Coping With Guilt

Free yourself from blame for what can't be changed

The widower laments, "I didn't pay attention when she told me she was not feeling well. She went through her illness alone."

The young accountant speculates that planning a trip with her older sister would have given her something to look forward to; that she wouldn't have given up.

The child believes that his wishing mommy dead during a fit of anger caused mommy to die.

The mother of three regrets the complaints she made about her husband's selfishness prior to his sudden death.

A grandfather feels that by not taking his granddaughter to a different hospital, he caused her death.

Guilt is one of the most powerful negative reactions to the loss of a loved one, equaled only by anger as a common grief experience. After someone close to us dies, we think back to events, conversations, or modes of behavior we engaged in before the death. We examine the way in which we believe we played a vital role in that person's final decline, accident, or illness. Often, we assume responsibility for the death, which can range from thinking we were unkind or unhelpful to thinking we actually caused the death.

Regardless of how or why our loved one died, we sift through the evidence of past behavior, giving ourselves reasons to be miserable. We become tormented by our own perceived failures, omissions, insults, poor judgment, or unwise choices.

But the fact is that very few of us have a legitimate reason for feeling any significant guilt at all.


When someone dies, our world is in disarray, and our lives suddenly seem unpredictable. Our reality is turned upside down. By feeling guilty, we give ourselves a sense of having control over the situation. If we can assume guilt for the death, then we can impose some order on chaos. We create cause and effect, saying to ourselves, "Because I did this, then this happened." But these self-inflicted emotional wounds plunge us even further into despair. What can we do to relieve ourselves from the torment of these self-accusations?

There are several ways to cope effectively with guilt.

Apologize to your loved one.

One of the ways to release guilt is to talk it over with the person to whom it is linked—even though your loved one is not here. Visualize your loved one sitting with you, or speak to your loved one's photograph. Talk openly from your heart. Be specific about the action or omission or other reason for your guilt. Talk about why you did or didn't do the thing that now causes your pain. Explain how it makes you feel now and how you would change it if you got a chance. Then ask for forgiveness.

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Carol Staudacher
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