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Because family life matters

The role of guilt in grief

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The grief journey is long, winding, uncharted and at times torturous. Two of the most common emotions experienced on this journey will be times of anger and times of guilt.

Guilt is insidious, it creeps under our skin and becomes a part of us before we realise it’s happening. When linked to a bereavement, guilt is often a burden we put on ourselves rather than something that others make us feel. Let’s explore the roots of this strong emotion and in doing so hopefully we’ll see how we can regain control and break free from its power.

When a death occurs we feel a sense of helplessness. We would have done anything to stop it happening, but sadly it is a reality, and we feel overwhelmed. So where does guilt come in? Usually guilt comes as we look back over events surrounding the death of our loved one and we imagine how things might have unfolded differently. We sometimes come to the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, we could have done something that would have changed the outcome. We say ‘if only…’ or ‘what if…’ and it gives us the feeling that the death was our fault because of something we did or didn’t do. If we did take action we may feel that events were therefore within our control and we could have changed the outcome.

We may remember our loved one saying they felt unwell some days before their death and now believe that we could have done something about it. Maybe we knew the weather was bad the night they went out in the car, so why didn’t we tell them not to drive in that weather? Or perhaps we feel we should have encouraged them to share more about a specific health worry, but we were too caught up in our own life. That’s when we start to blame ourselves, pile on the guilt and struggle to accept the reality.

However, rather than looking back and wondering what could have been different, why not focus on the present and ask ourselves, ‘What can I do now?’ Here are some suggestions that you may find helpful:

  • Accept that your loved one has in fact gone. This is difficult to do but if we can, it really does help us move on to the next stage.
  • Try to get a correct perspective on your feelings of guilt. Could we really have done any more given the circumstances at the time? Usually we find that people actually did do the best they could.
  • If there are real regrets such as not saying goodbye, if we missed our last chance to tell them we love them or we were too busy and didn’t spend quality time with them, then think ahead; is there something I’ve learnt through all this that I can adopt into my lifestyle for the future? We can turn our ‘failings’ into ‘positives’, and allow our current situation to change future priorities.
  • The real answer to guilt is forgiveness. If we did make mistakes we need to forgive ourselves. We’re all human and we all have weaknesses, so let’s allow ourselves to acknowledge that we did our best under the circumstances. We should go easy on ourselves and remember all the things we did do for our loved one during our time together.

As time goes on we can begin to let go of the guilt from the past and enjoy new things that life brings. Our loved one will always be a part of us and we will not forget them.

As the Queen said at the time of the 9/11 tragedy, “grief is the price we pay for love”. We would always choose to keep a loved one alive and with us, so rather than focusing on guilt, focus on the love that you gave and received.

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