Guilt is a common companion of grief.
It’s a perception or feeling that your action, or lack of action, created or greatly contributed to your loss.
Our natural tendency is to look back on a difficult time or significant loss and feel an assortment of thoughts like, “I should’ve…,” “why didn’t I…,” or “I failed to…” in an effort to make sense of the how’s and why’s of our losses.
Guilt gets in the way of really letting grief progress naturally and takes many forms.
According to a wealth of grief experts and bereavement professionals, the types of guilt that complicate grief include, but aren’t limited to, the following:
- Death-causation: The perception that you could’ve done something, should’ve taken an action, or failed to do something that caused a loved one’s death.
- Illness or moment-of-death: Guilt that asks “Why didn’t I do more,” to prevent illness or help treat the person who died. If you weren’t with the deceased person, you may berate yourself with thoughts like, ”I should have been there.”
- Family role: Sometimes people feel like their role as father and protector or mother and caregiver should have kept the loss from occurring.
- Moral: You may feel that some immoral or spiritual failing on your part has led to “cosmic payback.” The idea is that your failings were punished with loss.
- “If only”: You are dealing with the fact that you’re still here and have a hard time accepting your right to still exist. You may think “if only it had been me.”
- Unspeakable: You may have such deep or secret guilt you find it too difficult and too burdensome to share with anyone.
- Pain-of-others: You may recognize and feel guilty about the fact that you cannot ease the grief and pain of others
- Relief: If your relationship or circumstances with the lost person was trying, you may feel guilty that you are relieved not to deal with certain aspects of your life with that person.
- Benefit: An insurance policy or inheritance resulting from your loved one’s death can also lead to strong feelings of guilt.
The normal pain of grieving can also be complicated by guilt because we worry that by moving on without our loved ones, we are betraying our relationship with them or their memory. You may even feel that you are further wronging your loved one by living life well without him or her.
Guilt, when grieving, affects the way we think. We look back and ascribe meaning to moments and actions that may or may not be meaningful. We just want to make sense of the pain, even if the perception that we could have really affected change is not true. Guilt is not logical, it’s emotional and a struggle to put into perspective.
Some people actually lean toward guilt naturally; the grief process exacerbates this personality trait and can become quite daunting to overcome. If this is your leaning, your normal propensity to beat yourself up or routinely indulge in guilty self-talk might now cause you to feel quite overwhelmed by the idea that you didn’t do enough or weren’t there enough to prevent or ease your loved one’s death. It will be crucial for you to seek the help of a compassionate friend or loved one, or schedule time with a grief counselor, who can help you deal with such deep self-recrimination and any depressive thinking or behaviors.
Take a hard look at your guilt during the grief process. The multidimensional nature of guilt can keep you stuck and unable to process through your grief towards acceptance. Guilt tends to keep you in a process of replaying what should have been.
To break that mental pattern, find ways to challenge your perceptions. Allowing the guilt to subside takes time and cooperative effort during an already difficult period. Try to remember that people experiencing persistent guilt benefit from sharing and connecting with others, as it helps reshape guilty perception.
Try to reach out, write in a journal, or work with a therapist individually so that guilty thoughts are dealt with effectively. Then, through self-forgiveness and acceptance, you can start to feel better and find ways to honor your loved one’s memory, finding meaning in both their life and your loss.
If you feel stuck in guilt and loss, contact me and we will begin to work through it together.