A common effect of grief is feeling guilty about what we think we could or should have done, and 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? Is it my fault?
- Could I have exercised more or treated my body better?
- What could I have done to protect my child?
- Why did I say … ? Why didn’t we have a better relationship?
These thoughts can become consuming and overwhelming and are often of the grief journey. Despite all the reasons we experience guilt, the following list offers us guidance in addressing it.
How to Cope with Guilt and Grief:
01. 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 part 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.
02. 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?
If you could have saved your person from dying, you would have. Do not blame yourself.
03. Acknowledge the guilt that is valid, then 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.
My Story of Guilt and Grief
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.
04. Grant yourself the gift of forgiveness.
Peace comes from letting go of what 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 to 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.
Your loved one’s heart is large enough to have forgiven you. It’s time for you to forgive you too.
05. You need to have patience with yourself.
Grief is a process. It’s a continuous journey that evolves as the years go by. 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 one moment you feel perfectly fine and the next moment grief creeps in, that is normal also.
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.
Removing the Guilt from Grief
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 allow us to sit alongside another with a deeper closeness. We can teach them from our hurt or sit beside them in theirs.
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.
May your days be filled with ease, and may your heart find moments of comfort.
Remember that grief can be made easier with community. Do you have an experience with guilt and grief that you’d like to share? Or have you overcome it? Please let me know in the comments and we’ll chat about it. When we share our story, we help to normalize grief and change the culture surrounding it.