Grief, guilt and forgiveness

Almost every client I have worked with has mentioned that they, in some way, experience feelings of guilt after someone they loved has died – the list of reasons is endless. Some of them logical, many of them not. These clients have picked apart every little thing that happened with the person they have lost, “I should have done this, I should have said that” or “I shouldn’t have done this, I shouldn’t have said that”.

The reality is that we all make mistakes and say things we don’t mean and most of the time events leading up to a death are out of our control but we insist on torturing ourselves over these details. Hindsight is a very powerful thing but changes nothing. All we can do is learn from it.

People will tell you not to feel guilty but this doesn’t help, just as though being told to calm down, often, does not make you calm down! Just as it’s no good for someone to tell you not to feel guilty, there is also no benefit to acting like there is nothing to feel guilty about… Sometimes there just is. But what can be done about it now? (I know this doesn’t help either).

What needs to be remembered, is that just because you feel guilty, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are.

Silhouette of couple at sunset

Why do we feel guilty?

The process of grief is complicated and can have a massive effect on how we think and behave. There are often so many conflicting emotions to deal with - guilt is just one of them – but is one that can really stop us from moving on through the process.

In my experience, there seems to be a natural need to blame something or someone. This could possibly be down to the lack of control we have when it comes to death and dying. If we do not blame ourselves or someone else, then we would then have to accept that a higher being, the universe or something that has all the control - with such unpredictability this is a scary thought.

So, we look to put that control onto another human being - it’s easier to deal with, right? Is it not easier to blame the doctor, another family member, the person that has died, or yourself? This way someone had the control and there is someone to blame.


So, with all that said - this feeling of guilt wherever it may come from is, in my opinion, something that needs to be dealt with in order to allow yourself to grieve properly and move forward.

Psychologists often define forgiveness as a deliberate, conscious decision to let go of feelings of resentment towards the person that has harmed you. It doesn’t mean that you have to forget about what they did or excuse it - it is more about making that decision to just let it go. As we all know, that is easier said than done.

Forgiving yourself also does not mean that all the guilt will go away - it may still be there to some extent, but at a much more manageable and healthy level.

So, what can you do?

Allow yourself to really feel all the emotions you are experiencing. It is important to ride the rollercoaster of grief as naturally as possible; burying the emotion has no benefit whatsoever and will only prolong the process and come back to bite you further down the line.

In terms of guilt, you need to embrace it, allow it to be there while you work on it. It is our instinct to try and avoid the discomfort of negative emotions. Acknowledge what you feel guilty about and face it.

You may not know exactly what it is that you are feeling guilty about - you just have that feeling in your gut. You need to figure out exactly where this feeling is coming from to be able to deal with it. It may be a number of complex reasons - try writing it all down to make it all a bit clearer.

As I have mentioned, you are likely to be picking away at everything that happened leading up to the death, everything you did and said etc. What needs to be remembered here is that you are not a bad person and that your intentions were good. It’s that hindsight thing again!

Go back to that time - remember what you knew then and what your intentions where. Could anything actually be any different knowing what you knew then? Maybe try writing down what you may have done differently. Did you have a choice?

A few more questions to consider…

Are your reasons for the guilt rational? What’s the evidence? What would you say to a friend or family member who was expressing the same feelings to you? Would you tell them to forgive themselves?

A technique often used in grief work is letter writing - this usually involves writing a letter to the person that has died in the hope of dealing with and letting go of any ‘unfinished business’, telling them how you feel about them, the situation surrounding their death, anything you wanted to say but now can’t.

You can also try writing a letter to yourself as if you were the person who died. Think about what they would say to you, about what you are feeling. Would they say you are right to feel this way? Would they forgive you?

Finally, actively decide to forgive yourself, no one is perfect. Accept that everything you did at the time was the best you could do. Nobody is perfect. Let go of the self-judgement and criticism.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bolton, Greater Manchester, BL5
Written by Jennifer Jowles, MBACP (Accred), IAPT CfD, Dip Couns, BSc Psychology
Bolton, Greater Manchester, BL5

Jennifer is a fully qualified and registered person-centred counsellor with experience in a variety of issues and specialising in grief and bereavement. She is passionate that everyone has the ability to change how past experiences/emotions affect their present behaviour and reach their full potential as an individual through personal awareness.

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