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Emotions Of Grief: Guilt

It is common after the death of an important person in our lives to experience a bewildering array of reactions. We experience these reactions as we try to accommodate to a new and harsh reality - that our loved one is no longer physically present with us on this Earth. Although each and every bereaved person will experience their reactions to loss in a manner unique to them, there do exist common ways that grief tends to express itself. These “grief reactions,” or ways that we experience our grief, affect us on emotional, physical (in our bodies), cognitive (in our thoughts), behavioral (as evident by our behaviors), and spiritual levels. Your particular grief reactions will arise from a host of factors, including the nature of your relationship with the deceased person, your unique tendencies for dealing with stress and loss, lessons learned from mourning previous losses, the circumstances of the death, etc. The fact that your grief arises from so many different sources partially explains why grief is so complex and so difficult to predict for any given individual.

Before I narrow the focus to one particular type of emotional reaction, this being the feeling of guilt that so many bereaved persons experience at one time or another as time passes following their loss, first let me introduce a concept that I think can be helpful. This is a concept that many helping professionals use to assist people to change for the better, and I will then apply this general concept to grief, and then specifically to guilt. This concept is that the thoughts we create profoundly affect our emotional experience; that is, our emotional reactions to situations occur as a function of how we “frame” or view (i.e., think about) any particular life situation. This idea applies equally as well to our emotional experiences as we grieve, for during our grief our emotions will symbolize our ongoing struggles to come to grips with the death. In particular, the unstated assumptions we make, including those assumptions that are beyond our immediate awareness, influence our feelings. Many persons do not fully grasp that the ways in which we choose to think about any given issue or situation will factor into generating our emotional reactions to that issue. In the case of grief, it is easy to believe that “we feel what we feel,” and that there is therefore nothing that we can do to alter our feelings. This puts us in a rather powerless position however, and one in which I think is unnecessarily constricting. I wish to suggest that we can indeed alter how we feel, even as we are engaged in the difficult process of mourning our losses. One way that we can do this is by paying attention to our ways of thinking about issues, and noticing how our thoughts correspond to our emotional states. In the private offices of many counselors today, this idea guides much of the therapeutic work. In my practice, depending on the needs of the client before me, we may spend much of our time exploring the linkages between a person’s thinking patterns and their patterns of emotional experience.

Let us now move back to the experience of guilt after a loss. Generally speaking, why do we feel a sense of guilt? Guilt typically arises when we think about our actions and conclude (1) that we did something that we ought not have done, and/or (2) that we did not do something that would have been beneficial for us to have done. Moving back to the idea of how our thoughts can influence our emotions, the emotional reaction of guilt can be seen to arise as a function of our thoughts. In fact then our thinking can set us up, so to speak, to experience troubling emotional reactions, such as a sense of guilt. We may feel a profound sense of guilt as we look back to times before the person died and evaluate our actions as in the wrong. It is so tempting in retrospect to evaluate that we did not do all that we could have done, or that we did things that we now regret. A sense of guilt can be especially difficult or troubling if it comes from a belief that our actions contributed in some way to the death of our loved one. Sometimes a sense of guilt is indeed appropriate, yet a challenge is to explore the thoughts that contribute to the feeling, to see whether our thinking is leading to troubling emotions that compound our suffering in the face of an already difficult event. Remember that as you walk through life, you are basically doing the best that you can do in any given moment, given the information available to you. Remember too that we cannot predict the future with any degree of certainty. When we feel a sense of guilt, we may in fact be saying that we ought to have been able to foretell the future. In essence, that we should have known that our loved one was in some danger. If you could have known the future, then of course you may have acted differently. But you did not in most cases, and could not. A sense of guilt serves as a way for us to believe that we actually had more control than we do. Death is difficult to confront. It is in fact perhaps the most difficult aspect of reality that we, as humans, must contend with. If we feel guilty, the perhaps we believe we could have acted to change the outcome, and so then this event becomes more understandable. Sometimes too we inadvertently use guilt as a punishment to ourselves, as a means to inflict emotional pain upon ourselves as we grieve. Sudden deaths may in particular give rise to feelings of guilt, and we know that after a suicide guilt is a very frequently experienced emotion. But your loved one need not have died a sudden death for you to feel guilt, as when we look back we can easily construct for ourselves ideas about how we could have done better.

I believe that one way to work through, or to come to grips with, our emotional reactions, is to be mindful that our ways of thinking are likely contributing to our feelings. I think that this is a hopeful way to view the situation, because it empowers us. It says to us that there is something that we can do to change how we are feeling, for the better. What is very often helpful is to examine our thinking about a particular issue or the ways we tend to think in general. Then, if we can learn to modify the way we view the particular situation, or the ways in which we generally tend to view events, we are often surprised to notice that our emotions follow in suit, changing in a positive direction. We know that eventually we will come to a point where the emotions of grief become less intense, less disturbing, and less exhausting. In the case of guilt, much of our thinking that contributes to a sense of guilt, when examined in the light of day, may be seen to cause us more harm than good. Let us be mindful then of our thoughts.

Grief Counselor, Dr. Steven Bailley
Grief Counselor
The purpose of these articles is to provide interested readers with information and thoughts about loss, grief, mourning, and grief counseling. A variety of grief-related topics have been covered. It is my sincerest hope that you will find the information presented here to be of interest and assistance to you. If there are specific topics of interest that you would like to see added in the future, I welcome you to email me with your suggestions. If you have a need to talk with me, please call me at my office at (713) 914-9944.
Collection of papers and articles on grief, and coping with grief
The need to express our grief… Grief is Different For Each of Us The emotions of grief: Guilt
Grief, Mourning and Grief Counseling The Experience of Grief The Emotions of Grief: Anger
Reactions from others… The Seasons of My Heart The emotions of grief: “I feel like I’ve lost control of myself.”
The Closeness of Mortality Ambivalence
A 'Grief Journal' Grief After Suicide
Research and clinical experience support the idea that many bereaved individuals gain benefit from grief counseling. Ideally, counseling can help people to cope as adaptively as possible during difficult times that follow a loss, and can also assist in bringing grief to a more adequate resolution. Should you decide to explore the possibility of seeking professional assistance, at any time following your loss, I welcome you to contact me to explore this option (appointments and fee schedule are available upon request). Every person is unique, and I will work with you to assist you in coping with your specific needs. At this most difficult time in your life, I wish to extend to you my sincerest condolences for your loss.

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