“Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion to death.”- Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

There are many feelings that may accompany the experience of grief, and few are more difficult to understand than the feelings of guilt and regret. Guilt and regret are painful feelings that often arise as a follow up to other feelings. A person might feel relieved that their loved one is no longer suffering, then guilt about the feeling of relief. Someone might feel anger about circumstances related to the death, then guilt about the feeling of anger. Guilt is often the emotion that accompanies other grief-related feelings. This is one of the reasons it is so difficult to understand.

It is also easy to confuse the experience of guilt with the experience of regret. Both are emotions that can occur when we are trying to make sense of this loss. They can arise from similar circumstances, and both can be very troubling.

After a death occurs, it is natural for people to want to comb back through the details leading to the death as a way of trying to understand how this could have happened. During this review of details, we may come across mistakes that were made, or things that we would change if we could.

Guilt is a powerful emotion. It can hold us in bondage, isolate us and alter how we look at the world. Realistic guilt exists when we have done something we knew was wrong, but we may also unrealistically blame ourselves for things over which we had no control. Guilt causes us to punish ourselves and keeps us focused on the past.

Regret is what we feel when we identify the “shoulda woulda couldas,” things that we would have done differently if we had known then what we know now. Examples of this might include wishing we had spent more time with a loved one before the death, wishing we had said “I love you” more often, or wondering if a different course of treatment could have possibly changed an outcome.

The problem is we often get the two confused. You may be thinking “it doesn’t matter what I call it, it is still painful.” While that is very true, knowing the difference between guilt and regret can help us to understand how to work with these painful emotions.

How to cope with guilt and regret

  • Tell someone you trust what you are feeling. Blaming ourselves or wishing we had done something different is natural. We may need to be reminded that we did the best we could, that we were tired or stressed, or that we couldn’t have been there at the last minute. After the fact, we lose the objectivity to remember exactly how things were or we forget all the things we did right. If the person you trust says, “No, you aren’t to blame,” trust them and let it go.
  • Write a list of what you feel bad about. Then, as objectively as you can, identify what is guilt and what is regret. Is your guilt realistic or unrealistic? If it is realistic, was it intentional or unintentional? Our grief blinds us to the truth sometimes.
  • If it is regret you are feeling, there are ways to move past the feeling. It may be writing a letter expressing to the person who has died how you feel. If there is time, it may be talking to a terminally ill person about unfinished or unresolved issues between you.
  • If there is true guilt about something done wrong, you may receive relief by finding a way to make amends. An example of this is volunteering to do something kind for someone else.
  • Be open to forgiving yourself. Forgiveness allows us to move toward healing, and may also create new ways to remember painful memories.
  • Look for a lesson that can be learned from your experience. Guilt and regret can inspire us to choose to become a better person, teaching us compassion, empathy for others in pain, or perhaps to say “I love you” more frequently.
  • Most importantly, allow yourself to remember the things you did right. Guilt and regret are feelings that occur as we focus on the things that may have gone wrong in a relationship. Those memories may need some attention, and it is important to acknowledge them, but remember to look at the big picture. Those moments that we feel guilt or regret over are a part of a larger picture that may capture more aspects of the relationship.

--by Laura B., grief counselor

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