Of all the feelings that may accompany the experience of grief, few are more difficult to understand than the feelings of guilt and regret. After you lose a loved one, it’s natural to want to comb back through the details leading up to the death as a way of trying to understand what has happened.
Guilt is a powerful emotion. You might feel relieved that your loved one is no longer suffering, then guilt about the feeling of relief. Or you might feel angry about certain circumstances related to the death, then guilt about the feeling of anger. Guilt may be realistic and based on something you know you have done wrong. But it may also be unrealistic as you may be blaming yourself for things that were out of your control. It can take hold of you, isolate you and alter how you look at the world. And it can cause you to punish yourself and keep you focused on the past.
Regret is different to guilt. It’s what you feel when you identify the “should of, could of, would of” things you would like to have done differently if you had known then what you know now. You may wish you had spent more time with your loved one. You may wonder if a different course of treatment could have possibly changed the outcome. You may wish you had said “I love you” more often.
It’s easy to confuse the experience of guilt with the experience of regret. Both are emotions that can occur when we’re trying to make sense of a loss. You may think “it doesn’t matter what I call it, it’s still painful”. Yes, that’s true. But knowing the difference between guilt and regret can help you to understand how to work through these painful emotions.
Here are some things you can try in order to cope with guilt and regret.
Try not to blame yourself
Blaming yourself or wishing you had done something different is natural. After the death of a loved one you may lose objectivity, fail to remember how exactly things were or forget all the things you did right. Remind yourself that you did the best you could.
List the things you feel guilty about
As objectively as you can, consider whether your guilt is realistic or unrealistic. If it is realistic, was it intentional or unintentional? Grief can blind you to the truth sometimes.
Work out how you can move past regret
Try writing a letter expressing your feelings to the person who has died. Seek to resolve any unresolved issues and finish any unfinished business.
Be open to forgiving yourself
Forgiveness will allow you to move forward with healing and may also create new ways to remember painful memories.
Look for a lesson to be learned
Guilt and regret can inspire you to choose to become a better person, teach you to be more compassionate or show more empathy for others when they are in pain.
Allow yourself to remember the things you did right
Guilt and regret are feelings that occur when you focus on the things that may have gone wrong. Those memories need attention and it’s important to acknowledge them. But remember to look at the big picture. The moments that we feel guilt and regret over are always part of a larger story.
If you need help coping with grief, contact us by emailing [email protected]