Is a Little Guilt a Healthy Part of Grieving?

It can seem cruel to pile on a form of self blaming to a grieving process. Loss alone is difficult enough without a sense of personal responsibility for handling some part of an important relationship better in some way. But I believe that some self-reflective guilt can be really important in processing loss, because it allows us to grow from the experience and handle our current and future relationships a bit better.

It also allows us, in a very Nietzschean way, to feel less like a helpless victim of misfortune and more like someone who can take comfort in responsibility. It is our way of self overcoming, taking on the weight of the past as a way of freeing oneself in the future.

I wrote yesterday about our family’s grief over the loss of our nine-year old puggle Dollie. In that reflection, I noted my own responsibility for her early death — for not being more disciplined about the food that I gave her and the exercise that I allowed, or forced, her to participate in.

Over the past two years, I have been extraordinarily disciplined about my own wellness. I eat a highly restrictive diet that most people would consider no fun at all. I exercise five or six days per week for at least an hour at a time. I have had success at various points in my life taking weight off, but I have had great difficulty maintaining my success. So far at least, this effort has been different. A long-term commitment to a disciplined diet combined with regular exercise and a commitment to continuous improvement is working for me. I will probably need to tweak it as I go to avoid injury and maintain the right caloric balance, but so far so good.

The experience with Dollie, however, is forcing me to reassess if such a personal commitment is good enough. Do I also have a responsibility to share what I have learned with my animal companions and with my children? Our dog Bogey, also a puggle, is three years younger than Dollie but well on his way to following her health trajectory if he does not start eating better and walking more frequently. No one else can do that for him, I have put him on this path and have to take him off it.

It’s a bit less clear if I bear the same responsibility for my children. I am certain that I would have lived a happier life if I could have started off with a healthier diet and approach to exercise and stayed on it. I would have had more self esteem, I also may have been less prone to periods of depression and anxiety. But how much of this can I pass on to my kids without seeming like an annoying scold who they immediately turn off? And is it even possible to force kids to have a healthy lifestyle if looking and feeling better aren’t personal goals?

I’m unsure of the answers, but it might be the right time to start the conversations. They can see for themselves that their parents exercise frequently and do not overindulge with food. It will be up to them to care enough to do the work, which shouldn’t be that hard for rapidly growing boys.

If they eventually choose to live healthier lives as a way of honoring Dollie’s memory, all the better. But perhaps that is just my own wishful thinking. That’s fine too — a little wishful thinking can make the hard work of grieving go down a little easier.

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