In many cultures and religions, self-flagellation is accepted as an appropriate way to drive the demons, bad thoughts, and immoral behaviors out of oneself. Often, movies depict this with a person whipping themselves with a short whip or leather braids.
Now while we may not resort to this kind of physical purging, we often do participate in a form of self-flagellation which can be just as harmful and self-defeating. After our wives die, it is easy to fall into the unending cycle of blaming yourself or others for her death, for:
- any difficulties she had during her last months or years,
- failing to help her more before or during her illness,
- self-perceived shortfalls during our marriage, or
- not being more loving or empathetic.
For some of us, this mental self-flagellation may have deeper roots in our past. The loss of your wife can amp it up to something much more self-destructive. For example, I have been known to talk to myself frequently and out loud. This could take the form of self-criticisms for saying something insensitive, forgetting something, making a mistake at work or home, or missing an opportunity.
Often, verbalization of these self-criticisms allows me to vent and get it out of my system. But sometimes, it can lead to an unhealthy obsession with things I should just let go. It took me years to confront and overcome this form of self-punishment to the point that it became a sort of comic relief where I say it, recognize it for what it is, and just laugh and move on.
However, after my wife of 45 years passed, this self-flagellation returned with a vengeance. I would express my anger and displeasure by yelling mainly at myself. Fortunately, I could confine this behavior to my house where I was living alone.
I recognized that this behavior was counter-productive and would not help me heal in any way. Certainly, there was some therapeutic value during the first few weeks when all the pent-up fear, anger, loneliness, and self-doubts were at their peak. This had to come out some way. I remembered reading about a widower who would escape to the woods next to his house to yell as much as he wanted to at the top of his lungs. So, I knew this was not unusual.
But there was nothing to be gained by continuing this behavior after some time had passed. I had to confront it. Over time as my inner turmoil calmed down, I learned to forgive myself for some of the real and the self-perceived faults. As I turned my focus from regrets and anger to the celebration of our lives together… a sense of calm emerged, and I found myself able to eliminate these bouts of self-flagellation gradually.
If you find yourself in this cycle of regrets, doubts, and pain, the first step towards healing is to recognize it for what it is and then realize that it adds absolutely nothing to your much-needed healing process. Know that you can confront this behavior and consign it to the waste bins of your personal history.
You may find that you need the assistance of a grief therapist (I did) to talk this and other behavior through openly and honestly. The therapist can help you see how you might gradually diminish its hold on you through various techniques. As you regain control of your physical and mental self, you will also build a new sense of confidence that allows you to gradually establish a new stronger foundation that lets you move forward with your love for your wife and your life together still intact.
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