Understanding bereavement guilt

Why bereavement guilt is so common and what you can do to start healing

Odds are, you will experience loss and bereavement at some point in your life. Bereavement is the period spent adjusting to what your life looks like after suffering a loss. As you’re working through the stages of grief, it’s common to stir up bereavement guilt. To help you avoid being stuck in that phase for too long, we’ll help you understand what you’re feeling and how to cope.

What is bereavement guilt?

Bereavement varies with each person and his or her circumstances, but the majority of mourners feel guilt at some point. According to a “Guilt in Bereavement” study, bereavement guilt is defined as “a remorseful emotional reaction in bereavement, with recognition of having failed to live up to one's own inner standards and expectations in relationship to the deceased and/or the death.”

To put it more simply, it’s struggling with the could’ve, would’ve, should’ve thoughts that can surround the death of someone close to you. Feeling guilty about words spoken or not spoken, actions taken or not taken, and even certain thoughts you have seem to go hand in hand with grief. It’s common to blame yourself for not having had a better relationship with the deceased or in some way not having done the “right thing” by him or her. Even if, logically, you know that you have nothing to be feel guilty about, feelings can’t always be rationalized away.

Why do you feel bereavement guilt?

We all do and say things we wish we didn’t. It’s part of being human. It makes sense that feelings of remorse can surface with excruciating clarity when someone dies, which permanently closes off any opportunity to make amends.

Another reason you may replay things you might have done differently in your mind is, in a way, guilt is a way to keep our loved one alive. It’s using your imagination, not unlike how you use it to dream about your perfect vacation. By running through the what-ifs, you’ve changed reality for a moment, if only in your mind. This kind of what-if thought process is akin to bargaining, the fourth phase of the stages of grief.

How to start the healing process

When you understand the reasons why you’re battling bereavement guilt, you can start to pursue strategies for coping:

Embrace your guilt

Suppressing how you feel will only prolong the bereavement process. Acknowledge what you feel guilty about and face it. You need to be able to recognize what your guilty feelings are in order to adjust your thought process toward them.

Share how you’re feeling

If you’re surrounded by people who dismiss your bereavement guilt, consider joining a bereavement support group or speaking with a professional counselor who specializes in grief support.

Discern what you learned

Yes, bereavement guilt can be a life lesson. That may sound a bit corny, but there’s some truth in it. Consider what your guilt has taught you about yourself or the world. Doing so can help you process the emotions and eventually leave them behind. Many grief books are available that can provide you with helpful information for this process. 

Act on your guilt

Channeling your feelings of guilt into something positive can go a long way toward helping you heal. Choosing an activity that strikes a chord with you personally or somehow reflects the memory of your loved one will be most rewarding. Starter ideas might include volunteering with special needs kids, planting flowers in a community garden, or conducting a free workshop at your local library for others coping with loss.

Write it down

Writing a letter to the deceased is a tried-and-true technique in grief work. It allows you to explain your guilt to your loved one and then gives you the ability to apologize and ask for forgiveness, if that feels right to you. This kind of exercise can crystallize where your bereavement guilt is coming from and help bring you closure.
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Photo credit: iStock

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