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Ways to cope with guilt in grief

Posted by AK Lander | On June 18, 2019 09:33

One of the most common feelings in grief is guilt which can be hard to understand and overcome. Discover some of the ways you can try and cope with guilt.

When you are grieving someone you love, you’re likely to experience an array of mixed emotions. Some people may focus on funeral planning or choosing gravestones, whilst others may want to spend some time alone with their thoughts. For many people, they are struck with feelings of guilt after the passing of someone close to them. In most cases, there is no reason to feel guilty, but the feeling is there none the less. If you are experiencing guilt in grief, this guide may be useful for you to find ways to cope with it, and it’s important to remember you’re not alone, as this is a common emotion found in bereavement.

Acknowledge the guilt

When you’re grieving, it’s likely you will experience emotions you may have never felt before. However, one of the most important things to do is acknowledge them. Allow yourself time to try and understand what you’re feeling and avoid turning to distractions such as alcohol, as this will make things worse long-term.

Your guilt may be flashing thoughts in your head such as ‘I should’ve done more’ or ‘if only I’d…’, along with other emotions such as doubt, shame, failure, blame and insecurity, all of which are natural responses. In most cases, these thoughts are irrational, and you must remember that your brain finds it a lot easier to focus on things you may have done wrong in the past rather than all the good you have accomplished.

Talk to others

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Feelings of guilt can sometimes convince you to isolate yourself and dwell on the negative thoughts; although it is important to allow yourself to feel these emotions, you shouldn’t have to do it alone. Resist the urge to keep the guilty thoughts to yourself and don’t be embarrassed to share your regrets and worries with others, as this will help you realise that what you’re experiencing is completely normal.

It’s likely someone who also had close relations with the deceased is going through similar emotions and experiencing the same thought patterns, so reach out to others and share your feelings. In some instances, people may find it difficult to understand why you are feeling guilty, in which case, counsellors and support groups may be a better environment for you to share your worries. Other people will be able to examine your thoughts more objectively, which may help you identify the irrational guilt.

We spoke to Jo Tocher from Life After Miscarriage, an online community for women who have experienced a miscarriage. Jo tells us about her loss and experience with guilt: “During my loss, I felt guilty when I was told my baby wasn’t going to make it, and immediately started to come up with all different reasons about what I did or didn’t do.  The most acute one, was that I had gone for drinks with friends before I knew I was pregnant - in my case, I wasn’t expecting to be pregnant.

“I felt guilty about that for a long time until many years later, when I reasoned it had nothing to do with my baby loss.  So why, as women, do we do this?  I do think it is in the way we are made; we often tend to be more emotional (not in every case) and point the finger at ourselves.”

Control your negative thoughts

Man sitting by the sea

It’s a lot easier said than done to simply stop thinking negative thoughts. However, there are certain ways you can try to keep them under control. One way that works for some people is a technique called ‘thought stopping’, Very Well Mind explains on their website what this involves: “The basis of this technique is that you consciously issue the command, “stop” when you experience repeated negative or distorted thoughts. You then replace the negative thought with something more positive and realistic.” Some even find it helps if you say stop out loud when the negative thoughts start.

Another technique for controlling negative thoughts is to write them down on a piece of paper. When you’re finished, crumble the paper or tear it or just put it in the bin. This physical representation of destroying negative thoughts help many people, so it may be worth giving it a go when you’re experiencing guilt.

It’s also important to realise that guilt is driven by your own expectations. When you start to think that you should’ve done more or acted differently in past situations, try and remember that your expectations are likely to be unrealistic. When people are grieving, they tend to experience hindsight bias, which is when after knowing the outcome of a situation, you look back and believe you should’ve done something differently. Try to remember that it was impossible for you to have known and you’re not to blame for the past. When experiencing grief and trauma, the brain automatically tries to make sense of it by placing blame and reflecting on where things went wrong, rather than accepting what’s happened.

What would your loved one tell you?

Letter writing

If you’re feeling guilty when grieving, a technique you could try is to write a letter to your loved one who passed. Write down everything that you’re thinking; this could include things you wished you said or had done differently, and how you’re coping with bereavement. After you have finished writing, re-read the letter and start to imagine how your loved one would respond. If it helps, you could even start writing their reply. When struggling with guilt, you are likely to be harsh on yourself, but remember your loved one would never have expected you to know the future.

Forgive yourself


Forgiving yourself can sometimes mean accepting what has happened and allowing yourself to move on, and this does not in any way mean you are forgetting your loved one. In some cases, people will unintentionally hold onto their guilt, and reimagine past scenarios in their head wishing they’d have done things differently, as this is still easier than letting go and carrying on with life.

Whether your guilt is rational or irrational, good can come from it as it can help you develop stronger empathy for others and help you learn. Let go of self-judgment and criticism towards the past, and instead channel those emotions into becoming a better person in the future, as well as helping others who are going through a similar experience. Despite the guilt feeling unbearable at times, you will eventually see the lessons you learn from loss and you’ll forgive yourself.

Losing someone you love is one of life’s biggest challenges, which is why we endeavour to make choosing the perfect memorial for your loved one as stress-free as possible.