Dealing with guilt during grief

5 min read

How to cope with guilt when you are grieving

  • Guilt is common in grief, and it can be hard to resolve, now that the person who could forgive you is gone.

  • It is important to work through these complex feelings and find a support system in family, friends, or a therapist.

  • Journaling can be a productive coping skill, as you write out what you think you did wrong and hopefully achieve distance from it.

  • Focusing on the present and what you can do now in acts of service and love can also be cathartic.

Sometimes after someone close to us has died, we encounter unresolved or complex emotions about the relationship we had with the person.

This can often lead to feeling guilty about not having fixed a broken bond or not saying goodbye properly, or even regret about something you thought you had put behind you. There is also survivor’s guilt, in which you may come to feel like your loved one’s life was more valuable than yours and so they should have been the one to live on. 

Is feeling guilty “normal” during grief?

When experiencing grief, feeling guilty is extremely common as well. Guilt ties in heavily with grief. It’s one of the many reasons that grief can feel complex and overwhelming while you’re going through it.

Resolving feelings of guilt after the death of a loved one is no easy task, because the person is no longer able to grant you the closure you may feel you need. It’s challenging, and can often be a long road to reckon with your new reality.

You should not, however, embark on this journey alone. The best long-term solution to dealing with guilt and grief is to seek out a therapist who can help you work to live with and potentially overcome long-standing feelings of guilt in your relationships. 

In the interim, you can use a few strategies for dealing with the difficult emotions you’re experiencing. 

Find comfort in friends and family

Take care of yourself and lean on your support system. It might seem like a simple answer, but our close friends and family are often the most able and willing to care for us.

Talk to them about how you’re feeling, especially if they may have insight into the relationship you had with your departed loved one. Often our minds complicate things and create false narratives, and just talking to a third party can clear up and recenter our experiences. Sometimes just saying the words out loud can take some of their burden off you, at least for a little while. 

Write it out

Creative writing, journaling, making lists—whatever kind of writing works for you. Getting your thoughts out of your head by putting pen to paper is often a good first step in healing them. One way to get started is to think of this as writing down your “should haves” or “could haves.” These can be as major “I should have made amends” or as minor as “I could have called more.”

You could treat this as a one-time activity or as a long-running way to cope with your grief and guilt. If you choose to continue writing down your thoughts, you might want to set aside a habitual time for you to process. This can help alleviate hard feelings during busier periods of your day. 

Use your writing time to identify the things you did right in your relationship as well, and congratulate yourself for that. Remind yourself that all relationships are complex, most are messy, and forgiveness is key—both in life and after death.

Look for acts of service and love

As you chronicle your “should haves,” you might discover ways you can act now to counteract some of the guilt you’re feeling. For example, maybe you wish you had called your loved one more to express how much they meant to you. How can you work this realization into your relationships with those you still have with you?

Remind yourself that all relationships are complex, most are messy, and forgiveness is key.

Alternatively, there are often concrete ways to give back in your loved one’s memory. Perhaps they had a cause they cared deeply about or a community they supported. Finding out how you might continue their work in this area is a very productive way to deal with the way you’re feeling.

Find a therapist

Searching for a therapist in the midst of grief, loss, depression, and guilt can be daunting. It often involves lengthy searches, trying out multiple professionals for the right fit and navigating health insurance policies. This may feel like the last thing you want to take on at the moment, but if you’re dealing with guilt that won’t go away, it’s probably the best thing to do.

Finding a therapist who specializes in bereavement could be a good place to start. They’ll often have tools and exercises not only to work through your guilt, but also to help you through the other emotions that come along with grief (like anger or denial). This part of the process can feel frustrating, and it often deters people who are experiencing emotional turmoil. But push through; it will be worth it as you become more resilient and find better ways of processing your feelings of loss.

As you journey into understanding and reckoning with your grief and guilt, stay open, honest and vulnerable—especially with yourself. This is a long process and you shouldn’t expect to feel “back to normal” after one long chat with a friend, a journal entry, or a few therapy sessions. You can, however, find comfort in these moments and look forward to feeling a little less conflicted with every new emotional milestone ●