How Do We Handle Guilt and Grief?

  1. Acknowledge that guilt is a normal grief emotion and don’t let others minimize the validity of your grief experience.
  2. Consider what your guilt is all about.  Is it rational?  Is it irrational?  Is it about control?
  3. Talk it over with others.  Though you don’t want people minimizing your feelings, talking about guilt can help you reflect on your grief.  A good counselor or support group is a great environment to talk about feelings of guilt.
  4. Examine your thoughts.  Often our guilt thoughts, whether rational or irrational, start to consume us.  They can drag us down into one of those bottomless black holes – the kind that are full of isolation, despair, and far too much wine and ben & jerry’s ice cream.  In order to adjust your thinking, you have to know what your guilt thoughts are and notice them when they arise.
  5. If your guilt feelings are irrational, admit it.  This doesn’t mean dismissing your feelings of guilt.  It means acknowledging that, though you feel guilty, you may not actually be guilty.  Some common examples are acknowledging you did the best you could with the information you had at the time, you couldn’t predict the future, there were many other factors at play other than your behaviors, etc. Being honest with yourself about your guilt is important, and accepting that grief is sometimes irrational can be helpful.
  6. Find positive thoughts to balance your guilt thoughts.  “Thought stopping” is a technique with mixed reviews among the mental health crowd.  The idea is this – when you notice a negative thought taking over (ie guilt) make a conscious effort to stop and replace the thought.  Though it may not be quite this simple, there is value in having a positive thought to balance negative guilt thoughts you experience.  For example, if you are feeling guilt that you were not there at the moment of your loved one’s death, when that thought comes up be prepared with a thought about the many times you were there.
  7. Forgive yourself.  Easier said than done, right?  You can start with this post on making amends and then check out this post on self-forgiveness.  Remember, forgiveness does not mean condoning or excusing.  Forgiveness can mean accepting that we may have done something we regret, but finding new attitude and perspective toward ourselves in relation to that action.  It doesn’t mean we forget, but means we find a way to move forward.
  8. Figure out what you have learned.  Guilt often teaches us something.  It can be something about ourselves or about the world.   We can learn and grow from almost any emotion (cheesy, but true) so take some time to consider what your guilt has taught you.
  9. Do something with your guilt.  Whether rational or irrational, you can use your guilt to help others.  What you do may come out of things you have learned. Whether it is educating others so they can avoid the mistakes you feel guilty about, raising awareness about causes of death (anything from heart disease to substance abuse to suicide), or simply encouraging others to talk with their family about end of life wishes, you can use many guilt experiences to help others.
  10. Consider what your loved one would tell you.  Get yourself in a space to truly focus on thinking about your loved one.  Imagine telling them how you are feeling – your regrets, your guilt, all of it.  If there are things you wish you had said, say them.  Then imagine what your loved one would tell you.

Author: betterblokesnz