By Susan Drevitch Kelly

Life Transition Coach

Grief is messy, complicated and there is no easy way around it. As you move through the various stages of grief, you will encounter many obstacles and roadblocks that will drag you back, just when you thought you were making progress with your healing. This “backsliding” is a very common experience for grievers who have suffered a profound loss.

One of these common roadblocks is grief guilt. Whether you were a caregiver leading up to the loss of your loved one, or experienced a sudden, unexpected death, you are most likely experiencing some feelings of guilt, regret, and the long list of “wish I could have’s” or all of the “I should have’s.”

With an unexpected loss, you may reflect back on things you said or did, or didn’t say or get a chance to say or do, and as a caregiver dealing with a prolonged and exhaustive period leading up to your loss, there are probably many questions still swirling in your mind about difficult, perhaps heart-wrenching decisions you may have had to make.

A few things to consider about what you are feeling and experiencing:

1. Grief guilt is not the exception; it is the rule. Most grievers have some level of guilt associated with their loss. So, you are not alone.

2. Guilt is a complex emotion. It does not always have to be rational to be real. That means even when you realize your guilt is not based on reality, you still may experience it.
3. Guilt is a feeling. You can’t stop feeling guilty because someone tells us to. According to the National Science Foundation, our brains process 70,000 to 80,000 thoughts each day. A few other facts: 80% of our thoughts are negative and 95% of our thoughts are repetitive. Now, that’s a lot of negative, repetitive thoughts for you to process each day. So, it may help you to understand that while you are processing the loss of your loved one, you experience some form of grief guilt.

Guilt is a heavy burden to carry while grieving, and research has indicated that unresolved guilt can complicate your grief and make the healing process much more difficult and prolonged.

But there are steps you can take to help you deal with it.

First, you need to acknowledge that grief guilt is a normal grief emotion and don’t let others minimize the validity of your feelings, as irrational as they may be.

Next, you need to examine your feelings and reflect on the possible reasons for your guilt. Research has identified different types of grief guilt, which can help you determine the source of yours:

Causation guilt: You feel responsible for the death of your loved one because of something you did or failed to do.

Role guilt: You feel you were not good enough in whatever the role was in your loved one’s life [spouse, sibling, parent, friend].

Survivor guilt: Feelings that you wish you had died instead of the person who actually did.
Coping guilt: Feeling that you are not grieving well, that you should be doing better, that you’re not coping with the loss.
Recovery guilt: Feeling guilty because you are coping too well, that you are not crying anymore, that you’re beginning to enjoy yourself, feeling happy, laughing, going out with friends again and so on.

Next, you need to acknowledge and embrace that although you feel guilty, you are not actually guilty of anything. Noone blames you for what happened. Noone believes that you could have changed the outcome. And, neither should you.

Now, you need to let the grief guilt go. Some thoughts to help you let go:

  • You did the best you could with the information you had at the time.
  • You could not have predicted nor controlled the future.
  • There were many factors which impacted the outcome well beyond anything you could have done.

And finally, you need to create positive thoughts to replace your guilt thoughts. You need to forgive yourself and practice self-love. Guilt often teaches us things about ourselves and life. Do something positive with your grief guilt experience to help others.

And, one final thought: consider what your loved one would tell you if you shared how you were feeling. I think I know the answer.