The Guilt in Grief


After the death of a loved one, grief sets in for each of us in a different way and at a different time. No matter what you think you know about grief and how to make it through the grieving process, it may be different than you expected. No one tells you that grief is often accompanied by guilt, and feeling guilty can make your progress through the grieving process slower and more painful. If this sounds all too familiar to you, read on: we want to help.

Tip #1: Define the difference between guilt and grief.
When you’re feeling guilty, you have thoughts that sounds like, “I should have spent more time with them,” or “I could have insisted they visit the doctor.” If you find yourself replaying those “shoulda, woulda, coulda” thoughts, you’re allowing guilt to take over. When we are grieving, our thoughts sound more like, “I wish they were here to see this,” or “I can’t believe they’re really gone.” Grieving thoughts are necessary and healthy as we adjust to the new situation we are in. Grieving is feeling sad someone is gone, guilting is feeling like you haven’t done enough.

Tip #2: Have someone help you recognize thinking errors.
Whether this person is a therapist, a spouse, a friend, or a parent, it’s important that you have an established support person who is aware of your struggle with guilt as well as your grieving journey. This person can help bring your attention to thinking errors when they occur so you train yourself to avoid those inaccuracies and stop dwelling on detrimental thoughts and feelings. Since we often cannot see ourselves clearly, having an additional perspective is key.

Tip #3: Take control of what you have control over.
Often, guilt comes from feeling a lack of control over the loss that we’ve experienced. When someone we love dies it changes everything about our lives, and that change was completely out of our control. This can send us emotionally spiraling. Instead of dwelling on what you can’t control, find some small things that you can control and focus on them.

Tip #4: Write a letter to help you let go.
If you can’t shake the guilt that has been plaguing you, perhaps it would help to resolve some feelings by communicating them. We process emotions better when we can talk them out or write them down. Consider writing a letter to your loved one explaining the guilt you feel, apologizing for whatever it is you have stuck in your head, or defining how their loss has affected you. Once these feelings have been written down, let them go. Seal the envelope and throw it away, burn it, set it adrift, bury it, and put that guilt to rest.

Tip #5: Focus on memories, not missed opportunities.
A healthy part of the grieving process is remembering. Although it may be painful and uncomfortable, spend time looking at pictures, watching home videos, and talking positively about your lost loved one and the life they used to have. This can help reset your thoughts to the good that truly existed and not what might have been.

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