshape who I was and with hard work, I have been able to do that for the most part.

    I wish all parents would take to heart the grave importance and responsibility of bringing children into the world–so many do not.

    Best Regards,


  13. John D says:

    Chunks! Welcome back! The sound of that new name gives me a refreshing slam right down to reality. Definitely something I need. I look forward to your reborn site, and I’m very cheered that you got through last spring and summer OK.

    It is hard for me to believe that I still come back to the formative years of childhood to figure things out. Childhood events don’t determine everything about you, but they give you a lot to carry around for the rest of your life. Now I’m sure you’re daughter is turning out splendidly, but better than you? No comparisons, please – you’re both beautiful in your different ways.

  14. John D says:

    Dano – Well, once again you’ve knocked the breath out of me. The brutality of abuse, the brutality of rejection by your father – you should give yourself a lot of credit for surviving all that you’ve been through. Despite the continuing suffering you’ve described, you must have a resilient core (that word originally meant heart). A big one.

  15. Chunks says:

    I love your blog. Haven’t been by in such a long time but am so happy to be back. I moved my blog and I think that if you checked out my new one you would remember me.

    I loved your post. All that I know is that it continues to amaze me how our childhood defines our life. That is why I try so very hard to give the best childhood I can to my daughter.

    I hope that she turns out so much better than me.

  16. Oh poppet, I so hear you.

    I left home, my Junior year of High School, because I didn’t want to be a “new girl” in my senior year. This is the third country we’d lived in, and I was tired of re-establishing myself. So I graduated early.

    I came to Philadelphia to go to what is now known as Uni-Arts. Back then, it was PCA. I was seventeen and knew everything. I’d grown up in England, moved to Belgiun, been expelled to a boarding-school in England and then moved to an upper-class, white township with an amazing High School.

    In college, I followed a path of vision that I didn’t understand. The zeitgiest of the school was content over form. I believed that I had no content. In fact, I did a series of “Angry Bourgeois” prints, which included AB “Survives Religion” and “Impales Rat With Ice-pick.”

    My mentor in my Senior year pointed out a theme: death. She suggested that I could put on “a little girl’s dress and skip around the subject, or face it”. I didn’t know then that the death was mine. That I was fighting it daily. That I had a potentially fatal illness.

    And so many years later, I faced the childhood dream of the red snake with green diamonds held in a wire bird-cage, in my first school. The snake morphed into a red-haired man, menacing us in our class-room. The problem was that my little sister had come in from the room across the hall. He was going to take her, so I offered myself in her place.

    My actual memories of the sexual abuse are couched in distance and what I now know to be survival skills. I remember my father’s half-brother leading me, coaxing me and then I float above, feeling nothing. I told my parents about it via e-mail, maybe ten years ago.

    I had thought that Marcus was a confused teen-ager. But my mum, at the time had been confused, because Marcus and I had been tight and then I no longer wanted to be near him. In hindsight, she let me know that I was three to four years old, with him being at least nineteen.

    My childhood was wrought by my mother’s focus on my early nervous traits. I was never the child that they envisioned. On some level I knew. The father that my mother worshiped just didn’t love me in that all-encompassing, you-can-do-no-wrong kind of way.

    I tried, to no avail. I’ve posted on his ultimate rejection letter. It was to me. In it he stated that ever since I was a young child, I’ve gone out of my way to be provocative, irritating and enraging. That I’m bohemian and he’s bourgeois, which is fine. But we should never see each other again.

    I found out about his concept of me by accident. I couldn’t understand why my mum kept pushing off my visiting them. I’d been avoiding it because I’m fat and they’re obsessed with weight. Then they came to visit my estranged sister in NYC. I was not in their plans.


    Listen to the old time Blues. Leadbelly, oh and Odetta covering his material, Mississippi John Hurt, and so many more.

    More important. Listen to yourself and keep writing. You have an incredible gift and it keeps on giving.

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