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Learn to Let Go of Guilt in Grief

A Personal Perspective: Guilt is just a distraction from pain.

Key points

  • Guilt is the illusion that we can prevent death.
  • We use guilt to distract ourselves from the pure pain of grief.
  • With discipline, we can rewire our brains away from the habit of guilt.
Jannes Jacobs/Unsplash
Jannes Jacobs/Unsplash

It’s almost three years since Tom died, and in that time, I’ve spent many hours in grief support groups and heard a lot of people talk about their grief—enough to know that if there is one dreadful emotion a huge number of us wrestle with, it’s guilt.

We feel guilty for what we did. For what we didn’t do. Because we took our loved one to the hospital. Because we didn’t take our loved one to the hospital. Because we let the doctor do something. Because we didn’t insist the doctor do something. Because we didn’t drag our loved one kicking and screaming to the doctor. (That’s me.) Because we practiced tough love. Because we were too lenient. Because we let them drive that night. Because we let someone else drive that night. For every reason I've heard people give for their responsibility, I've heard someone else hold themselves responsible for the opposite action.

I’ve touched on guilt in a past blog post, but I’ve decided to revisit it because it comes up so often in support groups—especially for people in the first agonizing throes of loss. And I’m struck by how adamantly people defend the validity of their guilt, how hard they clutch it to their aching hearts and insist to others that their culpability is real. “You are not responsible for your loved one’s death, but I am! I did it wrong! You don’t understand!

This particularly heartbreaking because, among other things, this self-flagellation accomplishes absolutely nothing. If guilt could turn back time so that we could do things differently, then I’d beat myself bloody to bring Tom back. But all the self-blame and loathing in the world can’t change what has happened, and all the guilt does is pile pain atop pain. Isn’t grief enough? What does guilt accomplish except magnify what is already the greatest pain we are likely to ever experience?

Guilt = The Illusion of Control

So, why do we do it? For one thing, it allows us to imagine that we have some sort of control over life and death. Wouldn’t it be nice if we did? But, the fact is, people die in the hospital and they don’t die in the hospital; they die in car crashes and they drive places and don’t die. They go to the doctor and don’t die, and they go to the doctor and die anyway. (That's Tom.) People die. They just do. It’s just a crappy fact of life that we all have to deal with eventually. It’s a lot easier to find reasons why we should have been able to stop it than it is to actually stop it.

And guilt is a distraction from the excruciating pain of loss. Grief hurts in ways that you cannot even imagine until you have experienced it. Dead and gone. Dead and gone. Who can make sense of that? It doesn’t compute. But guilt—we know what to do with that. Guilt gives us something to chew on; it allows us to tell ourselves all kinds of stories, all of which end with, “…and then he lived.” It continues a story that is, in reality, over. Even while it causes us pain, is guilt also weirdly soothing? As long as we rewrite and rewrite and rewrite the ending, is it really the end?

The Guilt Habit

As we move through our grief, guilt can become a habit, like a song lyric that gets stuck in our head. We think in circles, dig into a rut, and wire the neurons of loss and love and guilt together, until we cannot touch one without it leading to the other, until all neural pathways lead to guilt. And, simplistic as it sounds, the only way fix that is to…stop it. Slam on the brakes. Step back and look at reality. Look at how people die. Every day. Look how many people die. Look at in how many circumstances and situations they die. People die. They do. And unless you are a murderer, you are not responsible. All you did was love that person, and the world took care of the rest. We cannot stop death. Alas.

This takes discipline, but it works. Every time you think of your loved one and your mind slips into guilt, stop and think something else. Stop and think of love. Stop and be sad. Stop and say their name aloud; say you miss them. Stop and sing their favorite song. Stop and do anything other than let yourself spiral into guilt and self-blame. Rewire your brain. Feel the pain instead of the guilt, and someday you’ll reach the pure love. (I hope. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.)

We all wish we could rewrite the story. But the story wrote itself, and there’s nothing we could have done about it, nothing we can do about it now.

Be kind to yourself. This is all so very hard.

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