Dr. Bob Baugher is a psychologist and death education instructor at Highline Community College in Seattle, Washington. He’s featured on the Association for Death Education and Counseling’s (ADEC’s) webisode talking about the many ways you can cope with guilt following a loss. After several years of working with the bereaved and helping them address guilt, Dr. Baugher has come up with seven key ways to help. The first is to identify your guilt self-talk. If you say something or think it long enough, you can make it come to life. That’s true of guilt, and it’s common with the bereaved.
Saying, “I should have” can be dangerous. Next, understand that guilt is a feeling. To feel guilty is a normal response. Third, continue with your guilt self-talk if you like, but choose a future date (a loved one’s birthday?) where you’ll consciously get rid of this talk. Fourth, create a list of everything you did wrong and everything you did right with this person. Fifth, ask yourself: What would it take for me to begin to forgive myself?
Sixth, let go of some aspect of the guilt. You might want to perform a ritual, like writing it down and burning it. You might choose to disclose your feeling to a support group. Finally, talk with your deceased loved one. You can ask, “What do you think about all the guilt I’ve been carrying?” Listen for an answer to come—because it will. Few bereaved people truly think their passed loved one wants them to be unhappy, or even blames them.
These are just a few strategies for coping with guilt. Try one or try them all, but also try out your own methods. Relieving yourself of guilt and finding joy again is what your loved one would want for you.