Why Feeling Guilty Is Normal When Experiencing Grief

Published December 16, 2020
man experiencing grief

After someone has passed away, whether you were very close with them or had a strained relationship, feelings of guilt may come up for you at any point as you process this loss. Keep in mind that feeling guilty is normal when experiencing grief, and there are many reasons why guilt may come up for you at this time.

Feeling Guilty Is Normal When Experiencing Grief

Feelings of guilt can bubble up at any point during the grieving process, and it is totally normal to experience. Feelings of guilt may come and go quickly, may be prolonged, and may come up more than once for you during this time.

Grief and Guilt

Grief and guilt can have a cyclical relationship in that both can intensify the other. In other words, feelings of guilt can heighten grief, and grief related feelings can magnify guilt. While guilt and grief frequently go hand in hand during the mourning period, this connection is often overlooked, and at times even missed. Recognizing that you are experiencing feelings of guilt during this time can help you better understand your emotional experience and assist you in processing your grief in a healthy way.

Guilt vs Regret

Regret occurs when an individual reflects on a past experience and wishes they had done something differently, while guilt occurs when an individual either intentionally does something to harm someone else, or believes they have done something against their own standards. When an individual feels guilty, it means that they believe that something was in their control and they haven't behaved or reacted appropriately according to their own standards, or the social code. Regret typically refers to something out of one's control.

Why Do I Feel Guilty?

While some individuals may feel guilty for one main reason, others may feel guilty for multiple reasons. Better understanding why you feel guilty can help you better process your emotional experience.

Did I Make the Right Decision?

If you are feeling guilty regarding your choices, you may ask yourself questions like:

  • Did I opt for the best care possible for my loved one?
  • Should I have tried to get them into a different care facility?
  • Did I recommend the right doctor or treatment facility?
  • Was it okay to keep my distance?
  • Should I have tried to salvage our relationship?

Have I Done Enough?

If "I could have done more" keeps circling your mind, you may feel or wonder:

  • Guilty for not noticing their symptoms or believing them when they mentioned feeling off
  • That you were in denial about their illness in general
  • Guilty about not spending enough time with them during their illness and/or previously
  • Did I say goodbye or say I love you enough?

Their Death Was My Fault

Perceiving that the death was your fault, whether it directly was related to you, may be referred to as death causation guilt. You may feel or think:

  • Feeling you caused the death because of your actions or behaviors in daily life (they died because I'm not a good person)
  • I'm being punished for my behavior with their death
  • I'm cursed or bad things always happen to me

The Should'ves

You may also experience the should haves. If your thoughts or comments begin with, I should have, I could have, if only, you may be experiencing guilt related to what you feel you should have done and believe that if you did something differently, they would still be alive. This thought process puts a lot of pressure on you and holds you accountable for their passing, whether or not it is true.

woman drinking tea by window

Grief Process Related Guilt

You may experience guilt related to your grieving process. You may ask yourself:

  • Am I grieving properly?
  • Why don't I feel (insert emotion)?
  • Why can't I bring myself to visit the cemetery?

Relationship Related Guilt

If you had a complex, estranged, strained, and/or unhealthy relationship with the individual that passed away, you may feel guilty for not being able to reconcile with them prior to their passing. Keep in mind that grief may cloud your perception of the relationship's reality, so be mindful of why you choose to distance yourself.

  • If you kept your distance to keep yourself emotionally and/or physically safe, know that you made the right decision.
  • If there was distance between you because the deceased individual refused to see you, know that it takes two people to make a relationship work and that you can't reconcile a relationship on your own.

Death can bring up a lot of painful emotions and while you may grieve the loss of the individual, you may also mourn the idea of what type of relationship you wish you had with them or in general. For example, if you had an estranged relationship with an abusive parent, you may feel more grief over the idea of having a healthy relationship with a parent versus feeling sadness for missing your actual parent. Know that this is completely normal and there is nothing wrong with experiencing these feelings.

Healing Related Guilt

Healing related guilt is guilt that bubbles up when you begin to feel the cloud of grief beginning to lift a bit. You may get back to connecting with friends and family and start enjoying activities that you used to prior your loved one's passing. You may feel guilty for not thinking about them, for not feeling sad or upset, and for beginning to feel better.

Addressing Guilt During the Grieving Process

Taking care of yourself while you process a loss is of the utmost importance. Whether you had a close relationship or distanced relationship with the deceased individual, grief impacts everyone differently.

  • Remember that your emotional experience is completely normal, and you are entitled to feel whatever you need to feel during this time.
  • Ensure you have appropriate support from loved ones and from professionals such as a therapist and/or grief support group if needed.
  • Make sure you are allowing yourself to fully process your emotions and thoughts in healthy ways.
  • Be aware of your grief related triggers so you are a bit more prepared if you encounter them.
  • Know that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and your individual timeframe will differ compared to others, so be patient and kind to yourself.

Understanding Guilt and Grief

Guilt and grief have a complex relationship that often feeds off of each other. While guilt may not be an emotion one associates with grief, it is a very common feeling that can surface throughout the grieving process.

Why Feeling Guilty Is Normal When Experiencing Grief