Why Do I Feel So Bad? Unwarranted Guilt in the Wake of a Loved One’s Passing

January 24, 2024 ◊ By Elisa Everts ◊

Why Do I Feel So Bad? Unwarranted Guilt in the Wake of a Loved One’s Passing

Some Common "Complications" of Ordinary Grief
I have written to you previously about complicated grief. You may find grief complicated even if you don’t meet the criteria set by the DSM for Prolonged Grief Disorder. In other words, you don't have to have Complicated Grief as a formal diagnosis, to feel like your grief has complications. Today I write to you about complications such as feelings of guilt and magical thinking. 

There are a number of things that can make any grief complicated. One of them is guilt. There are two main kinds of guilt related to the death of a loved one.

Survivor's Guilt
One you may be familiar with is called survivor’s guilt. I remember the first time I heard of this kind of guilt was in the context of the Holocaust. People felt guilty simply because they survived the concentration camps.

But we may also experience survivor’s guilt with the loss of a loved one when we were not even present to “survive” whatever took their life. We survived simply because we’re still here and they aren’t. We often somehow feel guilty that our loved one died, and we survived. It’s a surprisingly common experience of normal grief.

Other Inexplicable Guilt
But we also often suffer from guilt of a slightly more direct variety. We may feel that we somehow caused our loved one to die. Somehow the human psyche is prone to conclude that we must somehow be responsible for the death of someone really important to us.

Magical Thinking in Children
We see this frequently with children. They often believe a parent or sibling must have died as punishment for something they, the bereaved child, did wrong. Perhaps one child received a bigger tricycle for their birthday and in a moment of jealousy the other child wished they didn’t have a sibling. Then when the sibling dies, they conclude that their jealousy must have caused the death. This is called magical thinking. 

Magical Thinking in Adults
Adults have their own version of magical thinking, sometimes at a very subtle, unconscious level. “If I had just talked to him for five more minutes, he wouldn’t have been hit by that car.” “If I had made her go to the doctor, her appendix wouldn’t have ruptured.” “If I had been a better friend, he wouldn’t have died by suicide.” Not identifying these feelings of guilt can cause the grief process to be even more prolonged.

Guilt from How You Behaved When They Were Alive
Finally, one of the most common types of guilt we experience when a loved one dies is feelings of regret about what we did and didn't do or say when they were alive. This adds another layer of torture to our grief. Sometimes this guilt is totally unwarranted and we need to talk to someone about it to realize our perspective has been warped. We may actually have done a wonderful job of loving them through all the special circumstances of our lives and relationships.

Ways to Deal with the Guilt 

When there are things we still regret even after thinking and talking through them, here are a couple of ideas that might help you come to healing. Something that is very effective for many mourners is to write a letter to the lost loved one and ask for their forgiveness and then to read this letter possibly at their gravesite or somewhere else that has significance for your relationship. This act often has a powerful healing effect.

Something that I practice is a spiritual forgiveness ritual every morning. I light a candle and I name the people I need to forgive or those I wish to forgive me. I also ask God for forgiveness and spend time offering forgiveness to myself. I have found this practice very healing, too. You may come up with some other creative practice to help you forgive yourself and to feel forgiven by the deceased. The point is you have agency over these feelings of guilt. You can take actions that will help you to resolve them.

What Now? 
Recognizing feelings of guilt are the first step to healing, whether these be survival guilt, the result of magical thinking, or guilt about the way we treated the loved one when they were alive. The second step is telling someone your story and telling them about your feelings of guilt. The final step may be taking an action like writing a letter or lighting a candle and saying a prayer. You find the ritual that feels right to you, but act. Don't let feelings of guilt fester. They seriously hamper healthy grieving.

In a future newsletter I will discuss situations where the circumstances of death make our implications in the death much more difficult, but for today, let's conquer these kinds of guilt. Tell your story. Let it go. Just breathe. Just grieve.

I send you love,
Elisa (aspiring to be your healing wordsmith) (:

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About the author

Dr. Elisa Everts is the founder of Evertree Hope Management and is a dynamic public speaker, author and trainer. Dr Everts is passionate about helping cancer patients and bereaved people in their quest to survive and live a full life during and after cancer and grief. She has the personal experience of surviving Stage IV cancer and the loss of many loved ones. She understands the challenges inherent in these experiences and the importance of cultivating hope through the stories we tell others, and even more importantly, to ourselves.

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Elisa Everts, phd

Speaker | Author | Educator

Finding Hope in Cancer & Grief

Elisa Everts, phd

Speaker | Author | Educator

Finding Hope in Cancer & Grief

I speak to medical professionals and patients, helping them provide hope when there seems to be none. If you or your organization need someone to help process the difficult topics of cancer and grief, let's set up a complimentary call, 703-656-6691, ee@elisaeverts.com.

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