Guilt and Grief: A Burden Worth Exploring

By Jonathan Cahill, MDiv

Grief is frequently accompanied by the pain of guilt. Feelings of guilt can arise when we feel we have not lived up to the expectations we have set for ourselves. It can raise nagging questions that take root like the most stubborn of weeds: 
“Is it my fault my loved one got sick?”
“What if I had noticed this earlier?”
“Was I a bad parent/sibling/friend/lover?”

We try to answer these questions rationally: 
“Illness is natural. There’s nothing I said or did that made them sick.”
“I didn’t always know what to do, but I always acted out of love.”

Even with the most rational responses, removing the pain of guilt can be difficult. If you’re a guilt-racked griever, you’re not alone. Spouses, siblings, parents, children and friends can all experience guilt in their grief. Writing about bereaved parents, authors J. William Worden and James R. Monahan describe several forms of guilt:  

Cultural guilt can stem from our perception that we have somehow failed to protect those under our care. Parents whose children precede them in death and medical practitioners, for instance, may be especially susceptible to this form of guilt. 

Causal guilt is feeling responsible for a loved one’s death through real or perceived negligence, or even through the passing on of an inherited disorder. 
Moral guilt is the sense that a loved one’s death is “punishment” for something we have done in the past that we perceive as a transgression. 

Survival guilt can occur when we live and our loved one does not (e.g., “I survived the car crash; why didn’t they?”) 

Recovery guilt may be the most insidious of all. As we move through grief and begin to find happiness, we may feel that we are somehow dishonoring our loved one. 

There’s rarely a satisfying answer as to why bad things happen and feelings of guilt are unlikely to give you what you’re looking for in the long run. Yet in the face of a profoundly tragic event, guilt may serve as a temporary coping strategy. It may be that finding a reason for a loss - even by misdirecting the blame inward - is more tolerable than not being able to find any explanation at all.

So, if guilt is what you need right now, that’s fine. Take your time with it. Know that it’s there for a reason and that it’s trying to do some work that needs to be done for you to survive.

When guilt feels overwhelming and is doing more harm than good, it’s probably time to let it go. With time and a healthy amount of curiosity and self-compassion, you’ll discover the tools and the people you need to continue your journey. Guilt, stubborn as it is, need not have the last word. Even if it does stick around like a weed, beautiful flowers can grow up beside it.

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