This is a mahoosive topic and one that I can probably only scratch the surface of outside of my one-to-one work.
Guilt in grief is more common than you might think. Even more so in the current pandemic and amongst those bereaved directly due to COVID. It’s also not new. It’s one emotion that is part of many conflicting and complex emotions to deal with when grieving. But in my personal experience, it’s one that can stop us in our tracks and pause the grieving process.
What’s it all about?
As humans, we have a natural tendency to want to rationalise death and find control amongst what can be a chaotic and unpredictable experience. We search out ways to blame ourselves, our loved one, others, or even a higher power in a desperate attempt to understand loss. Accepting loss and letting go of control to feel the real emotions is a scary prospect. It is our distorted thinking which results in guilt-based emotions and behaviour.
Have you ever found yourself thinking or saying things like:
- “I should have been there”
- “I didn’t say / do enough”
- “I could have prevented his /her death”
- “I made the wrong decision”
- “I’m a terrible person”
- “I could have said / done this”
Many of these statements I can relate to, particularly after the sudden death of my mum. I obsessed over the idea that she should still be here and her death could have been prevented. This became an unhealthy pattern to be in and essentially affected my mental health.
It’s important to remember that whilst there may a genuine reason to feel guilty, this doesn’t mean you are guilty!
What to do about it?
You may wish to explore these with a family member, friend or seek professional support. Here are some things that can help:
- Explore your feelings of guilt – gently and without judgement! Just notice them when they arise and be curious about the thoughts that are attached to them. Is it rational? Is it irrational? Is it about control?
- Explore forgiveness. Experts define forgiveness as a ‘deliberate, conscious decision to let go of feelings of resentment towards the person who has harmed you’. It doesn’t mean that you have to forget about what has happened, it’s more about making that decision to just let it be.
- Acknowledge that guilt is a normal grief emotion and don’t allow others to invalidate your experience.
- Talk about it with people you trust and who will simply listen. This can help you reflect on your grief. A coach, counsellor or online support group is a great environment to talk about feelings of guilt.
- Admit any irrational thoughts you have in relation to your guilt. This is part of acknowledging that you are not your guilt. For example, is it possible that you did the best you could at the time?
- Discover what your guilt has taught you. As painful as grief can be, this is also an opportunity for learning and growth. You may choose to do something constructive with your guilt, such as help others.
- Consider what your loved one would say to you. Some people find writing a letter to your loved one or yourself a helpful way of expressing and releasing the feelings.
- Actively decide to forgive yourself and understand that no one is perfect. What would you say to a friend or family member who feels guilty? Would you tell them to forgive?
Guilt is closely linked to regret and shame which can lead to self-loathing. This all stems from being too hard on ourselves but when we’re in the midst of grief, we can fail to see the underlying reasons.
When our feelings extend beyond guilt to a sense of self-loathing, it’s often important to speak with someone about it. Whether it’s a coach, counsellor or a friend. They can help us make sense of the guilt and other grief emotions. I’m here to help.