In many ways, guilt is grief’s unwanted companion and it shows up for so many of us, in so many ways. We feel guilty for what we did or didn’t do, for what we said or didn’t say, for not being enough, for surviving, for carving out a new life for ourselves, or for finding some joy in the midst of our grief. And we feel guilty for feeling guilty. It’s relentless. This blog will try to explain why we feel so guilty and explore some of the ways in which we can manage this guilt, for although it is natural to feel guilty during grief, it doesn’t have to be a constant reality. We don’t need to continually beat ourselves up. We can find our way through it and give ourselves permission to live a fulfilling life again.
Guilt during grief is so common and more often than not it stems from what we perceive to be our own inadequacy. When our loved one passes, we can start to fixate on the things we could have done for our loved one that we never did, or disagreements and tense moments we feel we should have managed better. We worry that we weren’t enough for our partner, that we didn’t make them happy, fulfil their expectations or meet their needs. We dissect, every conversation we had and obsess over whether we could have handled them differently. We feel guilt over experiencing a rare light moment during the heaviness of our grief. We feel guilty for imagining what our new ‘normal’ could look like. And we feel guilty for just surviving, for somehow being spared.
This kind of guilt stems from our irrational brain, that part of our brain that creates and sustains perceptions around our failure and that encourages us to maintain our negative internal narrative. It’s so important to remember that even though we feel guilty, it doesn’t mean we actually are.
So why is it we immerse ourselves in such painful and destructive thoughts and seemingly punish ourselves? Why do we compound our suffering?
When we lose someone we love, when the one person we loved and relied on the most, around whom we built our life, is so cruelly taken from us, our world as we know it falls apart and we are left shattered, confused and unable to process our loss. Feeling guilty allows us to assign blame for the passing of our loved one. It feeds our belief that somehow we could have altered the outcome, that we could have determined the course of events and in doing so, exerted a degree of control. Feeling guilty and blaming ourselves is somehow less painful than accepting just how unpredictable and chaotic the world is and how little control we have over our own lives.
People are creatures of habit. We like routine and we crave structure and order in our lives. We like to know with some degree of certainty what our future will look like and we like to think we have the power to mould this. From a young age, we are taught to shape our destinies, to take control of our lives and work to make our dreams come true. More often than not, when we meet the person we want to be with for the rest of our lives, we start to plan our future with them, whether that be buying a house and raising a family with them, travelling the world with them or simply growing old with them. When death then intervenes and scuppers these plans, we are thrown into an unstable and terrifying unknown. Guilt in some ways gives us a sense of power over this unpredictability and when we perceive we are in control, we feel a sense of safety and comfort.
Sometimes guilt is not irrational, sometimes it is rooted in something very real. That’s not to say that we should feel responsible for the passing of our loved one, but it may be that we did do something that upset them, that we said something unkind in the heat of the moment, that we perhaps hurt their feelings unintentionally. No-one’s relationship with their partner is perfect and we all say and do things we regret. We all make mistakes and sometimes these errors in judgement lead to significant consequences, that we come to regret hugely when our loved one has gone.
Although it’s natural to feel guilty when we lose someone close to us, there are ways we can actively manage our guilt and in doing so limit the suffering we are already experiencing.
When discussing our grief and the guilt we feel, we may come across people who tell us not to be so silly. That it wasn’t our fault. That we shouldn’t blame ourselves. That our loved one wouldn’t want us to feel like that. Although these assurances are well-intentioned and come from a place of love and even though what they’re saying is correct, what tends to happen is that our guard goes up and we stop talking about what’s showing up for us. We stop talking about the guilt we’re attaching to our loss. And as we keep our guilt in, we perpetuate this narrative that we’ve failed our loved one and start to create shame around our feelings. This then keeps us stuck, bound to our guilt and unable to move forward. So it’s really important to acknowledge what you’re feeling, to know that it’s normal, that it's to be expected and that it’s transient. Guilt is like a black hole and if we try to bury it, it can consume us, leaving us feeling isolated, hopeless and overwhelmed.
Although not everyone may be able to acknowledge or understand how you’re feeling, there are like-minded people out there who will. Don’t be put off from sharing your truth with those who will listen, for in doing so, you will create a resonance with others and you’ll find that you’re not only normalising your own feelings and releasing some of your shame surrounding them, but you are encouraging others to do the same. Shame requires secrecy in order to survive. Finding your people and sharing what you’re feeling will help you to break down the walls you have built up and release your guilt. Until our grief and our guilt are witnessed, until we grow comfortable with sharing and connecting with others, it will continue to eat away at us. Talking freely about our guilt can also help to make the reflection process more productive and informed and can assist us with changing our narrative.
