Loss is not your fault – the role that guilt plays in grief

guilt grief
| Mind & Body > Mental Health

Bereavement presents itself in many different ways. It rears its ugly head in the form of sadness and depression, or anger and frustration. Losing someone feels impossible at times — like the world can’t possibly keep turning after what has happened. Inevitably, it does. Sometimes that leaves room for more healing as more time passes and we begin to adapt coping skills to handle that bereavement. Other times, it leaves more room for other feelings that can go hand in hand with grief.

Guilt is a common feeling for those who have lost someone close to them. Sometimes that guilt is for all the things you could have done; sometimes it’s survivor’s guilt; and other times it’s just source of guilt that you’re living a normal life while they are gone forever. It’s important to note how common these feelings can be and that your healing is the number one priority through those feelings of guilt.

Thinking You Could Have Done More

Guilt may present itself because you feel responsible for the death of your loved one, because you feel like you should have been there for them more, or because you regret something about your relationship with that person. This is common regardless of the circumstances. It’s often irrational, but that doesn’t change how it feels. Whether you’ve lost a pet, experienced a miscarriage, or lost a terminally ill grandparent, each situation can carry with it feelings of guilt. It’s incredibly important to understand this feeling is natural among many people experiencing grief.

Loss is not your fault. It’s not your fault they are gone, and there are far to many “what if’s” for those guilt-ridden feelings to hold weight. Instead of focusing on what you did or did not do, focus on your life going forward. There are plenty of ways to honor a pet or a loved one who you’ve lost that allow you to celebrate their life that can help you come with that guilt.

Experiencing Survivor’s Guilt

Survivor’s guilt is traditionally guilt that comes with surviving a situation where others did not. This is common for Holocaust survivors, those in war, or those who have survived a natural disaster. However, survivor’s guilt can span many different situations. The death of a sibling or child can illicit survivor’s guilt. Even being absent during a tragedy and feeling guilty for the lives you could have saved can trigger survivor’s guilt. This can manifest by feeling guilt for being alive while others died, feeling guilt for things you didn’t do to save someone, or feeling guilt for things you did do save yourself and not someone else.

These are all examples of how grief can present itself as traumatic grief. This is often grief as a response to a horrific event. Again, it’s not always what you think. A car accident can be a traumatic grief event that can cause PTSD in a similar way that war can affect veterans. If you’re experiencing grief in this way, it’s important to get help. For those experiencing survivor’s guilt, talking about the event can cause triggering PTSD episodes, so they tend to keep quiet about it. This can be dangerous, so if you’re experiencing grief that you are afraid to talk about and your mental health is suffering, talk to a therapist, call a free hotline for resources on how to help, or reach out to a loved one.

Feeling Guilt When Life Goes On

Experiencing loss is extremely difficult to manage. When the loss is so final, it can feel like you’ll never come back from it. In 2014, 43.6 million U.S. adults experienced some kind of mental health challenge. These mental health challenges present in the form of anxiety, mood disorders, depression, etc. Many of these common mental health challenges can be caused or exacerbated by the loss of a loved one. However, even when you’re healing from their loss, guilt still has a way of finding its way in. Many people feel guilty for healing from grief and living in a world where life continues to go on.

You might feel guilty for ever having a good day, for doing anything with your time other than crying, or for having experiences that don’t include the person you’ve lost. You might feel like if you’re not crying, you don’t miss them — or that it’s somehow disrespectful to feel like you’re “moving on” from their death. However, this healing needs to be your priority. It’s important to know that the person you lost would want your life to be filled with smiles and happiness in their absence. This feeling is common, but it can be helpful to know it is a part of the process for many people. Just like grief, it may not go away, but you can learn how to cope with it.

Seeking Help and Healing

Grief is heavy, dark and lonely. Though grief may look different for many, the shape is usually similar — but how we cope may look different. The coping aspect of grief is the most important. Though you can’t change what has happened, you can change how you cope with the feelings that come with grief and guilt. More than anything else, it’s vital to seek help if your mental health is struggling, if you’re finding unhealthy coping mechanisms, or if you’re considering hurting yourself as a response to your pain. Consider looking into support groups in your area, looking online for resources, or talking to a therapist. Some options are free, and some aren’t, but there is one, or the combination of a few, that will work best for you.

Some other ways to cope can include self-care. For one, forgive yourself for how you’re coping with your grief. If you are depressed, that’s okay. If you’re coping well, that’s okay too. Each response is acceptable. Get through hard times, triggers, and feelings of guilt by keeping yourself calm and comforted. You can try applying essential oils, going on a walk while listening to music, or taking a bath with a book. Distract yourself by spending time with friends, disengage by staying in with some Netflix, or focus on your thoughts by writing them down. Whichever self-care activity works best for you is what you should do, as long as it’s healthy.

People with many different relationships to grief can feel guilt as a response. First responders, vets, and therapists may all feel guilt and grief in their line of work. People may feel grief caused by divorce, imprisonment, infertility, or chronic illness. Grief can be associated with any kind of loss — not always with death. You can feel guilt with that loss just as you can feel it with death.

Coping with grief is hard, and guilt can be a common part of the process. Just as you have to cope with the pain, the sadness, and the anger, you must also cope with the guilt. Just know it’s a common feeling, there are multiple ways to feel it, and there are ways to heal from the guilt that often plays a role in grief.

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