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How to Cope with Grief and Guilt

Updated: Jan 15

Caucasian woman with funeral clothes praying; how to cope with grief and guilt
You've lost someone important to you; do you blame yourself? Photo by Tina Vanhove

Are you worried that you are somehow responsible for your loved one’s death?

You are not alone! One of the things that I most often when a person loses their loved one is that they blame themselves for the death. This usually decreases gradually over time, but sometimes, with prolonged grief disorder, it persists. Unless you actually had a hand in the person’s death, you are not necessarily responsible. You may think that you should have done more for them. You might believe that if you had done something differently, the your loved one would still be alive. Believing this may make it difficult to cope with grief and guilt.

I don’t know the unique circumstances of your loved one’s demise. Yet I can safely say that most of the time, people attribute more guilt and responsibility to themselves than they need to. This post will help you sort through some of the beliefs you might have about the loss. This can help you be realistic about your responsibility and control. In the process of being more realistic, you may get some relief in coping with your grief and guilt.

Assessing Responsibility in Coping with the Death

Do you generally feel responsible for the experience of other people? Are you often blaming yourself for other people’s emotions or reactions to you? How do you know when something is your responsibility, or when it is someone else’s responsibility? These are important things to consider when dealing with grief and guilt.

Many times, it is good to take responsibility for your actions when you’ve actually done something wrong. This is a sign of maturity and an indication that you are capable of responding appropriately to wrongdoing. However, when it comes to another person’s death, you probably don’t have control or responsibility about whether the person died.

In fact, I can think of very few circumstances when you actually have control over whether they die. Gross neglect or murder would be to examples where you would have control over the other person’s death. If you were not directly involved, then you don’t have to feel guilty that the person died.

Guilt versus regret with grief

You may have regrets about not enjoying the person’s company while they were still alive. That can make it hard to cope with grief and guilt. However, it is important to distinguish between that and being responsible for their death. Death makes it pretty hard to apologize or make amends for things that you wish you would have done differently while the person lived. On one hand, you recognize that your loved one might have wanted to see you more often. However, you might also feel uncomfortable with being around someone who is sick or dying. That is understandable and natural.

One approach you might take is to write a letter to your deceased loved one expressing some of the regrets that you have about your relationship. What do you wish you had done more of or less of? How do you wish your relationship could have been better? What are some things you could have done to improve the relationship? What are some regrets that you have about the way they treated you? Unfinished business with the deceased can complicate grief. Allowing yourself a space to express some of the things that never got resolved during the person’s life can be helpful.

To take this exercise a step further, you can write a letter from the deceased to yourself expressing what you believe they might have said to you if you could have this conversation. Maybe the person would have been compassionate towards you. However, perhaps they would have been harsh or unkind in their response. Either way, this letter is an opportunity to confront some of the unspoken tension and sentiments between you. It can be a way to cope with guilt and grief, in the absence of being able to converse with the deceased.

How much control did you have over the person’s death?

I believe that many times, people assume responsibility for things over which they don’t have control. Paradoxically, this is a way for you to assume imaginary control over the situation that is out of your control. You, like most humans, probably like to be in control of most aspects of your life. You try to arrange your life so that you control most aspects of your life. This gives you a sense of mastery, competence, and comfort. You’re not alone in this at all. However, when it comes to coping with guilt and grief, it is important to distinguish what you have control over and what you don’t.

You may have heard a friend who lost a loved one say something like, “if I had only done what the person asked me to, they would still be here.” When you say to them, “weren’t they already quite ill? Hadn’t the doctors already given the person only a few months to live?” The person might say to you that they know this, but they wish that they could go back in time and see if their actions would’ve changed anything. If you have found yourself thinking that you could have done something differently to prevent the loss, there’s a small chance that you’re right. The more likely case is that you didn’t have control over whether or not the person passed away.

How to Cope with Grief and Guilt with Ambiguity

Confused young man with finger on his brow; how to cope with grief and guilt
Confusion and ambiguity can complicate grief. Photo by Afif Ramdhasuma

None of us likes uncertainty or ambiguity. There are some situations over which you don’t have control and you don’t know if there’s anything you could’ve done differently to change the outcome. However, you can’t go back in time and change anything that you’ve done. All that you can do is learn from the situation. If there was something that was under your control, you can make a different choice in a similar situation in the future.

So, if you’re wondering how to cope with guilt and grief, you now have two different questions to ask yourself. How much control do you have over the situation? What was your realistic responsibility in the situation? In most cases, you can honestly say that you had very little or no responsibility or control over the person’s death.

You can ease some of the guilt by processing the feelings and making a plan to handle future situations differently. Luckily, there are many options for working through your grief. If you need help with either of these tasks, please feel free to call me at 661-233-6771 to make an appointment.

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