Separating Guilt from Grief

Tuesday, November, 05, 2013

For many caregivers, the time following a loved one’s passing is filled with complex emotions and thoughts. This can be especially true for those who have spent a long time – perhaps years – looking after someone.

There are new challenges to work through in the midst of fresh grief. Memorial arrangements, legal and financial details and family concerns can all combine to take a toll. Then, as those responsibilities and tasks are handled and others move on, the ensuing weeks and months begin to allow time for reflection, grieving and healing.

This is a unique period, unlike any most caregivers have previously experienced. And often it is accompanied by feelings of guilt. As life without your loved one gradually takes on a changed perspective, you will naturally sort through memories and ask yourself questions. 

A distorted view

You may revisit important decisions or moments of conflict and wonder if you should have handled certain situations differently or if you could have made better choices. And you may feel that it is wrong to be relieved that some of your difficult tasks and stressful responsibilities are over.

For some, these questions and emotions take on an unhealthy emphasis, and feelings of remorse and guilt threaten to define the entire mourning process. While it is perfectly normal to experience regret as a part of your grief, it’s important not to give in to a distorted view of yourself. As the one who gave aid and comfort to your loved one in their last season of life, you can now give yourself permission to grieve without the shadow of guilt.

Ways to work though it

Here are a few points to consider as you process feelings of guilt in your time of mourning:

Accept your regrets and thoughts of guilt, and recognize that they are natural. 

As moments of stress and regret emerge in your memories, acknowledge the difficulty and understand your own humanity. Give yourself the same grace and compassion you extended to your loved one.

A sense of relief from your burden does not diminish your mourning or the pain of your loss. Every thought and emotion is a valid, important part of the grieving process and should not be rejected or ignored.

Talk about how you feel with close friends and family. Consider joining a support group (your hospice provider is a good place to start looking for one). You will find you are not alone in your struggle with guilt. These conversations will help you resolve your feelings – and in turn you may help others in their own battles.

Give yourself plenty of time – months, or even years – to make difficult decisions about your loved one’s belongings. There can be a strong desire to rid your home of personal effects and reminders of your loved one. While this may ultimately be a choice you wish to make, for now it may be enough to remove items from sight. Many people find that, after a period of mourning, they wish to display special items. You may want to involve trusted friends and family in this process.

Feel free to not answer the phone at times. There may be days when you need a respite from conversations that cover the same ground again and again, especially in the weeks immediately following your loved one’s passing. Give yourself permission to take a break from it.

Look for practical day-to-day pursuits that you find fulfilling and enjoyable. As you begin to fill your days with meaningful activities, your identity will take on a more robust, balanced perspective. This will give you strength to cope when those normal moments of grief mixed with guilt arise.

Honor your loved one in ways that express all of your experience with them -- both your sorrow over the loss, and your joy in remembering their life. Share memories with your family and friends in ways that mean the most to you. Consider donating time or money to a cause that your loved one supported. 

Do not allow feelings of guilt to rule you by keeping you from beginning to enjoy life again. There is no need to punish yourself or “work up” a feeling of sadness to “legitimately” grieve.

If feelings of regret begin to seem overwhelming, seek out professional counseling and/or spiritual resources. 

Remember, just as your Hospice Care Team was a trusted support for your loved one’s care, they are still available and glad to help you in your own time of need. If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to contact them.

Your journey, your way

Remember, this is not a list of rules to follow, but simply a variety of suggestions that may help you. Take what works for you, and shape them into ideas and actions that fit your personal journey as you seek to grieve without giving in to guilt.

If you need help, the chaplains, counselors, social workers and volunteers of Hospice & Palliative Care of Iredell County are here to provide support, compassion and reassurance to you and your loved ones through every step of life’s final stages. 

Our ongoing grief and loss support groups are open to all in our community at no cost. We also offer specialized one-on-one counseling, support groups and other activities to help children and adolescents understand and cope with feelings of grief. 

For more information or to register for any of these groups, please contact Randy Berryhill at 704-873-4719, ext. 4353.



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