Dealing with Guilt after the Death of a Loved One
Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death —Coco Chanel
The death of a loved one is undeniably one of the most stressful events we’ll ever go through in life. It has been said that we all go through five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While I agree that many of us go through some of the above stages, grief is as individual as our own personalities. While there is no right way or wrong way to grieve, I do think that one other stage should be added above and that is guilt.
Whenever I am speaking with someone about the death of a loved one, more times than not they will bring up the subject of guilt. In my opinion, it’s one of the hardest stages of death and what some don’t understand is it’s completely normal and natural. We all go through the what if’s and if only’s after losing a loved one. The key in dealing with guilt is to understand your feelings and not to suppress them.
Growing up, I was very close to my maternal grandmother. My mother would always tell me to go see my grandmother but as I got older, my visits became more sporadic. At the time of her death, I was a sophomore in college and was always busy with school, studying, friends, etc. And besides in my young mind, I had plenty of time to go see my aging grandmother because nothing was ever going to happen to her.
She died of a massive heart attack. Over the years, I have replayed the day that she died in my mind many times. And each time, I can’t help but feel guilty. I should have spent more time with her; I should have told her I loved her more, etc. The list goes on and on. Why do I torment myself like this? Because these feelings are a natural part of the grieving process.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t have regrets after a loved one’s death. We feel that guilt because of the love and connection that we shared with that person. We can’t have a relationship with someone we love without inadvertently hurting them or vice versa. We are only human and unfortunately, intentionally or not, we do hurt the ones we love the most.
Accepting guilt or blame in some ways allows us to ease the pain. Doing so in many ways is easier than accepting the fact that life is uncertain and death cannot be avoided. Placing self-blame, in our minds, allows us some control over an uncontrollable and unacceptable situation.
But the reality is we have no control over when someone dies and placing self-blame or feeling guilty is not going to bring them back. If something we did is causing us guilt after a loved one’s death, it’s best not to ignore these feelings. We need to understand and accept what we did and why we are having such feelings.
Once we can accept our actions, the next crucial step is forgiveness. Using my grandmother as an example, I know that I did the best that I could at that time. Whenever those feelings of guilt come to the surface, I remind myself of this. I also remind myself that it is the strong love that I had for my grandmother that is causing me to have these feelings in the first place. And when you really think about it, that’s a good thing.
There is no right or wrong way to deal with the guilt associated with grief. But acceptance and forgiveness will go a long way in opening the doors to peace and happiness once again.
Although there is also no easy way to erase the guilt, we can learn from our mistakes. If there is something that you will regret not doing if something should happen to a loved one, then do it. If there is something that you would regret not saying, then say it. You may not get a chance to do everything or say everything but at least you’ll know you tried.
I try to say I love you as much as I can and I make every effort to be there for the people that I love. But guess what? I make mistakes. We all do. We are far from perfect, but that’s OK. Accept your mistakes and move on. The only thing our loved ones ask of us on the Other Side is to live our lives to the fullest. When we do, they are with us in spirit enjoying life all over again.