How to cope with guilt and regrets and feel better over time by Linda Donovan

Linda Donovan AfterTalkHow to cope with guilt and regrets and feel better over time: Feeling guilty and having regrets can happen before and after a loss. This is where the if-only and what-if statements are common. You may try unsuccessfully and illogically to bargain with a higher power, by saying out loud, “What if I give up ten years of my life so that my husband can live?” You may explore hypothetical situations, for example, “I’ll do anything, God, if you can just make my child live again.” This is what Kübler-Ross called bargaining.

After the person dies, you may torment yourself by thinking about what you would do differently if you could simply change the past. It’s where you might say:


  • “If only I had taken him to another doctor and gotten better advice sooner, he might have lived.”
  • “If only I had been home when she had a heart attack, I could have saved her.”coping with guilt AfterTalk Grief Support
  • “If only I had taken him to a different hospital when he was turned away because it was overcrowded.”
  • “If only I didn’t visit my grandpa and unwittingly give him COVID-19, he might still be alive.”

Sadly, people can spend years punishing themselves for not recognizing the signs of someone’s illnesses or failing to understand that certain situations were out of their control or totally intentional. They might ask themselves:

  • “Why can’t I have another chance with him?”
  • “Why did I let her stay in a job that was stressful and that might have contributed to her heart attack?
  • Why did I survive the car accident and my child didn’t?
  • Why am I okay but my wife died of COVID-19?
  • Why did I let my son join the military and put himself in danger?

You may carry guilt and regrets with you, and that’s common. We tend to take responsibility for things that aren’t our fault. Yet the loss must be dealt with and worked through. Sometimes there are no explanations that make sense. After all, you can’t see the future, and you can’t change the past.

Bad things happen to good people. Accidents and unfortunate situations occur. Illnesses are simply part of life. All you can do is focus on where you are now and determine how to learn from, cope with, or make positive changes as a result of this loss.

In my book, Beyond Loss in a Pandemic, I discuss a variety of exercises that people can do to help them work through any guilt or regrets. One strategy is to write a letter to your departed loved one or  expressing your regrets in a journal. AfterTalk offers a secure, private platform for writing to deceased loved ones called PRIVATE CONVERSATIONS. If you regret that you didn’t do enough to prevent the death (even if there was nothing you could have done), go ahead and write about it. It’s a chance for you to get your feelings out of your head. Then these words no longer will be in the back of your mind when you’re supposed to be mentally present somewhere else. You’re essentially freeing up space in your brain, like offloading memory to a flash drive, so that you can focus on moving forward.

You might ask, “What good is journaling if the communication is only one way?” Here’s why it’s so important: you can actually get answers to your questions. That’s right—the next part of journaling is to put yourself in that person’s shoes and see how they would respond. Here’s what a typical letter to the person who died might look like.

coping with guilt AfterTalk Grief SupportJim,
I’m sorry that I couldn’t do anything to stop you from having a heart attack. I called 911, but you died before the paramedics arrived at the hospital. If only I’d been in the garage when you were there and had the attack, I could have saved you. But how was I to know you were in danger? I feel so guilty, and I miss you more than you’ll ever know. I can’t stop thinking that if I had put my book down and checked on you in the garage before this happened, you’d be here today. I feel like it’s all my fault. How will I ever get through this nightmare?

Now, it’s time for Maria to dig deep down into her memory and write a new letter, this time from Jim’s perspective:

Sometimes things happen that are well beyond our control. You had no reason to believe that I was having a heart attack. Everything occurred so quickly. In fact, I didn’t know I was experiencing a heart attack either. There wasn’t anything that you or anyone could have done to help me. I love you so much and want you to know how happy I was to have spent my life with you. I want the best for you. Please enjoy each moment for me and know that I will always be with you in your memories.
Love, Jim

Think about the value of this exercise. Things that you wish could be said are expressed. By writing in Jim’s voice, Maria was able to put her mind at ease with the comforting thoughts that he would convey to her. As a result, she was able to stop replaying in her mind the nightmare of that awful evening.

Gaining Insight from Loss to Create Positive Experiences
I’d like to share my personal experience of transforming the insight from loss to finding new positive ways to move forward. I was a caretaker of my husband Paul, who died in 2006, about six months after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Long before Paul and I knew that he had cancer, we wanted to travel, but we kept putting off the trip. Usually, our work schedules got in the way. Then we had unexpected bills that made it seem impractical to spend the money. There were always excuses to avoid traveling. I shared with my friends  the details about the vacations that we had planned but never took and how sad I was that I missed these opportunities. After listening to me, one couple immediately began saving for vacations, and now they regularly take trips together, based on my suggestions.

I traveled overseas with our girls a year after Paul’s death. Whenever possible, I also tried to slow down (at least a little), become more flexible, and savor precious moments with my family and friends. When my first grandchild was born, I made myself available for babysitting whenever I was given that opportunity, no matter howguilt and grieving AfterTalk grief support busy my work schedule was at the time. I would fly or drive to visit people important to me whenever possible before the pandemic. Since then, I’ve made what seems like endless hours of driving to stay connected, and it’s worth the effort. That’s a lesson that grief teaches people. You only have so many days on this planet, so make the most of them.

Many people are starting to do some of the things that gave them pleasure before COVID-19 and make up for lost time to get back to some of their pre-pandemic routines. Even if you’re not in a position to travel, emotionally, physically, or financially, there are still ways to maximize the value of each day. If possible, get outside and enjoy spending time in a park, field, beach, lake, desert, city, or whatever place that makes you feel more comfortable.

Perhaps you don’t feel like going anywhere but want to relax. Maybe you just need to simply pick up the phone and call a friend or post a positive message or inspiring picture on social media. Making time to take a warm bath, watch your favorite show on TV, play an instrument, listen to music, or have a friend stop by for a visit (even if you only feel comfortable meeting outdoors) are simple ways to make your day special.

Linda Donovan

Beyond Loss AfterTalk Grief SupportLearn more in my latest book, Beyond Loss in a Pandemic: Find Hope and Move Through Grief After Someone Close to You Dies.
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