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Guilt and Grief

I want to address a question I hear all the time from grievers.

“Is it normal to feel guilty?”

Short answer: Yes, but that doesn’t mean you need to carry it around with you.

Guilt can actually intensify your grief or depression, which means it’s important to get clear about what it is and how to heal it.

What does guilt look like?

  • Your last words were angry and hurtful.
  • You missed the train and didn’t get to the hospital on time to say goodbye.
  • You found love again shortly after a break up.
  • You and a colleague were both looking for new jobs and you found a better company while they’re stuck in a toxic work environment.
  • Survivor’s guilt can take many forms. You survived a car accident. You survived cancer. You survived substance abuse. And you add all this extra pressure on yourself to be extraordinary because you’re “lucky to be alive”.
  • You’re grieving but you caught yourself laughing at a joke or enjoying yourself when you’re “supposed” to be sad.
  • After caring for a loved one who was ill for many months you feel relieved. And guilty about that relief (which is also 100% normal).

Guilt can take many different forms and it can affect any relationship from our nearest and dearest to our less than loved ones. Everyone is unique and your experience of grief and all the emotions that show up alongside it (like guilt) is also unique.

I was in my mid-20’s when my friend Ed completed suicide. We were all completely shocked. Sure, we knew he was having some financial difficulties, he had turned to a few friends for money (and they helped as much as they could) but we never knew the depths of the pain he was in.

I worked with him and his Mom at the grocery store throughout high school and she would drop into convo’s how she wanted Ed and I to get married. We’d laugh it off but when he died my mind immediately went to questions like ‘omg, how could we NOT have seen this coming?’ to extremes like ‘omg, maybe I SHOULD have dated him and then he wouldn’t have gone down this painful path’ thinking like I could have saved him!  

Which, of course, I know I couldn’t have. None of us could have. Other friends got stuck in thinking if maybe they had only loaned him MORE money they could have saved him too. I think all of us dealt with guilt but were likely too scared to talk about it because in some way, we believed it to be true. If we had only DONE more, Ed would still be alive today. 

When really, we were all just so.damn.sad. So grief-stricken. So utterly shocked and heartbroken. Our friend was gone. Forever. (I think of him every time I drive to my parents place and as I pass his street I send a little love to his family. 💜)

It’s normal to wonder if we could have changed the outcome and chase “what if” scenarios in our minds after a painful loss. What if I had insisted on rehab? What if we tried a different marriage counsellor? What if I had kept in touch more or paid closer attention, maybe I could’ve seen the signs that something was wrong? What if we had tried the experimental cancer drug? These “what ifs” become a problem when we get stuck in that place and can’t find a way to move forward.

And that misplaced sense of responsibility can feel a lot like guilt.

Is it really guilt you’re feeling?

Sometimes we SAY guilt when it isn’t really the right word. But the words we use matter, they have the power to affect our responses and belief systems. 

Guilt happens when we did something that was intended to cause harm. According to Brené Brown, guilt is about the behaviour – I did something wrong. Shame is about the individual – I am a bad person.

Maybe what you’re feeling isn’t guilt at all. Try asking yourself these questions:

  1. Is there anything I wish I’d said or done differently?
  2. Is there anything I with the other person had said or done differently?
  3. Are there some things I wish had happened better or more often?

If you answered yes to any of those questions what you’re feeling is GRIEF not guilt.

I’ve got one more question for you…

Did I do anything with the intent to harm the other person?

If you answered NO then maybe it’s time to use another word instead of guilt. Maybe it’s something closer to regret. 

Why do we do this to ourselves?

For me, it all comes down to us being too hard on ourselves. We seemingly love to beat ourselves up. Hold ourselves to unattainable standards of perfection. Spin our wheels in “shoulda coulda woulda” scenarios. Of course, none of this actually helps us move forward.

On the flipside, did you know that guilt can also have a positive effect? It motivates us to do things differently the next time. For that, we can thank our guilt as we release it.

What happens if you DID intend to harm the other person?

Guess what? You STILL deserve forgiveness. Because you’re human and that means you will f*ck up sometimes.

Forgiveness always starts with forgiving ourselves. Begin by looking at your past self (the one who messed up) in that moment without judgement and heap on the compassion instead. Can you see your pain? Can you understand why you acted the way you did? How in a moment of overwhelm, or hurt or fear you handled it the way you did?

“Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different, it’s accepting the past for what it was, and using this moment and this time to help yourself move forward.” – Oprah

Only when we forgive ourselves can we then extend that forgiveness to the person who hurt us.

Guilt can get extra complicated when there’s no longer anyone to apologize to or make amends to. The good news is The Grief Recovery Method® shows us how to heal a relationship even without the other person being involved. It’s possible to find peace if you want it, you simply need to take action. 

Guilt is still a FEELING and whether it’s justified or not we still need to acknowledge it, accept it, and process that ‘energy in motion’.

We do that by…

  • Moving our bodies
  • Talking to someone we trust
  • Journaling about it
  • Writing a letter to guilt
  • Meditating (Try this: feel where this emotion exists in your body (racing heart, pit in your stomach, heavy eyes) and exhale out the emotion with breathwork.  Inhale to expand. Exhale to release.)
Be kind to yourself

The antidote to beating yourself up about the “shoulda, coulda, woulda’s” of life is practicing loving kindness towards yourself.

When you find yourself rehashing the list of all the negative things that happened in a relationship, stop and remind yourself of all the positive things that happened too. Keep a list in your phone if it helps. List the ways you connected, the times you showed up, and the positive things about your relationship. Maybe you feel like you shoulda said, “I love you” more often but maybe there are many other ways you SHOWED them how much you loved them. Make a list.

Don’t forget that hindsight is 20/20. When we look back it’s easy to see what we coulda said or done differently knowing what we know now. But we didn’t know it then. Have compassion for your oblivious self. Remember you were doing the best you could with the information you had at the time.

How can you be kinder to yourself today?

Sometimes we try all of these things and still can’t shake the guilt or grief. That’s when it’s time to reach out and enlist the help of someone who can guide us deeper and help us heal. If you’d like to discover your road to recovery, schedule a Discovery Session here so we can talk through what’s going on for you and perhaps you’ll find a little more peace this holiday season and beyond.

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