Why guilt is so common after a bereavement
Guilt is a very common feeling after a bereavement. Guilt is about something we have done, or feel we should have done. We normally discharge feelings of guilt by making restitution. We might say sorry or do something to make it up to the person, but when the person has died that possibility is denied to us.
Very often following a bereavement, we feel guilty about something that in the circumstances we could not change or have done differently. A parent lends their car to their child, only for them to be killed in a sudden accident no one could have predicted. Your partner says that they are feeling unwell, and dies later from a heart attack. The guilt is often expressed as, "if only I hadn't lent them my car, she would still be here" or "if only I had made them go to hospital, he would still be here".
What makes these feelings of guilt possible is how we have the ability to re-imagine the past and to imagine possible futures. This ability is what makes us uniquely human. Just as we have the ability to imagine ourselves as being 20 again, flying to the moon, or what a future relationship might be like, so we can imagine how our past could be different. The parent who is feeling guilty is imagining a past where they didn't hand over the keys, or one where a reluctant partner was made to go to the hospital.
In these re-imaginings of the past, the person who is loved is kept alive. Grief is often understood as an adjustment to loss, however I prefer to understand grief as a continuation of love. Feelings of guilt is one of the ways we continue that love. In our internal world we keep the person we love alive and in relationship with us, by keeping alive the possibility we could have saved them. Giving up a feeling of guilt also means giving up this possibility.
What helps people with feelings of guilt is not so much understanding that there was nothing they could have done differently, rather it is much more about a focus on how they continue their relationship with the person they love. Counselling is one way a person can learn to manage and cope with feelings of grief and guilt: rather than feeling overwhelmed with emotion, they can learn how to understand it.
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