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The "What If?" Trap
Written by Clara Hinton   |  Jan 31, 2002
The death of a child triggers many different emotions. There is shock and disbelief in what has happened. Children are never supposed to die before their parents! There is often a great deal of confusion following the death of a child. This cannot be my child. Not now and certainly not this way! It takes several weeks for the death of a child to even seem real.

Probably the longest-lasting, most tormenting emotion of all following the death of a child is that of guilt. That unanswerable question comes to the forefront of our thoughts and just won’t leave. What if? What if I had not left the pills sitting on the kitchen table? What if I had not left the keys in the unlocked car? What if I had stayed close to the pool and kept my eyes on him? What if I had not left the gun cabinet unlocked?

There is a knife sharp pain sent through the heart of a parent time and time again when guilt penetrates all thoughts. Guilt places a heavy burden that just seems like it paralyzes all thoughts from ever moving beyond that one question that can never be answered. What if? What if I had only done or said things just a bit differently? Maybe then I’d still have my precious child.

Moving beyond guilt is a necessary step in the journey of healing from child loss. This particular part of grief can be the most difficult pain of all to overcome. In order to be free of guilt, it is necessary to forgive one’s self.

Many children’s deaths are accidental, and a life can end in only seconds. No parent can completely foolproof a child’s life. The tragic truth is that fatal accidents can and do happen. When such is the case personally, it is very common for a parent to fall into the self-damaging cycle of the “what if” trap.

Moving beyond the guilt of this unanswerable question takes lots of hard work and often causes endless tears. Something that has helped many parents to move beyond the “what if” trap, is to discuss the guilt openly. Tell those closest to you of your guilt, and ask for help. You will occasionally get a careless, hurtful response, but most often family and friends will respond with compassion. Recognizing and admitting your guilt is a critical first step.

Put down on paper how you feel. Don’t leave anything out. Plan some sort of “letting go” ritual as a means of throwing away your guilt. Perhaps read aloud all of your guilt feelings to your spouse or two or three close friends and then crumble the paper with all of your guilt and toss it into a fire. As you watch the paper burn, you will begin to feel your heavy burden lift.

Finally, you must at some point decide to forgive yourself. This final step is the most difficult one of all. Coming to the realization that without forgiving yourself, you will never be able to move forward, you will have to live by a determined effort to not allow yourself to ask the “what if” question. It is a futile question because there is no answer, and it only adds to your grief.

By taking very precise steps to rid yourself of guilt, you will lift a heavy burden and finally be able to move forward in your journey of grief. Once you can move beyond the “what if” trap, you will know that you have successfully gotten rid of the gnawing questions that never really have any answers. Healing is about to begin!
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