5 compassionate ways to deal with grief-related guilt

Following a bereavement, you can become overwhelmed with difficult emotions. Addressing them head-on can be the key to working through them

Losing someone is never easy. Death doesn’t wait until everything is resolved; it strikes when people are in the middle of living, or still trying to work through unresolved emotions. Even long-term illnesses don’t give people time to truly prepare for grief. This often leaves us with guilt, but there are ways to work through this.

Facing the guilt

If you lose someone, it’s common to run through your last moments with them, past conversations, and everything you did or could have done. Your own words can come back to haunt you, or you may wonder if you should have been there more often. These feelings can be overwhelming, so trying to avoid them is a natural reaction. If you suppress them, or find other ways to ignore them, they will have to resurface eventually. So, finding ways to face your guilt and address it is best for your long-term mental health.

Exploring therapy

Therapy is a good first step in dealing with grief and other emotions related to your loss. Instead of having the thoughts circling in your head, it helps to get these out, if only to hear yourself say them. The things we feel guilty about after a loved one’s death don’t always make sense outside of our own minds. Expressing this can help you realise that the guilt is unfounded.

In group therapy, you can hear others who, despite having different experiences, have the same emotions around death and grief. If hearing your own regrets spoken out loud doesn’t help you take a step back, hearing others talk about guilt might help you realise that we all have regrets.

Finding resources to help

If you don’t feel confident enough to go to therapy, or you need extra help, there are resources you can use. Your doctor should be top of your list, as they can offer advice, prescribe temporary medication if necessary, and tell you about other options you have.

You can also find websites, podcasts, and books written about grief, from professionals or those who have experienced it themselves. These can help you realise you aren’t alone in how you feel. While hearing vastly different stories across all these platforms, you’ll notice the common feeling of guilt. Some websites have chat functions, or social media pages, where you can share experiences with other recently bereaved people. If you find yourself telling others they have nothing to feel guilty about, try applying this same kindness and understanding to yourself.

Accepting the past

Accepting the past isn’t easy, but accepting it can’t be changed, is one step towards moving on. Then you need to think about everything you did right, the happy times you shared, and the bigger picture. Taking a step back can help you see things more clearly. This takes time, because, during the first stages of grief, emotions can be overwhelming, with many conflicting feelings all vying for your attention. Separating these and trying to work through them is almost impossible during the early stages of the grieving process.

Forgiving yourself

This is the final step, because it takes time and work to reach this stage. Only after talking to others – or hearing their experiences – can you start to move forward. Forgiving yourself means letting go of regrets over what you said, didn’t say, your actions, or lack of them. We all make mistakes and have to learn from them, but don’t punish yourself for something you can’t change.

The only way to let go is by understanding the reasons behind your words or actions, accepting these, and forgiving yourself. For example if you had to work, but regret not being there as much, it’s understandable. But it’s unlikely your loved one would have wanted you to fall into debt by not earning money. If you can understand your own motives, you can accept them and forgive yourself.

Guilt is just one part of the grieving process, but it’s an overwhelming one. It’s often unfounded, or we put unreasonable expectations on ourselves, which we’d never put on anyone else. Understanding this is crucial to getting past it and living our own lives as a tribute to the person we have lost.

If you are struggling with grief, visit the Counselling Directory or speak to a qualified counsellor.

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