Grief and bereavement are complicated emotions and experiences that will affect us all differently. It is far more common than most people think for us to feel a sense of guilt after someone dies, even though we may have no idea where that guilt comes from. Sometimes, this guilt may be perfectly founded; the result of a fight or disagreement, perhaps. Other times, it can feel as though it comes from nowhere.
It’s difficult sometimes to understand the role that guilt plays in the grieving process, especially if you yourself do not understand where it comes from. It can also be difficult to process and cope with any guilt if the people in your life are responding to your feelings by telling you not to feel guilty. The sentiments may be coming from the right place, but that doesn’t necessarily make the process any easier.
Trying to come to terms with why we feel the way we do when we grieve may be difficult and personal, but it’s a huge step in being able to, hopefully, move on and make peace with our loss in a healthy way.
Why do we feel guilty when we grieve?
Guilt can be a real hindrance to the grieving process and prevent us from being able to move on with our lives and focus on what matters, which is remembering the person we lost. However, it’s very difficult to know how to approach and deal with any guilt if we don’t know where it’s coming from.
Sometimes, the source of our guilt can be very easy to pinpoint, because it’s due to an unresolved disagreement or something we ourselves did wrong. These can sometimes be some of the hardest realities to come to terms with. The guilt does not even necessarily need to come from a place of negativity or falling out. Perhaps it comes from having withheld information or keeping a secret. Unfortunately, sometimes hindsight is 20/20 and as human beings, we will sometimes make mistakes. If those mistakes are preventing us from mourning and grieving, however, then this needs to be addressed and we need to be honest with ourselves.
There are also times when our guilt feels like it should be rational, but it is simply us projecting our own biases onto the situation. There is a world of difference between regretting and feeling guilty over family feud or having genuinely hurt someone without the chance to make amends, and feeling guilty because we never made enough time to see our loved one, or we could have called more, or any number of reasons we can drive ourselves into a frenzy over. Just because we feel guilty, this does not mean that we are actually at fault or in the wrong.
Finally, guilt often comes to us during grief as a way to find control and order in something that is, unfortunately, often random and unpredictable. During these trying times when the world is dealing with a global pandemic, this need for order is made even stronger. But under whatever circumstances your loved one has died, it’s only natural for us to wish to assign blame. Unfortunately, whenever there is no one to assign blame to, we will often blame ourselves instead. Unfortunately, one of the most difficult things we have to come to terms with as human beings sometimes is that not everything happens for a reason. By extension, that means that no matter how much we may think it’s true, we probably could not have prevented the death of someone we love.
How to acknowledge our feelings
The first step in dealing with feelings of guilt during grief is the same way we must deal with any sort of feelings we have during this time; by being honest with how we feel. Too often in society, we are expected to get over our grief as fast as possible so that we can return to regular life and stop being a “burden” on the other people in our lives. As a result, we’re often forced to suppress any negative emotions we may have throughout the grieving process.
However, this only makes the grieving process harder and longer and can take a serious toll on our mental health. It’s extremely important to take an honest look at ourselves and admit that what we may be feeling is guilt, so that we can begin to understand why it is we may feel that way.
Talking to others about how you’re feeling can be a great way of addressing your grief and your guilt, especially if they are going through the same thing as you and won’t judge you for it. Sometimes someone else’s perspective is extremely valuable when coming to terms with your own thoughts and feelings.
Be honest about your guilt
As we’ve established, guilt can be both rational and irrational and if you feel that your guilt is based on something unfortunate or because we truly made a mistake, then it’s something you may need to work through. It is all too easy for our guilt to consume us in the grieving process and we think that by punishing ourselves, we can right whatever wrongs might have happened.
However, we have to remember that festering in our guilt will not bring back the people we love, nor will it change the past. This is true regardless of whether our guilt is founded in truth. What is far more productive, however, is figuring out how you can learn from mistakes and make a positive change going forward. For example, if you didn’t manage to make up with a loved one before their death, then make the effort to make up with someone else who you may have fought with.
Journaling or letter writing is often a popular way for grieving individuals to feel connected to the people they have lost, especially if the feeling of loss hasn’t quite sunk in. It helps maintain that connection, but also it can be extremely cathartic. Writing a letter and getting the things off your chest that you never had a chance to say may not be the same as turning back time, but sometimes just putting your thoughts on paper, rather than keeping them in your head, can have a relieving effect.
The important thing is to be proactive. Admit any wrongdoings, but learn to forgive yourself and focus on the things you are able to change now.
Create a new sense of order
If there’s one thing in life we cannot control, it’s death. It can make us irrational in our grief when we imagine all the ways we might have prevented something if only we behaved differently. And while this sort of guilt is perfectly valid and should not be brushed off as “stupid” or “unreasonable”, it’s important to recognise that it’s not necessarlily based in truth.
Trying to regain a semblance of control over the world is understandable and that feeling will vary depending on how it is that you lossed a loved one. But channeling that energy into things that you are able to control will help you process your feelings in a healthier way.
For example, if your loved one died due to some sort of illness, then donating to a charity or taking up charitable works when you feel ready to do so can feel therapeutic to some and bring positivity into the world thanks to your loved one. On a smaller scale, even taking up new hobbies, rearranging furniture, sticking to some sort of routine are all things that can help us find that structure and order that the grieving process sometimes takes away from us.
This doesn’t mean that we are setting our grief to one side or repressing it, rather shifting the focus from feeling guilty about an event we could not prevent to a time of remembrance and reflection.
Just like with any negative feeling we experience during the grieving process, the goal is not to try and pretend that these feelings don’t exist or make ourselves feel bad about what are perfectly natural emotions. What we should try and do instead is use those feelings of guilt, understand them and turn them into something positive.
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