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Grief

Why Grief Is a Breeding Ground for Guilt

There is something about grieving that makes many people feel guilty too.

Key points

  • Many people end up feeling guilty in their grief and some are more prone to it than others.
  • It's natural to self-reflect and question past choices and actions after losing a loved one. This can form a breeding ground for guilt.
  • Those who are low on self-compassion and generally inattentive to their own feelings may be more affected by "guilty grief."
 Marco/Adobe Stock Images
Source: Marco/Adobe Stock Images

I should have called more often.

Looking back, I now see the signs that they were sick. I should have done something more.

Am I a bad person for feeling relief now that their pain is over?

It’s so common to hear statements like these, plus endless other variations, from folks in the midst of grief.

Grief is a tricky thing. No one likes it or wants to experience it, but it’s an inevitable part of life. Just as you can’t experience happiness without sadness, you can’t experience love and connection without grief.

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the Swiss psychiatrist who discovered the five stages of grief, gave us the language and understanding for something that can feel so indescribable, personal, and painful. The five stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—give people around the world solace in knowing that grief is a normal response to a loss. And, most importantly, won’t feel so harrowing forever.

There’s another part of grief that isn’t often talked about, perhaps because it’s not well understood. It’s guilt. Guilt that you did something wrong. That you’re to blame for something that has happened. Or that you didn’t do enough.

It’s important that we talk about this, just as we openly talk about the stages of grief, so people everywhere know guilt is not something they experience alone.

Just because you feel guilty, doesn’t mean you are guilty. Guilt is often untrue, especially when it comes to grief. But knowing this doesn’t make you feel it any less.

Why Grief Can Make You Feel Guilty

Grief is a life-altering and powerfully emotional experience. While grief can be an emotion in itself, it’s also the process of attempting to make sense of the shock, and oftentimes trauma, that is the death of a loved one.

What comes to mind when you think of grief? Sadness, pain, numbness, despair? There’s no right or wrong emotion to feel. In fact, most people experience a jumble of all of them because grief encompasses so many emotions in one. It’s no wonder guilt may rise to the surface.

It’s normal to engage in self-reflection when you experience a loss. What did this person mean to you? What was your relationship like? What role did you play in their life, and what role did they play in yours? What role did you play in their death? These are the things you may think about while in the depths of grief.

With this sort of evaluation comes questioning. The loss, now in the past, is something you may try to make sense of. When you are focused on the past, you are more prone to ruminating about what you should have done, could have done, or would have done differently.

Similar to the statements above, you may battle with questions like: Could I have saved them if I just did this one thing slightly differently? Could I have made them happier? Did I listen enough? Was I a good enough friend? Does feeling relief that they are no longer in pain make me a bad person? Why didn’t I tell them how much I truly cared for them? It’s with these sorts of questions that guilt begins to foment.

Childhood Emotional Neglect and Guilty Grief

While guilty grief does not discriminate, there are some people who are more prone to experiencing these guilty feelings.

Being raised by parents who are blind to your feelings, the very definition of childhood emotional neglect sets you up to be, as an adult, out of touch with your feelings. This may in turn set you up to experience more “grief guilt” than others. Here’s how.

  1. Growing up with parents who under-respond to your feelings teaches you little about how to recognize, name, manage, and express your emotions. This is harmful since you need these emotion skills when you are grieving. Struggling to name and manage the complex feelings involved in your guilt puts you at the mercy of your grief and gives it power over you.
  2. You are low on self-compassion. If you experienced childhood emotional neglect, you tend to be quite judgmental and hard on yourself and may end up feeling responsible for far too many things. So it’s too easy to pile some guilt on top of that. The more harshly you judge yourself, your emotions, and your actions, especially after a loss, the more likely you’ll experience guilt.

What to Do With Your Guilty Feelings

Think about your relationship with your feelings. If you believe your feelings are unimportant, it may be time to reevaluate. It’s amazing how much more tolerable your emotions become when you befriend them rather than escape them. In order to get to the other side of grief, you need to walk through it. I know this is a tall order, but it’s also a necessary component of healing.

Pay attention to your feelings of guilt. It’s natural to be unaware of your feelings if your childhood made you believe they are unimportant. But you give power to your guilty feelings when you leave them unattended and unmanaged. Get curious about your guilt. You may find that it will become easier to recognize, manage, and release it.

Instead of blindly believing your guilty feelings as fact, ground yourself in reality. We all know the phrase “hindsight is 20/20.” And it is true. We would most likely do things differently if we knew what the outcome would be. That’s where the guilt comes in when you observe the past and believe you could have done something else that may have altered the outcome. At the time, you made decisions and behaved in certain ways because that’s what felt right to you. Give that past version of yourself some compassion.

Giving Up the Guilt

I encourage you to take these three main points away with you:

  1. Guilt is a common part of grief.
  2. The more you increase your awareness of your feelings, especially guilt, the more you will be able to understand and manage your emotions.
  3. Give yourself a dose of reality and remember that we all would make different decisions if we could predict the future.

Instead of automatically believing the message “I am guilty” when noticing your feelings of guilt, you can remind yourself, “I am grieving, not guilty. I need to treat myself kindly and remember that I am human and have always been doing the best I can.”

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

References

To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my Bio.

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