Several of our previous articles have provided some insight into coping with the death of a loved one. Grief is a long, unchartered journey, commonly filled with anger and guilt if the griever had a less-than loving relationship with the deceased.

The hard truth is that not all relationships are loving. Many are filled with abuse which can be physical or emotional, or both. In some cases, the relationship with the deceased was damaged by an argument or an action that left both parties feeling angry and unable to forgive. The grieving process is so much more challenging when someone with whom we have unresolved conflict suddenly dies. In this article, we look at some thoughts on how it is possible to move past this guilt.

How Do Negative Emotions Affect Us?

Hurtful words can create deep emotional wounds which tend to make us question ourselves and our ability to do certain things. In turn, these emotional wounds feed negative emotions which impact on our lives in many unrecognisable ways. Emotional wounds may cause us to develop certain habits or to act out in a particular way.

Grievers have to deal with the guilt of never being able to say “I love you” or “I’m sorry” after someone close dies. Although each situation is different, it always seems as if we purposefully dredge up situations where we could have done better in our relationship with the deceased.

Why Do We Feel Guilt After A Death?

In the face of someone’s death, we feel helpless and overwhelmed. This is especially so in current times amidst a pandemic of epic proportions. Read more…The guilt that we feel magnifies as we review the past and wonder how things might have played out differently if we had said or done something differently. Self-blame then further exacerbates the guilt that we may already be feeling.

What Is Guilt?

Understanding guilt in the context of grief is complicated. However, there are two elements to guilt, the one being self-blame and the other, regret. Both are closely related but play different roles. Self-blame signifies taking on some of the responsibility for the death or damaged relationship with the deceased before their passing. Regret involves painful feelings about past interactions with the deceased, where we possibly could have acted differently.

Why Guilt Is So Pointless

Very few of us have a valid reason to feel guilty when someone passes, and guilt serves no purpose. Ultimately, we are the only ones who will continue to suffer by holding on to these negative feelings. According to Jeffrey S. Nevid PhD, the emotion of guilt is pointless for three reasons:

  1. Guilt will never change the past, no matter how long we continue to feel it.
  2. Returning to guilty memories over and over again will only serve to prevent us from focusing on the future.
  3. It will never correct troubling behaviour.
  4. Guilt is mentally and emotionally draining.

Suggestions For Coping With Guilt

Instead of looking back to the past, which we know we cannot change, we should perhaps evaluate our present in terms of what can be done to overcome these negative feelings.

Sonja Smith, from Sonja Smith Funeral Group, has some suggestions;

  • Firstly, we need to accept that the deceased is gone and nothing we can do, feel or say will ever be able to bring them back. Only by reaching a point of acceptance of their passing will we finally be able to move forward.
  • We also need to understand the root of our feelings of guilt. Was there anything further that we could have done under the circumstances? If there was something, it could be used as a learning experience to turn a possible “failing” into a future positive.
  • Forgiveness is a large part of resolving guilt, whether we need to forgive ourselves or the deceased.
  • Finding a new perspective on our own or with the assistance of a professional counsellor is also recommended. Counsellors are specifically trained to help reframe many of our negative emotions so that we can work through these feelings to become happier people. Never feel embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help.
  • Remember that no relationship is ever completely perfect. There are always good times and bad times. Times when people take from you and times when people give back. Try to shift your focus on the entire picture and not just a snapshot of a specific moment in time.

Regretting things that have been said and done is normal. It happens to everyone, and it doesn’t make us bad people – so we need to stop hating ourselves when it happens. We also run the risk of delaying our healing from grief if we end up overloading ourselves with guilt.

Guilt – An Act Of Love?

Guilt after a death can be seen as a testament to the fact that you cared deeply about the deceased, but it can also be a way of holding onto them. We need to discern the real reason for our feelings of guilt after someone close to us dies.

Be Kind To Yourself In Your Time Of Grief

We need to show ourselves the same forgiveness and understanding that we would typically show to our friends or family. Living with guilt is a punishment and a prison that we create all by ourselves. During the dark days of grief, we need to be especially kind to ourselves and find the positive in memories that we shared with the deceased.

Overcoming Guilt Is About Perspectives

In the end, we have a choice. Do we continue to retain our role as a victim, or do we actively work to establish a new path to regain our joy in life and to live without a cloud hanging over us?

Instead of punishing ourselves with unhelpful emotions, we need to find new perspectives for our focus so that we can capture more positive aspects about our relationship with the deceased, and allow the guilt to fade into the background.

Nothing contained in this article is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment. The information contained herein is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding coping with depression, grief, loss, regret or guilt. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.