Guilt Can Be Normal
CATEGORY: Grief and Loss
BY: Lesley Dials, LISW
PUBLICATION: About Grief
Feelings and thoughts of guilt are a common reaction to grief. Guilt can also be one of the most challenging emotions to work through on our grief journeys. You are not alone with your struggle. It is not uncommon for a bereaved person to wish they could have done more to stop the death. It is also not uncommon to wish you had treated a loved one differently before they died. This can be particularly challenging if the death was sudden or viewed as preventable. Sudden death prevents us from completing any unfinished business that we had with our loved one.
It is important to express your feelings of guilt honestly and to take the time to identify whether your guilt is rational or irrational. Rational guilt comes from actions that are directly connected to your feelings of guilt. Rational guilt involves having your actions directly cause harm to the person who has died. For example, a woman may struggle with rational guilt if she was text messaging while driving and caused a fatal accident.
Irrational guilt comes from actions that are not directly connected to your feelings. Irrational guilt is not uncommon for the bereaved. We did not want our loved one to die and therefore put unrealistic responsibility on ourselves to prevent their death. In irrational guilt we often are judging our current knowledge based on our past actions. For example, a man was feeling guilty for arguing with his son the evening before he was in a fatal car accident. His son was also not at fault for the car accident—but his father still felt guilty for his son's death. The man felt, "Maybe my son would not have been at that location at that time if our argument had not occurred." But the argument did not cause the car accident and the man could not have known about it in advance.
A supportive counselor, friend or professional can help you identify if your guilt is rational or irrational. To address rational guilt, forgiveness of self or someone else is the key. The woman who texted while driving engaged in many forms of "forgiveness work" including advocacy in her community to prevent texting and driving. Irrational guilt requires work to let go of irrational thoughts and feelings over time. The man whose son was killed in a car accident spoke with a supportive person & acknowledged that the argument did not cause the accident. He learned techniques to manage these feelings. Identifying and managing feelings of guilt can be difficult. Grief counselors at the Elisabeth Severance Prentiss Bereavement Center are available to support you in this process.