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.
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.
For several days, repeat this process. Spend as much time as necessary to describe the reason for your guilt and to convey the depth of your remorse. It's OK if you begin to cry and can't finish what you're saying. You can always take a break and start over again.
Once you're comfortable with this process, add another step: After you have had your talk, close your eyes and think about what your loved one would say to you about what he or she has heard. Write down the response. If you have been forgiven, let those words bolster you and make self-forgiveness possible. If you are unsure about whether you've been forgiven, write what you would like to hear and why.
Seek a new perspective.
Have a talk with a professional counselor, member of the clergy, or another reliable resource. Discuss the forgiveness you need and the reason it is so important to you. Take with you the note you wrote, describing what you need to "hear" from your loved one and why. As you talk over the situation, allow yourself to consider new perspectives on the situation that are offered to you. You may need to accept the idea that your guilt is completely unfounded or that it is a substitute for some other painful feeling.
Look at the whole picture.
Recognize that no relationship is all bad or all good. List the things for which you will never feel guilt--ways in which you gave, supported, expressed affection or appreciation, or otherwise enhanced your loved one's life.
When you find yourself beginning to be swept into the gulf of familiar guilt, take out your list. Don't just read the words, visualize the whole context for each listed action. For example, if you wrote, "I tried to help her have confidence in herself," see yourself and your loved one interacting in a specific situation in which you lent her your support. Continue using the same procedure for each item you've listed. Realize that this list represents the reality of your relationship.
If your guilt still plagues you on a daily basis after releasing it through talking and focusing on the aspects of the relationship that were purely positive, consider selecting a date in the future when you will stop self-punishing thoughts. Have a truce with yourself set for that day. Say, "I've relived the reason for my guilt over and over. I could not have more regret over my actions. Now it is time to forgive myself and stop. On (date) I will no longer blame myself." Your personal deadline may be your loved one's birthday, the anniversary of her death, New Year's Day, your own birthday, or any day that has particular significance to you.
Many survivors have found relief from guilt by directing that same energy and time to a project that is an outgrowth of their personal loss. This may mean helping increase awareness about something such as teenage drunk-driving or the need for organ donors. It may also involve creating a new endeavor that memorializes the loved one in a particularly original and constructive way.
Finally, remember always that most of us accuse ourselves unnecessarily and without good logic. Show yourself the same kind of understanding and forgiveness you would show a close friend or relative. Realize that by living within the cell block of your own guilt, you're creating a jail for your mind. You wouldn't think it reasonable for someone else to punish himself in this way, so don't give yourself permission to do it. Free yourself for the softer, kinder emotions of loss, and you'll find your days opening up to embrace the love and positive memories you shared.