Definition of guilt (n)Bing Dictionary
- [ gilt ]
- awareness of wrongdoing: an awareness of having done wrong or committed a crime, accompanied by feelings of shame and regret
- fact of wrongdoing: the fact of having committed a crime or done wrong
- responsibility for wrongdoing: the responsibility for committing a crime or doing wrong
Everybody – and I do mean everybody – experiences some level of guilt after their person dies. How many times have you started a sentence with “I could have….” or “I should have…” or “I wish I hadn’t…”?? Lots and lots, I’m betting.
After they’re gone we naturally do a life review. Was our relationship all it could have been? Are there things that were said or unsaid? We start to see the little stuff we did or didn’t do. We go back years sometimes and pull up the smallest thing and beat ourselves up over it.
Part of the issue is that we see the past through the filter of the death. Any two people in relationship will at some time say something to upset the other person, or not say something that might have helped, or go home to get some rest, or get frustrated and say words we would give anything now to take back.
One client once told me that she couldn’t stop thinking about a fight she had with her husband over 30 years ago. It was a doozy and she left the house and went to stay with her sister. They made up and she went home, but now she feels so guilty for being so mad about something she now views as meaningless. She would give anything to have those three weeks back.
A mom who lost her adult son couldn’t stop thinking about how she always harped on him to cut his hair. Now she’d give anything to see his long hair.
A woman who took care of her mother for almost ten years sometimes lost her temper while taking care of her mother…alone…every day for over ten years…with no help from anyone. We can clearly imagine that the exhaustion alone could cause an occasional harsh word. The thing is, she never uttered a harsh word or expressed it in any way. She felt it though and thought it. And now she can’t stop thinking about it and feeling guilty.
And what about the parent whose child died? Even if the parent was nowhere near the death or could not control the outcome if they were, there is guilt. “I’m his mother. I should have known.” This guilt is unbearable. Every parent feels responsible for their child’s death – regardless of age or circumstance.
So what do we do with all that guilt?
- Talk it out. Find someone who is supportive and caring. Someone who will listen without judgement and not try to talk you out of your guilt, but who will let you come to your own conclusions.
- Reality testing. Ask yourself: if given the same set of circumstances, would you have said and done or not said and done the same thing? Like I said earlier, you are seeing the past through the filter of the death. It clouds rational thought and may interfere with reality. A daughter who took care of her smoking father was embarrassed by his ash-stained fingers when he went to the hospital. After he died, she felt guilty for not keeping him cleaner, but when we reality tested she was able to remember – and more importantly accept – that he wouldn’t allow her to clean him. He would yell at her to leave him alone. When he was no longer able to object, she kept him clean according to her own standards, not his.
- Recognize your humanity. We are human, after all. We make mistakes – every single one of us. We don’t always respond in the most appropriate way.
- Consider forgiveness, if necessary. For yourself. Forgiveness is not a feeling; it’s a decision. You make the decision to forgive and may need to remind yourself a thousand times that you’ve chosen to forgive yourself until you actually do forgive yourself.
Translation: We all feel guilt when someone we love dies. We would do anything, say anything, give anything to have them back for just one moment so we go back back back in time to all the things we woulda/coulda/shoulda and wish for a do-over for that one more moment. We are human and humans sometimes say or do the wrong thing, or don’t say or do the right thing. Talk it through, reality test, recognize you are human and forgive yourself, if necessary.
As always, feel free to contact me to make an appointment to explore this issue further.
Copyright 2014 Lisa B. Wolfe