During our grief, we become very committed to the stories we tell ourselves. They become our truth and they can be hard to shift. As our irrational brain hits overdrive, we often struggle to break the cycle of negative, blame-filled thoughts. Instead of ignoring your guilt, get curious about your thoughts. Analyse them. Learn to challenge them. Are they full of ‘what ifs?’ Is what you’re telling yourself actually true? Remember thoughts are subjective, they are not fact. You may believe that you could have affected the outcome, that your actions could have changed the way your loved one felt, lived or died, but is this really the truth? Perhaps what’s more probable, what’s more credible, is that you didn’t know what was going to happen next and that you had no control over it, that you did the best you could, with the knowledge and resources you had available to you at the time. And that that’s enough.
It’s so important, when we feel swamped by our guilt, to try to change our internal dialogue and shift it from ‘what if’ to ‘even if’ and this takes me to a wonderful moment that took place, in one of my groups, during which we were talking about guilt. One lady shared with the group her decision to turn off her husband’s life support. She mentioned how she had made the decision not to be there as he passed away as she felt he had already gone, that he was no longer there. She said that she decided instead to stay at home with her children. She went on to share how difficult she has found it to make her peace with that decision. She gives herself a really hard time for having made this choice and finds it incredibly upsetting. She explained how she feels she has been a bad wife, that she abandoned her husband in his final moments and is plagued by the thought that he felt all alone at the end.
In the same group, another lady whose husband had been ill, shared with us that he had chosen to die at home, and that she had decided to stay with him as he passed. Her child however did not want to be in the room as he died, and so stayed away. The lady mentioned how terribly guilty she feels having not been with her child, supporting him as her husband passed away. She explained how she felt as if she hadn’t been a good enough parent, that she hadn’t cared as much for the living, as she did for her dying husband.
And it was during this conversation that we realised how powerful a moment that was for both ladies, as they suddenly realised that even if they had made an alternative choice, even if they had done it a different way, the outcome would still have left them feeling guilty. In recognising this, they started to rationalise their guilt and accept that it’s normal and that they can’t expect to have control over every situation or outcome.
As has been mentioned, sometimes guilt is valid and rational. It might be rooted in a mistake that we made and that we have come to regret. If this is the case, then learning to make peace with our errors in judgement is so important. Forgiving yourself doesn’t mean condoning or excusing your actions. Perhaps you didn’t behave in a way that sits well with you, or that reflects the values you try to uphold, but it’s important to remember you’re human. We all make mistakes and lose our way sometimes. None of us are perfect. By acknowledging this, by accepting that you weren’t trying to be intentionally cruel, or to cause harm to anyone, you open yourself up to forgiveness, which will help to release your guilt.
Hindsight is a useful tool, when used well. We can learn so much about ourselves, our life, what we desire and how we want to behave. But more often than not, we use it as a way to punish ourselves and criticise our choices. We choose to look back and judge the decisions we took. We notice all the things that we believe we didn’t do well enough and forget that we were in reality, more times than not, kind, warm and loving rather than horrible and grumpy. By finding a new perspective, by choosing to reconcile our mistakes and move forward from a place of compassion and kindness rather than judgement and criticism, we can release ourselves from our pain and learn to limit our suffering.
Holding on to guilt serves a purpose. It can anchor us to our pain and prevent us from dealing with our grief. After all, grief is so harrowing and relentless that at times sitting with it can feel unbearable. Therefore the stories we create and the guilt that we hold on to, that we refuse to unpack, help us to avoid dealing with and moving on from our pain. They enable us to remain in a safe and familiar space.
Our pain allows us to feel connected to our loved one, to feel that sense of attachment we long for. So often, we think that letting go of this pain means that we are severing ourselves from this connection. If we wake up one morning and start to feel less guilty, to feel brighter, to find joy and love again, we question our loyalty to our loved one. We start to worry that we have stopped loving them, that we perhaps don’t miss them anymore or that we have moved on from them. And that’s deeply uncomfortable.
However, these are simply stories that we tell ourselves. As we move through our grief journey, we’ll start to feel less raw and thinking about our loved one won’t hurt as much as it used to. That won’t mean that we don’t think about our person every single day, or that we’re not grateful to them for everything they gave us in their life. Living your life and planning your future doesn’t diminish your love or your loss, it doesn’t mean you are disloyal. It simply means that you are learning to honour your loved one with more love than pain.
Releasing ourselves from our pain is not easy. Forcing ourselves to step out of our comfort zone, and face the unknown is scary and can make us feel very vulnerable. But that shouldn’t stop us from doing it. Notice the stories you tell yourself, pay attention to the road you’re going down and you’ll begin to develop the ability to change your thought patterns. You’ll remind yourself that holding on to guilt doesn’t serve a healthy purpose.
In fact you may come to realise that choosing to live a life of pain and guilt is actually a disservice to your loved one, who would no doubt give absolutely anything to be here, living their life and fulfilling their dreams. No-one knows how long they have left. We’re not promised 90 years on this planet. So, try to honour your loved one’s life and your own by living it as best you can – with love, laughter, peace and gratitude.
As common and natural as guilt is in grief, learning to work through it can help to limit our suffering. Acknowledging our grief, talking about it with others, questioning its validity, forgiving ourselves and choosing to deal with our pain will help to set us free and move us towards a brighter and more fulfilling future.