AS IF LOSS ISN’T ENOUGH by itself, another painful emotion that grief awakens and amplifies is guilt. Guilt that accompanies grief can come in several forms and each is not exclusive, meaning you may experience more than one kind of guilt at once. Telling yourself (or someone else telling you) to stop feeling guilty is not helpful. Feelings don’t just cease because you tell them to. If that were the case, we could all just be done with our negative feeling in moments.
The first step in dealing with guilt is to acknowledge that you are feeling it and also to acknowledge that these feelings are normal.
Next, identify what kind of guilt you are feeling and explore the reasons for that guilt in your journal.
Sometimes, guilt is just about wanting someone or something to blame for what has happened. Blaming provides a level of comfort because it provides a reason for why something happened; it gives a sense of orderliness to the world. If there is no one to blame and no reason for your loss, the world can seem chaotic and out of control. As long as you can blame yourself, you may feel you could have controlled the outcome in some way, even when you know that’s not true.
Here I have described three common types of guilt associated with grieving, and below those descriptions are some writing prompts to help you work your way through this tricky emotion.
Survivor’s guilt (why them and not me — or why me and not them?)
When something bad has happened to someone else, and particularly the sudden and unexpected death of someone you love, you may feel that you don’t deserve to be the one left standing. That you should have been in that person’s place so they could still be here, still living their life, still being the wonderful person you knew them to be.
This kind of guilt can also be experienced when you’re doing better than someone else and that change of status is also accompanied by a loss of some kind. Maybe you have made a better life for yourself than your parents or friends, or you got a promotion while your brother is struggling to find work, or you’ve gotten a wonderful opportunity to succeed in something that others around you have not. And in taking that opportunity you had to leave home or lose touch with someone you love. Or you are on the receiving end of their jealousy, and that feels like abandonment.
This haunting form of guilt surfaces when you believe that your action or inaction is somehow responsible — directly or indirectly — with another’s misfortune. When you experience this kind of guilt, you blame yourself for the circumstances causing your loss, even when you know logically that you are not responsible. Thoughts such as, If only I had done this…, or If only I had known this I could have…cycle over and over and over again in your head, making it difficult to deal with your grief in a positive way.
And if you actually did do something to hurt someone and perhaps lost a friend or important relationship as a result, then that guilt is normal and justified. However, it doesn’t help to immerse yourself in remorse. The loss has occurred and, assuming there is no opportunity for forgiveness, no amount of remorse will restore the relationship. In this case the best response is to acknowledge and accept your part in what happened and then figure out what you need to do to avoid that kind of behavior in the future. Only when you take responsibility for what you have done can you take action that begins to heal the wounds of loss.
You may experience this kind of guilt in grief when you have lost something you felt you should not have wanted in the first place. For many years, I wanted to be a dancer. And I did dance, but I always sacrificed my goal of becoming a dancer to the needs of others. In my mind, to be a dancer (or really, to achieve any personal or career development goal) was “selfish” and could only be pursued after meeting the needs of my family — which meant hardly ever. In my late 30s, I developed degenerative disc disease in my back and suffered from severe sciatic pain that prevented me from dancing, though I found other types of activities that at least partially fulfilled my need to move. When I finally looked in the mirror and realized that my physical problems and my age meant that I would never achieve that dream, I experienced a period of profound grief. And I felt guilty for grieving, as though the loss itself should have been unimportant because it was “only” the loss of a dream — not something real or tangible. Not the loss of a person in my life. I was being selfish. And so around and around I went with grieving and feeling like I wasn’t supposed to be grieving and feeling guilty for my grief. It wasn’t until I fully acknowledged my loss and validated my feelings that I could begin to heal.
- What type of guilt are you feeling? Do any of the above descriptions apply to you?
- What repetitive thoughts are associated with your feelings of guilt? What do you keep telling yourself?
- Are your guilt feelings and thoughts rational or irrational, justified or unjustified, and why? If justified, write down what you need to do to accept what you have done and to forgive yourself. This may take the form of actions to make amends or volunteering for a charity. If unjustified or irrational, what positive thoughts/statements can you tell yourself to balance the guilt-laden thoughts?
- What can your guilt teach you about yourself, and how can it help you grow?
- In what ways can you use your guilt as motivation to help others?
- Write a letter telling a loved one how you are feeling and why. Then write a response to yourself as if from your loved one.
- Create a short ceremony in which you release your guilt. You could do this by writing your guilt thoughts on a scrap of paper and burning it, or writing them in sand and then rubbing them out, or any other action that makes sense to you. Then, write new, comforting and self-forgiving statements and post them somewhere you can see them frequently. You may need to perform this ceremony multiple times for it to have a lasting positive impact.
Writing about your guilt and examining its associated thoughts can help you become more aware of those times you are inclined to get mired in them. When you are more aware, you will be more apt to notice each time these thought arise, which in turn will allow you to take some control and shift your thinking from negative to positive.
Grief is enough to suffer on its own, and though we all have a tendency to do so, we don’t need to layer guilt onto our grief. Instead, acknowledge and deal with the guilt to clear the way for deeper healing.
Previous articles in this series:
- Journaling Through Grief – Introduction
- Journaling Through Grief, Part 2 – A Conversation with Grief
- Journaling Through Grief, Part 3 — 5 Ways to Express Grief Safely
- Journaling Through Grief, Part 4 – When You Feel Numb
- Journaling Through Grief, Part 5 – Managing Loneliness