by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
“Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death.” — Coco Chanel
If you’re feeling guilty, ashamed, or regretful in the aftermath of the death of someone loved, the first thing I want to do is assure you that all your emotions are normal. While these feelings are painful, they are common and natural. There is nothing wrong with you. In fact, guilty feelings can mean that you have a developed sense of right and wrong, that you care about others and your relationships with them, and that you strive to be a better person.
The second thing I want to do is promise you that you can find relief from these hurtful feelings. When you become better acquainted with your guilt, shame, or regret, and work on understanding and restoratively expressing it, over time it will soften. It may seem counterintuitive to you right now, but the truth is that like all feelings in grief, your guilt is trying to teach you something. And if you allow it to speak, it will no longer weigh so heavily on your heart and cause you so much pain.
Guilt, Shame, and Regret
Guilt, shame, and regret are close cousins. They belong to a group of feelings psychologists calls the “self-conscious emotions.” This means that they are feelings of self-awareness. In other words, they’re emotions we have about ourselves. What do guilt, shame, and regret have in common?
It’s important to note that the self-conscious emotions are self-evaluative. In other words, they arise when we are judging ourselves. What are we judging? We’re measuring ourselves against the yardstick of our social and cultural rules and values. Human beings have many, many rules, expectations, and values, spoken and unspoken. Think of the self-conscious emotions as the moral emotions.
What’s more, guilt, shame, and regret are backward-looking emotions. You feel them in the now, but they’re caused by memories of things done (or not done) in the past.
One big lesson I’ve learned in my many years as a grief counselor is that in grief, it’s instinctive and necessary to go backward before we can go forward. When someone we love dies, we naturally turn around, toward remembering the time we shared with them.
So, the backward-looking nature of guilt, shame, and regret in grief is normal and necessary. Whether your grief journey includes guilt or not, it’s good to excavate the past, look at old photos and videos, share stories, and talk about what happened. In fact, remembering the past is what makes hoping for the future possible. The key is not to get stuck in the past, which is why befriending and integrating guilty feelings is so important. You won’t be able to move forward unless you do so.
Have you felt yourself concealing the guilt of your grief? Have you noticed that you would prefer to keep it a secret? Guilt, shame, and regret tend to live in the deep, dark corners. They often hide. They typically don’t like to be revealed.
In grief psychology, we sometimes talk about disenfranchisement. Certain types of loss tend to be stigmatized, and the people grieving those deaths or losses often experience disenfranchised grief. This means that their grief is often not broadly acknowledged or well-supported by their community. Sometimes it’s even shamed. Examples include grief following suicides, overdoses, and, sometimes, military deaths.
We tend to stigmatize guilt, shame, and regret in similar ways. They’re often based on secrets, and we keep them a secret because we feel ashamed, and then they become even more secret because we haven’t brought them into the light in a timely fashion—at the time of the loss—so we feel even more ashamed, and the downward spiral continues.
Secrecy is not your friend if you hope to heal in grief. All your feelings need to be acknowledged, encountered, and shared outside of yourself if they are to soften. They need the light of affirmation and the balm of normalization.
The Utility of Guilt
The fact that guilt exists is all the reason we need to accept it as a normal part of human life. All emotions are natural, and this includes the self-conscious emotions of guilt, shame, and regret.
But as I mentioned earlier, feelings of morality also serve a purpose in our lives. They encourage us to act responsibly. In fact, they help us understand what responsible behavior is. They direct us to consider others. They remind us that we are part of a community that needs rules and mutual consideration to function. They’re the guardrails that help keep society safe, vulnerable individuals protected, and families safeguarded. And they nurture one of the most meaningful emotions available to humankind: empathy.
an you imagine a world with no morality? It’s not a pretty picture, is it. But as with everything in life, moderation is key. Not enough guilt and you have anarchy. Too much guilt and you have repression and misery.
The Dangers of Guilt
Prolonged, pronounced guilt, shame, and regret are harmful to your wellbeing. They’re emotions that are meant to be experienced and worked through—not inhabited forever.
What does guilt feel like in your body? Stop reading for a moment and see if you can locate the sensation and describe it to yourself. Where do you notice it? What are the qualities of the feeling?
Guilt often feels similar to how fear or worry feel in the body. This is because guilt releases the same stress hormone—cortisol—that anxiety does. Over time, too much cortisol in the body can lead to high blood pressure, higher risk of heart disease and diabetes, and clinical depression and anxiety disorders. What’s more, research demonstrates that high guilt levels dampen the immune system. This makes people more vulnerable to illnesses and disease.
Guilt may also feel heavy, like a weight on your chest or an anchor dragging you down. In fact, studies have shown that the psychic burden of guilt makes physical tasks seem more difficult. Like depression, guilt can sap us of energy and drain our capacity to get things done.
Guilt feels bad emotionally. That’s probably why you’ve picked up this book. It hurts. Anything that hurts is a symptom that needs attention.
Feelings of guilt, shame, and regret may well be negatively affecting your relationships. These emotions can lower your self-esteem, making you feel unsure of yourself and less worthy of love and care. You might avoid spending time with people. The secrecy of guilt may also make you feel unable to open up when you’re around others for fear of disclosing something you’re embarrassed about or feel ashamed of.
Think of guilt as a wall you’re building around your heart, knowingly or unknowingly. It’s likely blocking affection and companionship. It’s getting in the way of close relationships. It’s time to dismantle the wall, brick by brick.
Guilt shuts you down and can make you feel isolated, anxious, and burdened. Good spiritual health feels the opposite—light, curious, open, loving, and free. However, life’s spiritual journey also includes encountering and wrestling with spiritual challenges as they arise, and the guilt of grief is one such challenge. So don’t be afraid to draw upon, question, or confront your spiritual beliefs as you work to understand and restoratively express your guilt. Just remember that in the long term, ongoing, unrelenting guilt will get in the way of spiritual experiences like awe, gratitude, and joy.
Befriending and Restoratively Expressing Your Guilt, Shame, and Regret
Your feelings of guilt, shame, and regret are not your enemy. Yes, they are causing you pain, but they are there for a reason. They are there to teach you about your past, your ingrained thoughts and behaviors, and your choices moving forward.
To befriend your feelings is to be present to them. It is to turn toward them instead of away from them It is to bear witness to them and honor them. Consider that your grief—including your guilt—is your love in a different form. Regard it with compassion and tenderness, just as you do your love.
Expressing your guilt is also essential. Why? Two reasons. First, all grief feelings must be expressed, or mourned, to be worked through and healed. No exceptions. And second, guilt in particular requires social review and affirmation because, as we’ve said, it is based on self-judgment about social rules. The only way to fully bear witness to your guilt is to have it heard and considered by members of your community. If you never share your guilt outside of yourself, you will always carry that feeling of secrecy and, likely, shame.
No matter what you are feeling guilty, ashamed, or regretful about, it’s necessary to talk to family members and/or friends about it. Remember that guilt is a very normal, understandable human experience. Rest assured that most of the time, feelings of guilt are associated with behaviors or decisions that those who care about you will readily empathize with. We have all made mistakes. We all experience guilt and regret. We understand.
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