How to Release Guilt After Loss of a Child

After the loss of a child, a mother’s guilt is inevitable. There may be things she wishes she had done.  There may also be things she wishes she hadn’t done.  She may have made serious mistakes that carried grave consequences.  She likely feels guilty.  If you feel guilt, too, you know what I mean.

In the weeks and months after losing her child, a mother often struggles to be patient with herself.  She struggles to forgive herself.  She experiences the emotional torture of never knowing if her actions could have changed anything.  The uncertainty haunts her as she tries to figure out how to go on living without her child.

It seems unfair that the pain of her loss is amplified by feelings of guilt.  She feels alone, imprisoned by grief and doesn’t know where to turn.  I feel for her because I was her.

As mother’s, we love our children and we do our best to keep them safe.

We feel a primal obligation and a fierce sense of responsibility to keep them healthy,

to keep them safe, to keep them alive.  We are evolutionarily wired to

protect them to continue as a species. 

So, when our child’s health fails, or they are hurt, or they die, we are immensely affected.  Intense pain washes over us and sends us spinning out of control as we try to make sense of what has happened.  We hold our stomachs, grip our chest and drop to our knees because of the intensity of our pain.  We feel as though we have failed as parents in protecting our child.   We failed and we feel guilty.

It’s not uncommon to think of the five stages of grief as a linear series of emotions we have to get through to grieve successfully.  The first four, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, and Depression are better thought of as fluid feelings that are part of a much larger set of emotions that come and go as they please, like waves that torment us with their unpredictability.  But what about the fifth stage of grief? Acceptance.  Acceptance means coming to terms with what has happened and accepting the loss as part of our new reality that we learn to adapt to.  To find true acceptance, we must learn how to move past failure and release our guilt.

So how do we release guilt?  We start with forgiveness.  Forgiveness for our actions and inactions.  Forgiveness for the actions of others.  And, forgiveness for what did and didn’t happen.

Next, we explore why we feel guilty and what makes us feel guilty.  We may feel guilty because we believe in our hearts that we have failed.  We may feel guilty because we are still here and our child is not.  We may also feel guilty because we hold ourselves to extremely lofty standards.  We may feel guilty and not understand why.  So, what do we do?

First, we need to remind ourselves that feeling guilty is a natural part of the grief process.  This is particularly true when we are grieving our children.  Next, we need to ask ourselves the following questions.

  • Can we accept our feelings of guilt as natural?
  • Can we accept that we may not be perfect?
  • Can we accept that we may have failed and still be okay?
  • Can we tell ourselves that we did the best we could with the situation we were given?

THIS ACCEPTANCE is the very path we need to release our guilt.

Let’s begin by forgiving ourselves for being less than perfect.  Let’s begin by forgiving ourselves for our failure in each moment.  We can practice forgiving ourselves each time we are reminded of failure.  We can practice being gentle with ourselves one moment at a time. We can practice accepting ourselves as imperfect.

Forgiving ourselves is a practice.  Releasing guilt is a practice.  It is a practice where we can begin to find some safety and certainty.  We can actively choose to participate in this practice each time we are reminded of our guilt.  We can acknowledge our guilt as a natural response to grief.  We can begin to forgive ourselves for all the things we should have done.  We can forgive ourselves for the things we didn’t do.

It takes time but this level of acceptance is possible.  There is hope as the pain of our loss begins to lessen to a dull ache to make room for something new.

And, as we practice forgiveness, we learn more about ourselves. And as we learn, we grow.  We begin to see ourselves in a new future in a new reality.  We grieve.  We feel guilty.  We can even find acceptance that our child is forever gone.

In time, as we forgive ourselves, release guilt and find acceptance, we begin to look for ways to move forward with our lives as they are, not as we want them to be.    We heal and are healed.

With Love and Prayers,

Catherine

 

 

Catherine McNulty

Catherine McNulty

More Articles Written by Catherine

After losing her infant son in 2011, Catherine embarked on a journey to do more than survive grief. The loss forever changed the trajectory of her life and sent her looking for meaning and purpose for the life she was given. She channeled the love for her son into her own healing, self-growth and personal empowerment. Today, she has created a framework to grief that disrupts conventional ways of looking at loss. She challenges her clients to step outside of a victim mindset and regain control of how they navigate grief. She teaches how to grow through grief and encourages speaking openly about grief to break down the walls of silence around grief. Catherine lives in San Diego with her family where she speaks, writes, and offers coaching to those who want to do more than just survive grief. She is a board member of Empty Cradle and volunteers at Miracle Babies and the Ronald McDonald House. Her business, Grief INSPIRED supports those who are grieving and guides them to create a new normal that honors the ones they’ve lost.

