How People Grieve – Guilt

Many widowed people recount over and over again the last days or weeks with their spouse. “If only I’d…,” they lament. Behind this regret is a feeling of guilt.

To cope with feelings of guilt ask yourself, “Who is making me feel guilty? Is someone else blaming me, or do I blame myself?” Everyone has a conscience and conscience is less concerned about reality than it is with judging “right” from “wrong.” Judging “right” from “wrong” without checking “here and now” reality is often more harmful than helpful. The reality tester in each of us needs to challenge the conscience by asking. “What can I do to stop feeling so guilty?”

If you can’t relieve yourself of guilty feelings, talk to a friend, religious leader or a counselor. They can help.

As a listening friend, be careful not to rush in with reassurances before letting the griever talk about her real or imagined short-comings. Premature reassurance may make the griever feel alienated because “you don’t understand the seriousness of what I’m trying to tell you.” Let the griever talk it out. Listen more than talk.

Guilt may be especially hard for those who gave prolonged care to a slowly dying person. A caregiver, watching the family savings being depleted, losing contact with the “outside world,” and shouldering the family maintenance tasks alone may secretly wish the dying person would “go ahead and get it over with.” These feelings are normal and understandable. But when the death occurs, the caregiver is unjustly burdened with the nagging uncertainty that there may exist a cause-and-effect relationship between her wish for him to die and his death. Each of us still has a child within who believes in our own terrible black magic.

There is another guilt sometimes experienced by those who provide extended care to the dying patient: the guilt of not feeling guilty! After watching the physical deterioration and acute pain of a dying loved-one, there is a calm acceptance of the eventual death– “It was right and good that he died; it was his time; I’m relieved by his release.” Other people, who neither shared the suffering nor worked through the stages of dying to acceptance, wonder, sometimes out loud, why the survivor is not saddened by the death. The survivor, sensing the disapproval may feel a little unsure of her acceptance and actually begin to doubt if she, too, shouldn’t show more sorrow.

Children of divorce go through the stages of grief over the loss of a parent. Often the kids complete their grieving before mom does. Mom may both accuse and probe them with a question like, “How come you never miss your dad?” Mom questions the kids’ acceptance because she herself has not yet worked through to it.