A common effect of grief is feeling guilty about what we think we could or should have done, or sometimes, what we did do.
Guilt in grief can make our emotions feel more complicated with questions such as:
- What could I have done differently?
- Why am I feeling joy again?
- Could I have exercised more or treated my body better (regarding pregnancy loss)?
- Why didn’t I spend more time with them?
- What could I have done to protect my child?
- I didn’t cry today. Is that normal?
- Is it my fault?
- Why did I say…?
- Why didn’t we have a better relationship?
These thoughts can become consuming and overwhelming. Please know that your feelings are valid and normal. Yet, despite all the reasons we experience guilt, the following list offers guidance in addressing it.
How to Cope with Guilt and Grief:
It’s okay if you don’t always feel sad and joy settles in. You won’t always be in tears all day throughout the day. It may seem weird to believe this, but it’s true. There will eventually be moments when you’ll laugh, dance, sing, and smile. Sure, you might feel like crap 30 minutes later or two weeks from now, but joy will find you. When it does, allow it to. You’ve shed enough tears and been on this up-and-down roller coaster long enough. Being happy doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten them. It doesn’t mean you’re not grieving either. Feeling joy is a reminder that you’re human, and that means you aren’t required to feel one emotion at a time.
Understand that death is a part of life. We will never know whether or not our person would still be here if they had made different lifestyle choices, had another form of treatment, or if a specific event had never occurred. What we do know is that death is an inevitable piece of life. While a change in an event or practice may or may not have kept them alive longer, nothing could prevent them from dying. Death is a natural part of life.
Understand why you should not feel guilty for their death. Blaming ourselves for our loved one’s death is never beneficial. When my fiancé died, I thought back on what could have been different: what if I had been present with him in that moment? What if we had done this or tried that? However, the truth is, if you could have saved your person from dying, you would have. Please do not blame yourself.
Acknowledge any guilt that is valid in your grief and confess it. As people, we make mistakes. Perhaps your guilt is rational: you were unkind to your loved one, you were a significant other who cheated, you intentionally chose not to support them when you could have. The reasons for valid guilt are infinite, and the only cure is to acknowledge that you were wrong. Taking ownership of what you did wrong permits you to confess it. You can do this by writing it down in a journal, speaking it quietly to yourself, sharing it with a trusted individual, or bringing it up in a therapy session.
The day before my late boyfriend died, he asked me to meet with him. He wanted to talk about something important. I had a sick grandmother at home, work was busier than ever, and I grew frustrated at why he could not speak to me about it over the phone.
When I found out he died the next day, not going to see him haunted me for nearly two years. I never told anyone. I held it in and lost peace because of it. Then, one day, I broke down while I was with a friend and explained the situation to them. I immediately felt better. For some reason, owning our truths—including the hard parts—frees us from the pain attached to them.
- Grant yourself the gift of forgiveness. Peace comes when we let go of the things we were never meant to carry. Tender Heart, forgiveness isn’t only for your loved one. This forgiveness is for you. Give yourself permission to be human and have made mistakes. As much as you and I would love the opportunity to change our past, we cannot. Consider instead how you can make your present more manageable and what your loved one might say to you. Surely their heart is large enough to have forgiven you, and now it’s time for you to forgive you too.
- Understand the need to have patience with yourself. Grief is a process and a continuous journey for the first few years, and often beyond. Give yourself grace. Grief is hard enough on its own; you do not need to make it more difficult. If you are struggling with guilt and forgiveness, that’s OK. If you feel perfectly fine and the next moment grief creeps in, that is also normal. Time does not heal all; instead, it takes time for you to process all that this loss has taken from you. I know it’s hard. I understand survivor’s guilt. It sneaks into your mind and makes you wish you had done better, or maybe it makes you feel like you don’t deserve to be here. This is all perfectly normal in grief. Still, it’s OK to be kind to yourself, and I encourage you to be gentle with your already hurting heart.
Moving Away from Guilt
Carrying guilt and grief is a heavy burden, yet it is one that can foster a greater love for life and those around us. For me, it meant taking an extra second to see what that important phone call is rather than saying, “Can we speak about it tomorrow?” It means slowing down and taking the extra second.
For you, it can look like being present in the moment or understanding there is little we have control over. And, if all else fails, perhaps moving away from guilt will teach us how to sympathize with and relate to others deeply.
We don’t have to find the gift in our pain, but it is wasted if we have not learned how to become more empathetic toward others in their suffering. We can teach them from our hurt or sit beside them in theirs.
May your days be filled with more ease, and may your heart find moments of comfort.
Want personal guidance on easing your specific grief guilt? Check out Grief Guide Sessions.