Even if there is no basis in reality for it, we often feel guilty for what we did or didn’t do, said or failed to say, when our loved one was alive. In fact, this feeling of guilt in the aftermath of significant loss is so common as to be universal.
Now, the beginning of a new year, is a good time to confront that guilt, understand it, release it, and move forward with good intentions.
Guilt is a normal response to the perception that we’ve somehow failed in our duties and obligations or that we’ve done something wrong. It generates a whole mixture of feelings including doubt, shame, inadequacy, insecurity, failure, unworthiness, self judgment and blame, anxiety and fear of punishment.
Some authors make the distinction between guilt and regret, noting that guilt is the feeling we have when our conscience is violated, while regret is the feeling of sadness that results when things don’t turn out the way we had hoped. Guilt implies that we are at fault for something we’ve done or failed to do; regret is a reflection of our humanness.
As imperfect human beings, we are limited in our capacities—after all, there is only so much anyone can do in the face of insurmountable odds. We cannot be held accountable for circumstances beyond our control or for consequences we cannot foresee. At some point we must find a way to forgive ourselves for our human imperfections.
When your loved one’s terminal illness was finally diagnosed, you may feel guilty that you hadn’t noticed symptoms sooner, waited too long to seek treatment or didn’t do enough to comfort him or her. If death came suddenly or unexpectedly, you may feel guilty for not being present when it happened. If it came after a long, lingering illness, you may feel guilty for feeling relieved that your loved one’s suffering is over and you’re now free from the burden of worry and care. You may feel guilty that you are the one who survived, or uncomfortable that you received an insurance settlement or inheritance following the death of your loved one. If you’re a religious person, you may feel guilty that you feel so angry at God.
Unfortunately, guilt is a natural and common component of grief. When someone you love dies, it’s only human to search for an explanation, to look at what you did or did not do, to dwell on the what if’s and if only’s. You agonize and tell yourself, “If only I’d done something differently, this never would’ve happened.” Sometimes, though, there simply isn’t anything you could have done differently. When your loved one’s illness or death occurred, chances are that whatever happened beforehand was not intentional on your part. Given the stress you were under then and how exhausted you may have been, you were doing the best you could. Given the information available to you at the time, you were doing what you normally would have done.
Harsh as it may seem, consider that even if you had done things differently, your loved one still could have died in some other way at some other time! Sometimes we act as if we can control the random hazards of existence, even when we know that death is a fact of life.
Guilt is driven by our own personal beliefs and expectations, and dealing with it requires that we examine what we think we did wrong, face it and evaluate it as objectively as possible. For example, what did you expect of yourself that you did not live up to? Were your expectations unrealistic? If they were, then you need to let go of them. Since you did all that you were capable of doing at the time, there simply is no basis for your guilt, and you need to let go of that as well.
Nevertheless, if after careful examination of the facts, you find that your expectations of yourself are legitimate and you still did not live up to them, it’s important to face and take responsibility for what you believe you could’ve done differently. Healthy guilt allows us to own up to and learn from our mistakes. It gives us a chance to make amends, to do things differently next time, to come to a better understanding of ourselves, to forgive ourselves and move on.
Tips for Coping with Guilt
∙ Identify what it is that you feel guilty about. Resist the urge to keep such thoughts and feelings to yourself like so many deep, dark secrets. Bring them out into the open where they can be examined. Share them with a trusted friend or counselor, who can view your thoughts and feelings more objectively, and challenge what may be irrational or illogical.
∙ Listen to the messages you give yourself (the should haves, could haves and if onlys), and realize the past is something you can do absolutely nothing about.
∙ When guilty thoughts come to mind, disrupt them by telling yourself to stop thinking such thoughts. Say “STOP!” firmly, and out loud if you need to.
∙ Live the next day or next week of your life as if you were guilt-free, knowing you can return to your guilt feelings any time you wish. Pick a start time, and stop yourself whenever you make any guilt-related statements.
∙ Write down your guilt-related statements, set a date, and pledge that from that day forward, you won’t say them to yourself anymore. Post them and read them every day.
∙ If you are troubled by feeling relieved that your loved one’s suffering has ended, know that a heavy burden has been lifted from your shoulders; you have been released from an emotionally exhausting and physically draining experience, and to feel relieved is certainly understandable.
∙ If you believe in God or a higher power, consider what He or She has to say about forgiveness.
∙ Participate in a support group — it’s a powerful way to obtain forgiveness and absolution from others.
– Be your own best friend. What would you have said to your best friend if this had happened to that person? Can you say the same to yourself?
∙ Remember the good things you did in your relationship with your loved one and all the loving care you gave. Focus on the positive aspects: what you learned from each other, what you did together that brought you joy, laughter and excitement. Write those things down, hold onto them and read them whenever you need to.
∙ Ask what you expected of yourself that you didn’t live up to. How is it that you didn’t? What were the circumstances at the time? What have you learned from this that you’ll do differently next time?
∙ What can you do to make amends? Find a way to genuinely apologize to your loved one’s spirit and ask for forgiveness.
∙ Have a visit with your loved one. Say aloud or in your mind whatever you didn’t get to say while your loved one was still living. Be as honest as you can be.
∙ Have your loved one write a letter to you. What would this person say to you about the guilt and sadness you’ve been carrying around?
∙ Ask what it would take for you to forgive yourself. Can you begin doing it? Say out loud to yourself, “I forgive you.” Say it several times a day.
∙ Remember that no one else can absolve your feelings of guilt— only you can do so, through the process of intentionally forgiving yourself.
∙ When you’ve consciously learned all you can learn from this situation, and when you’ve made any amends you consider necessary, then it’s time to let go of your guilt, to forgive yourself, and to move on.
∙ Channel the energy of your guilt into a worthwhile project. Do good deeds in your loved one’s honor.
© 2011 by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC