Grief and Guilt: How Can You Overcome Them?

If you’re experiencing guilt while grieving the loss of a loved one, you are not alone. A simple way of defining guilt is the “woulda, shoulda, couldas”. I would have done that differently, or I would not have done that thing. I should have said that; I should have kept my mouth shut. I could have been there more; I could have left sooner…..these are all examples of guilty thoughts that might be plaguing you if you were recently bereaved. Why do you feel so guilty after a loss? Is it normal to feel this way? And, most importantly, how can you make it stop?

Is it Normal to Feel Guilt with Grief?

Yes, yes, yes. Those who work with grievers consider it so common that it’s to be expected. If you take one thing away from this article, please know that feeling guilty after a loss is exceptionally normal. Most people experience guilt after a loss, and most of the time, it’s irrational. 

Why Do We Feel Grief and Guilt Together?

You could be experiencing guilt after a loved one passes for a few reasons.

  • If you did do something wrong.

Sometimes we feel guilty after a loss because we have something to feel guilty about. It’s a simple, if terrible, part of being human; we make mistakes, often, especially with those we love. And even small mistakes are enough to create immense guilt. If you made a mistake, practicing self-compassion and acceptance is even more important. This is also an excellent subject to take into therapy.

  • If you feel like you did something wrong.

Often, after loss, there is entirely irrational guilt. It’s possible to feel deeply, incredibly guilty, and not have done anything wrong or worth feeling guilty about. Another common theory about grief is that it makes you crazy. Grief messes with your mind and emotions, often resulting in intense, irrational guilt. 

  • If you’re scared. 

Losing a loved one can shake your worldview, faith, and sense of self. Guilt can spring up from fear and a desire to be able to control life. Guilt tells you that you made a mistake, but if you hadn’t, things would be different. This desire for order can come from a deep, primal place inside you and ultimately be about comforting yourself in the face of a chaotic universe.

Grief and Guilt: How Can You Overcome Them?

  • Validate your experience of guilt as ok and normal, even if others won’t or can’t.
  • Take some time to think about why you feel guilty-do you have a reason? Is it irrational? Or is it about fear and control?
  • Expressing yourself to a journal, trusted friend, or therapist is very helpful in releasing intense feelings and gaining tools that can help in the future.
  • Practice mindfulness as guilty thoughts arise. While it’s important to validate and feel our emotions if you feel yourself falling down a guilt spiral, try interrupting the emotional free fall. Thinking of things you’re grateful for (even if you can’t find any) can help your brain regulate. Or, if possible, try asking for a hug.
  • Common truths that help with irrational guilt are that you did the best you could with the information you had at the time, you can’t predict the future, and many other things were going on other than what you did or didn’t do.
  • Practice self-forgiveness. This is easier said than done, but it will help you heal. And it’s a practice—not a one-time, slate-wiped-clean event. Forgiveness doesn’t make what we did ok, but simply accepting that we made a mistake and positively shifting our feelings, actions, and beliefs about ourselves.
  • Think about what you’ve learned from your guilt. If you did make a mistake, even by omission, committing to changing your behavior in the future and taking concrete steps towards these changes can make self-forgiveness a bit easier. There are lessons in irrational guilt and fear-based guilt as well, such as self-acceptance.

Other concrete actions, such as charity work or raising awareness of causes related to your lost loved one, can also help alleviate guilt as you transmute your guilt into action.

  • One way of soothing the overwhelming guilt that can come with loss is to consciously consider what your departed loved one would tell you if they knew what you were thinking and feeling. Don’t do this while you’re driving or otherwise busy. Take some time to sit and think. Doing a guided meditation, taking a walk, or a hot bath are ways to help prepare you for some soul searching. Imagine yourself telling them face to face about your guilt, what you feel guilty about, and how that makes you think about yourself. If you regret not saying things to your loved one while they were alive, tell them now. Think about what they would say to you and how much they love you. Give yourself a few minutes to return to reality gently after doing this.
  • Create an online memorial with Ecorial. You can use their Memory Map to mark your loved one’s final resting place and share memories of your loved one with their close family and friends. With Ecorial, you join a global community honoring their dearly departed loved ones.

Healing from grief and guilt can take time, however, you decide to go about it. Hopefully, knowing that guilt and grief go hand in hand can help ease some of guilt’s emotional weight and bring you some comfort on this emotional journey.

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