Guilt may be a form of self-criticism for not meeting your own expectations and standards, and it may arise when you’re grieving a significant loss.
Grief and guilt sometimes go hand-in-hand. But, holding yourself responsible for thoughts or perceived shortcomings can add the burden of guilt and regret to your grieving process.
Guilt is a feeling that may come from believing you didn’t say enough, do enough, or make enough of an effort when you had the opportunity.
After your loss, you might start to blame yourself for an outcome that wasn’t really within your control, for example, or you might find yourself avoiding places that remind you of what was lost.
Many people assume guilt is an uncommon experience because it’s not included in the well-known Kubler-Ross 5 stages of grief model.
While the Kubler-Ross grief model offers an informal framework to understand possible grief responses, it shouldn’t be considered a strict guideline on how to grieve nor as a grief checklist.
In fact, each person’s process is unique; there’s no right or wrong way to work through a loss. It’s natural to feel guilt or experience regret depending on your circumstances.
“When a loss occurs, our minds get to work trying to make sense of what has happened,” explains Janette Rodriguez, a licensed grief-focused psychologist from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “That often involves replaying related events, thoughts, and emotions in our minds. And sometimes, as we do that, we find parts of the experience create a lot of distress for us, including feelings of guilt.”
Why you might experience grief with guilt
Rodriguez indicates there are many reasons why you might feel grief and guilt at the same time. For example:
- cultural norms that imply children are responsible for older adults
- a sense of personal responsibility for doing or not doing something that you think could have changed the course of events
- regretting saying or not saying something when there was an opportunity
- experiencing relief from the loss
- having joyful moments in the presence of tragedy
- moving on after the loss
But experiencing guilt when grieving may have major mental health implications.
A 2019 study of more than 1,300 bereaved participants found that guilt was directly associated with a higher chance of experiencing complicated grief and depression. Complicated grief is formally known as prolonged grief disorder, and is diagnosed when symptoms of grief persist for more than 12 months after the loss.
How guilt during grief manifests in daily life can be as individual as your grieving process. Rodriguez notes common behaviors may include:
- denying yourself basic care
- avoiding potentially joyful connections or comfort
- substance use
- putting yourself in situations that may put your safety in jeopardy
Simone Koger, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified grief-informed counselor from Seattle, says she’s seen guilt emerge as:
- social isolation
- avoiding topics, places, or people
- getting irritated with yourself
- engaging in negative self-talk
Guilt can be a powerful, self-deprecating feeling. But it’s valid and natural to experience this emotion. Sometimes, you have to feel it to let it go.
While you may not be able to fully convince yourself guilt is unwarranted, there are ways to help keep it from being overwhelming.
Writing it out
Rodriguez recommends writing out your thoughts and feelings.
“Sometimes doing this can help us see things from a different perspective or can simply be a way of releasing powerful emotions,” she says.
If writing isn’t your go-to, she adds seeking out other expressive arts, like crafts, dance, or painting, may help. You may also find journal prompts help you process your emotions.
When you feel guilt surge, Koger suggests taking a moment to reflect on it, to determine if what you’re feeling is accurate given the circumstances.
“Reflect on what is actually making you feel guilty; is it in your control? Was it ever in your control? If the answer is no, then it is time to let it go,” she says.
Keeping up with self-care
Dr. Cynthia Shaw, a licensed clinical psychologist from Chicago, notes many people experiencing guilt during grief can engage in self-punishment.
For this reason, keeping up with self-care may be important.
“Maintaining proper nutrient intake, sleep routine, and hygiene can easily lose priority in the griever’s life, especially in believing that certain needs are no longer deserved,” she says.
Shaw indicates you may be able to help your grieving process by honoring what was lost through community efforts, charity, or volunteering. These initiatives may help you find a way to feel as though you’re making amends.
If you feel guilty, for example, for not being able to provide homecare for a relative that passed in a nursing facility, starting a fund or program for others in similar situations may be comforting.
Speaking with a grief counselor
If grief and guilt are impacting your life, speaking with a grief counselor or mental health professional can help.
Koger indicates a trained professional can work with you on validating emotions, developing coping skills for grief, and recognizing ways to support your unique experience.
If you aren’t in a place yet where you want one-on-one interaction, Rodriguez suggests connecting with support groups or trusted family members to help process your thoughts and emotions.
Guilt can be a natural part of the grieving process — because there’s no right or wrong way to grieve.
If you’re feeling the weight of guilt through responsibility, shame, or regret, you can help loosen guilt’s hold by finding ways to express your feelings and staying away from self-punishment.
If you’d like to learn more about coping with grief, you can visit the American Counseling Association’s page for loss-specific resources.
For immediate access to a trained mental health advocate, you can speak to someone about grief and guilt by calling the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-622-4357.