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The False Burden of Guilt in the Grief Process

grief grief recovery method grief support Nov 07, 2023

By Ilana Shapiro Yahdav

When we are grieving, our feelings can feel beyond overwhelming. The pain can mesh together in so many different ways. Trying to describe the pain, and work through it, can feel like grasping blindly in quicksand. The more you try to clench onto something, the faster you get lost in the abyss. 

After my dad died, I spent years drowning in the quicksand of my grief, often flailing at air. I had no idea how to describe my grief or my pain. I lacked the vocabulary. I had no idea what I needed. Cognitively, I was fully depleted, only able to function at a bare minimum. Whenever the topic of my father would come up, I’d either melt into a pool of tears right there or try to change the subject. When people asked if my dad was retired, I’d mutter, ‘something like that.’ It wasn’t a lie, per se. He was retired, just not quite in the way that they were asking.

I felt so guilty that people may have thought I had an absent dad. I felt guilty that I was not honoring his memory properly. I felt guilty that I could not talk about him without crying and having to spend the rest of the day alone on my couch to recharge. 

The ‘guilt’ added to the myriad of painful feelings that I was already wrangling. 

Guilt and Grief - The 'G' Words

Let’s talk about one of the ‘G’ Words - Guilt. It’s that additional big ol’ elephant sitting in the corner of the room next to the other ‘G’ Word - Grief. 

I know we are playing with semantics here, but honestly, the words we use really do matter. (We talk A LOT about reframes in our Course and Workbook; both further illustrate how semantics plays a role in our thinking, feeling, and healing). 

Have you ever found yourself saying, “I feel so guilty for…….(insert what you feel guilty for).”

  • I feel guilty that we are not going to all the birthday parties this weekend. Two was enough. 
  • I feel guilty that I have not called my 96-year-old, dementia-riddled grandfather recently.
  • I feel guilty that I have not volunteered for the PTA/to be the room parent this month.
  • I feel guilty that I can’t bring myself to go on Social Media anymore as it’s really detrimental to my mental health. 
  • I feel guilty that I’m starting to feel happy and enjoy life again - while my person is still dead.
  • I feel guilty that I’m so excited about my new job and my person is still on life support, slowly dying. 
  • I feel guilty that I get to hold my children close and watch their little chests rise and fall as they sleep peacefully, while some can only watch their headstones or pray that they are not in pain wherever they are.  

What is one common theme through the above examples? The vocalized feelings of guilt. Let’s pause and talk about what guilt is. 

Reframing Guilt

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines guilt as the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously. 

In other words, guilt is defined as involving the intent to harm. 

Now, we are not telling you that your feelings are not valid. No, on the contrary. We’re just saying that perhaps, they may more accurately go by a different name - regret, sadness, heartbreak. 

Did I have any intent to harm my father when I couldn’t talk about him? No, not in the least. I was just trying to survive. 

When a person is found guilty of a crime, they are sentenced to a punishment, whether it be jail time, a fine, or community service. When we find ourselves erroneously guilty, we are sentencing ourselves to our own self-made jail. We’re robbing ourselves of access to our happy memories with the person. We’re adding an extra layer of pain and punishment to our already broken hearts. 

Next time you find yourself feeling ‘guilty’, ask yourself if you meant to harm - whether it be to a person or in a situation. If the answer is no (which I’m assuming is mostly the case), then try to further think about what you really are feeling. 

For me, it really came down to that I was sad - shattered - that I was not able to talk about my father without falling apart. Regret, yes. Sadness, yes. Guilt, no.

Understanding Grief Guilt

A lot of what we assign the feeling of guilt is often unmet hopes, dreams, and expectations.

All the things that we wish we could have done differently, better or more. All the ways that we feel incomplete with the person or situation. It can be hard to grapple with all of those emotions and sometimes defining that experience as  ‘guilt’ can feel the lesser of two painful emotions. 

While being able to name our emotions as something other than guilt does not heal our hearts, it does help set us on a path toward working through our grief. 

As the adage goes (I have no idea who to credit with this saying), ‘to name it, is to tame it.’ 

Cultivating awareness and naming emotions are powerful first steps. 

When you can take yourself out of your self-made guilt prison and more accurately name your emotions, you can then start to swim through your grief and no longer drown. 

If you find yourself drowning in griefy guilt, we encourage you to explore the Grief Recovery Method, which both Kim and I teach. Contact us to learn more about how we can best support you.