Grief-Related Guilt: What to Do?

Grief is a universal, God-given response to a significant loss. Grief is a process through which one journeys, not something one simply “gets over.” It is not unusual for the journey of grief to last up to eighteen months, sometimes longer.

While everyone’s journey is different, unresolved guilt is often the one aspect that hinders the grief process. It is usually caused by what some call the “what if” syndrome. In the aftermath of a loss, an individual might find themselves thinking and asking, “What if I would have done this?” Or, “What if I hadn’t done that?” This, as if the one who grieves could have done something to change the outcome of the loss.

Guilt related to grief is often a feeling of deep sorrow about the things that did not get said that should have been said. Or, a sense of sadness about the times when our words or behaviors were disappointing to the one who’s gone. An additional question might be, “If I had it to do over again, what would I do?”

Any guilt, but specifically grief-related guilt, needs to be divided into two categories: appropriate guiltand inappropriate guilt. Appropriate guilt is what we should feel related to what wasn’t done (or said) that should have been done, or that which was done (or said) that we shouldn’t have. I worked with a client once who carried guilt for several years because of an argument with her daughter in which some not very nice things were said in exchange. A few hours later her daughter was the victim of a deadly crash with a drunk driver. This mother’s grief-related guilt was nearly paralyzing. In this case, she needed to seek and find forgiveness.

Inappropriate guilt is what we might feel related to what we carry forward from our personal or societal expectations. We can feel guilty because of something we failed to do, or believe we should have done. In another example, I once heard a grieving widow remark that “if only” she would have come straight home after work, she would have had time to call the paramedics, instead of finding her husband collapsed in the garage from cardiac arrest. In this case, she needed to learn to let go of the responsibility that is not hers to accept.

The most important step in healing from grief-related guilt is to accept our humanness. No one is perfect, and we are all limited by time, space and energy. None can predict the future, nor can we roll back the clock.

Here are a couple of exercises you can do to help process your grief-related guilt:  First, close your eyes and pretend the lost loved one is there. As you imagine the loved one in your presence, tell him or her what you are feeling guilty over. Take your time and stay in the moment, it’s normal to feel uncomfortable in this process. After you have finished speaking, trade places and imagine yourself as the one you’ve lost. Speak as you imagine he or she would respond to your words. This little exercise, as silly as it may seem, brings out the inner dialogue that was unfinished. It does take courage, but you will find that it lightens the load.

Grief-related guilt is often mixed with fear and anger.  We are often reminded of our own mortality. Here’s another exercise:  Close your eyes and put your hands in front of you in the shape of a bowl. Place the burdens of your grief and guilt in the bowl. Reach out as far in front of you as possible. Turn your hands over and drop the load to the wind. Sit quietly for a moment to reflect on how you feel. Repeat this exercise again, this time with hands as a receptacle of God’s forgiveness.

Grief-related guilt is a common theme among those who have suffered a significant loss. If things go unresolved, or you believe you are not making reasonable progress, it might be time to seek the help of a professional counselor.

© 2019 by Roger Daniels

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