Guilt During Grief is Normal but Unproductive

I had guilt feelings after four loved ones died within nine months. My elder daughter was the first family member to die and, though she and her twins came for dinner every Sunday, I wished I had spent more time with her.

Two days after she died, my father-in-law died. He had dementia, and caring for him became increasingly difficult. I had conflicting feelings. While I wished I had done more for him, I was pleased with the things I had done. Four months after his passing, my brother died. His death was a double blow because we had been estranged for 10 years. I mourned his death and the time we wasted.

So I didn’t just have guilty feelings, I had guilty feelings times four. Believe me, grief is a hard enough journey without guilt. Grief counselor Phyllis M. Hansen, MSW, addresses guilt in her article, “Is Grief Work?” It is work, according to Hansen, and you can find hope again by doing it. Her article includes 10 grief work tasks and one is conquering guilty feelings. “If only I had . . . grief games are non-productive,” she points out, because they are “out of proportion” to reality.

Carol R. Doss, PhD describes guilt in a Family Counseling Website article, “Guilt — A Pointless Exercise?” She defines guilt as “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense.” Guilt isn’t a one-size-fits-all emotion, according to Doss, and “it’s the imagined part that makes this emotion so problematic.”

It didn’t take me long to realize that guilt wasn’t useful. I could not go backwards in time and rehash issues, nor can you. The only option is to get on with life. Or as Doss puts it, “Let non-productive guilt go . . .” You and I have the mental power to face guilt, temper it, and apply this energy to other things.

When I had guilty thoughts about my brother, I balanced them with humorous ones, such as the time my mother drove into the front porch. Until that moment, she had been doing pretty well with her driving lessons. She wasn’t hurt and the porch wasn’t either, but we felt the force of the collision. My brother opened the door and called, “Did you knock?” Only he would come up with a line like that!

“Guilt . . . If Only . . . What if?” is an article on the Healing Heart Website. Many mourners have guilt feelings, the article says, and “guilt is not usually satisfied with explanations.” You can spend hours searching for explanations and not feel better. A better approach is to “get” guilt before it “gets” you.

First, identify guilt feelings and accept them for what they are — part of grief. Focus on happy, humorous memories, as I did. Accept the fact that life will always have unanswered questions. Getting intellectually involved in hobbies, volunteer work, or classes will also help you get rid of guilt. Instead of devoting energy to guilt, devote it to living the miracle of your life.

Copyright 2009 by Harriet Hodgson

Harriet Hodgson

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Harriet Hodgson has been a freelancer for 38 years, is the author of 36 books, and thousands of print/Internet articles. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Minnesota Coalition for Grief Education and Support, and Grief Coalition of Southeastern Minnesota. In 2007 four of her family members died—her daughter (mother of her twin grandchildren), father-in-law, brother (and only sibling), and the twins’ father. Multiple losses shifted the focus of Hodgson’s work from general health to grief resolution and recovery, and she is the author of eight grief resources. Hodgson has appeared on more than 185 radio talk shows, including CBS Radio, dozens of blog talk radio programs, and dozens of television stations, including CNN. In addition to writing for Open to Hope, Hodgson is a contributing writer for The Grief Toolbox website, and The Caregiver Space website. A popular speaker, she has given presentations at public health, Alzheimer’s, hospice, grief, and caregiving conferences. Hodgson’s work is cited in Who’s Who of American Women, World Who’s Who of Women, Contemporary Authors, and other directories. For more information about this busy wife, grandmother, author and family caregiver, please visit www.harriethodgson.com.

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