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  • Shirley Cooper says:

    I just can’t let go oh guilt and emptiness

  • Lisa Rempel says:

    Shirley Cooper- I know what you mean about the emptiness. It’s just this overwhelming crushing numbness.

  • Anthony Williams says:

    My feelings of guilt over my daughter’s death are overwhelming. She died as a result of blood clots that were triggered by her use of a combination birth control pill. She was only 20 years old. As her father I feel guilty about not having discussions with her about the contraceptive options that were available to her. She still needed my guidance and I feel like I failed her completely.

  • Kim says:

    My 21 yo son died of an overdose 9 and a half months ago and I am still shocked with the amount of guilt I experience each and every day… what if I would have done this and this and that differently ? It’s strange how this level of guilt feels so incredibly unnatural ~ even though I know it is the norm. Every day I am shocked with a zillion new horrible emotions – even though I go about my regular daily activities. I’m really looking forward to a year from now when I think I will feel more like an actual human being again. He’d want me to be really happy, so that’s exactly what I strive for. He loved me a ton and wouldn’t want his death to define my entire life. XO

  • This was a great article. Easy to say hard to do, but I’m trying. Each day is a struggle.

  • Marty Ar says:

    I feel guilt many days since my daughter passed 2 months ago. She was young and still under my care. I think, what did I miss that this should happpen? I tried so hard to be a good mother. I feel like I failed many days.

  • I’m so sorry for your loss. Losing a child is so challenging and processing your grief takes time. Guilt is a normal part of the grief process so please be gentle with yourself. Remember that it’s far easier to look back and say what you could or should have done differently. You loved your child and the depth of the pain you feel is proportional to the love you have. Sit in the pain for as long as you need to but remember to hold onto the life they lived and the love in your heart. I’m time you can let the intensity of your pain go….this is your path and an opportunity to grow in the struggle. How can you best honor your child?

  • Jess says:

    Catherine,

    I currently struggle with the grief of losing my beautiful infant son 4 months ago, which still feels like yesterday. At what point were you able to do really let go of your grief to move forward and live an inspired life?

    I am too familiar with feeling lost, empty, and confused, etc.

  • Catherine Settineri McNulty says:

    Cynthia Lamar, The struggle is real. You may want to check out my latest blog article at http://www.griefinspired.com. https://griefinspired.com/an-exercise-to-help-release-the-pain-of-loss/
    I describe an amazing technique to work through the struggle. Keep the faith and as you process your grief, the struggle will ease.

  • Catherine McNulty says:

    Shirley Cooper. It’s been a little over six months. I hope that you’ve been able to release the guilt and accept some of the emptiness. The emptiness makes sense since we are each unique. You won’t ever be able to replace your loved one and it is their uniqueness that makes the emptiness even more real. Remind yourself that feeling empty comes with knowing how much you loved them. Fill the emptiness by honoring who they were if you can.

  • Reshana Kissoon says:

    I lost my babygirl at 4 days old on the 29/04/19. She was in the NICU since birth with lung complications. It has been more than a week and the pain is intensifying daily. Apart from dealing with this trauma seeing my husband struggling with daily life is sending me more in a panic. This is our 1st baby at first I was scared about having a baby but when I saw the joy and excitement in my husband’s face for the past 9 months all my insecurities went through the door. I cannot begin to say how much things we and so many other people bought for her. She touched so many lives before she was even born! Tomorrow we are having a pray function for her after which we decided we want to pack up the room and put away the stuff. This I find might be the most daunting task i will ever undertake in life but opening that door everyday is painful. Everyday I bought something for her I dropped the bag in there. We are not going to give away anything it’s just we are putting it in storage. My husband sleeps with her blanket that she was covered with at NICU. I do not know how to move on some days I am good around family members we have alot of support from both sides and some days I feel suicidal. I feel like I am to blame for her demise. My mind constantly races thinking all sorts of things. I found out I was 2 months pregnant last September and I keep thinking what if I did something wrong in that 2 months for her to get a faulty heart. Did I kill her? what if any medication for headaches or sleep I would have taken affected her? Adsitionally I am no user of drugs or alcohol. I feel sick I feel terrible. I feel hopeless. I do not know how to get over this. I feel like am floating threw space. Each ultrasound each test each check up I had showed a healthy baby. She was delivered via c section at 8 lbs. What went wrong ? I dont know. I feel like I am in a bad dream. When would I wake up?