Why do guilt and grief so often come together? What can you do?
Sadly, guilt and grief seem to be natural bed partners, and while I get that, it’s such a shame. Guilt often emerges as a response to feelings of responsibility or regret associated with loss. While quite a natural emotion and response to grief, guilt can stifle recovery, hamper daily functioning, and interfere with key relationships.
In the work I do, supporting clients to identify what works for them in bereavement, I’ve heard so many reasons to feel guilty, including:
· I wish I’d spent more time with them
· I wish I’d told them I loved them more
· I struggle with the guilt of having a good time when they can’t
· What if I’d stopped them from going out that night?
· I hate myself for moving on with life and leaving them behind
· I blame myself for not being more assertive over their care
· If I’d just hugged her a minute longer, maybe she’d still be here
· It’s not fair that I can make new memories when he’s missing out
· I can’t tell you how much regret I have over how I reacted, what I said, what I did…
· Why didn’t I ask them these things when they were still here?
To make matters worse, much of the guilt my clients express is generated externally - coming from friends, family, and co-workers. Our nearest and dearest can be so good at piling on the guilt too, with comments like:
· “I’m surprised you’re not crying more.”
· “I don't know how you can have a sense of humor".
· “How can you possibly laugh when they’ve just died?”
· “BeforeI did your course, my friends guilted me into thinking it wasn't normal or for me to behave this way, and that there is an expected way to behave in grief.”
· “My friends keep questioning why I’m not expressing my anger and now I’m feeling guilty for not feeling angry!”
Understandably, the weight of these emotions can feel overwhelming. Remember, it's okay to feel emotions such as guilt, regret and anger – even the most resilient people experience all emotions, there’s no such thing as good and bad emotions. Give yourself permission to feel the full spectrum of emotions while you grieve -without shame or judgment. What you don’t want is for your guilt (over the past)to ruin how you feel and function in the present and future.
Here's a few things you can do immediately:
Talk it through: it can be helpful to talk to someone about how you're feeling. Identify someone you trust, who’s opinion you respect and endeavour to share how you feel. Whether it's a friend, family member, colleague, or counsellor, acknowledging the thoughts that have pitched camp in your head – saying them externally - can be extremely cathartic. Research shows most people are much kinder to others than they are to themselves; we can be downright nasty, unreasonable, and unrealistic in the privacy of our own heads. Getting it out can help you see things from differently.
Accept the good: While it can be challenging, try not to become obsessed by just one side of the relationship – make a determined effort to focus on the good moments, memories and experiences too, as well as acknowledging the challenges.
It takes two: If you have regrets concerning questions unanswered, conversations had, or words left unsaid, remember it takes two. You could not have known what was on their mind, what they were experiencing, or what they were thinking about. You’re not a mind-reader; there was no way to know what would happen, when, how or why. Forgive yourself past arguments and discretions, you were not the only player here: it takes two to make a relationship, and every relationship is different, along with different context and circumstances.
Check your thinking: Did you do the best with the information you had at the time? Did you do what you could? If you couldn’t be there all the time, why was that? Who/what else were you attending to? Was that important too?
Write it out: Getting your thoughts and feelings down on paper can help relinquish guilt and regret. It’s also a great way to connect with your loved one – tell them how you feel, share what you’re thinking, get it all down. Writing helps order our thoughts: multiple studies have demonstrated the power of getting our thoughts out of our heads and on to a page. Don’t worry about punctuation, timelines or repetition and revision, just pour it all out.
If you’ve done this before, remember it’s okay to write multiple times.
My ‘Two What Ifs Rule’: After our daughter was killed in a senseless accident, I invented what I refer to as my ‘two what ifs rule’ to reduce the guilts and helplessness. What if I hadn’t arranged that weekend away? What if I hadn’t said yes to her getting in the car that day? Two ‘what ifs’ was my daily limit.I’d catch myself on the third one, and stop that runaway train destructive thinking by asking myself, ‘honestly, Lucy, is thinking like this helping or harming you in your quest to get through this?’
Guilt is a natural emotion, but don’t let it define your relationship with the person you lost, nor allow it to spill over and harm other relationships. It can be helpful to consider the ‘opportunity costs’ of blame, guilt, and regret here –what else could you lose, who might be suffering with neglect, or feeling lonely while you obsess over what’s happened?
Don’t damage your living relationships with ruminations over dead loved ones. Don’t lose what you have, to what you have lost.
If you’re looking for more support, coping with difficult emotions is one of the key topics in our 3 session LIVE online programme, A Better Way To Grieve. It’s everything I wish I’d known when I was first bereaved. Find out more here.
You will learn practical tools and techniques to ensure you are as empowered and prepared as possible to get your life back on track, and work towards a greater sense of control and calm.