By Miquela Rivera, Ph.D.
Peanut butter and jelly. Salt and pepper. Ice and snow. Some things naturally go together, like grief and guilt. Why and how are grief and guilt connected? And how can we set ourselves free?
When a loved one dies, a survivor may begin to wonder why it happened, what they could have done to prevent the death or what their role was in the loss. For most situations, those who feel guilty do not have a direct responsibility for causing the loss; they, like others, are victims of it. But if it is unexpected (and even when it is anticipated), the death of a loved one is a painful experience that is out of anyone’s control. That doesn’t keep some people from trying to get a handle on it.
For those who want to control, understand, explain, justify or feel better about the loss they will examine what they (or others) could have done to prevent it. Guilt, however, is a trap because a person spends a lot of emotional energy trying to control what has already happened – irreversibly. The time has passed; death has occurred; the loved one is gone. No amount of self-analysis or self-blame will change that, but people will ruminate, thinking about the loss over and over in their minds, searching for reasons and ways to escape or change the reality of another’s death.
What to do? If necessary, seek professional help or a support group to talk about what happened. (Give us a call at the Grief Center!) If you want to try resolving it on your own, inventory all the things you could have done that would have realistically (not wishfully) prevented the death. With a critical examination, chances are the death could not have been prevented and the person feeling guilty may not have had an active role in what happened. Acceptance and self-forgiveness are the next steps. More on that soon.