by Kim Johnson
Experiencing loss of any kind is difficult, and triggers a response we know as grief. Matthew 5:4 says, “Blessed are those that mourn for they will be comforted.” Yet, everyone suffers differently and coping is a process. There are no set rules, no timetables and no straight-line progression. Some feel better after a few weeks or months, while others may take years. The process can’t be controlled and sometimes there are setbacks. So, it’s critical you treat yourself with patience. It also helps to understand symptoms of grief and how they may impact your life. One, in particular, is often misunderstood and can surprise you with its intensity.
That feeling is guilt. Of the seven stages of grief, feeling guilty is one of the most common. Yet, even though it is one of the most difficult to deal with, it can be one of the least discussed. Everyone struggles with guilt in some form or another. Recent studies have revealed six distinct types of guilt related grief:
This guilt comes from a belief that we could have functioned more effectively in our role in the relationship. Whether you were a mom, a father, a child, a sibling or friend, we can suffer from the belief we failed in the responsibility we perceived in the relationship. Somehow, we think we didn’t play our part correctly.
People who struggle with moral guilt often see their loss as being disciplinary. They think God is punishing them by allowing the loss, or taking away their loved one. It may seem misguided to believe God would punish one person by killing another, but for some people this is a very real feeling. When the answer to “why?” cannot be found, it is easy to blame oneself.
A parallel to moral guilt is this guilt. The grieving person believes they are at fault for their loss, but not because of past sins. Instead, they believe it is a direct result of something they did or didn’t do. As if their actions, or lack of actions, actually caused a death or the death of the marriage.
Another misguided form of guilt is to feel shame because we aren’t coping with the loss appropriately. Maybe we think we should be over it, or that we’re acting ridiculous, or we’re letting our pain adversely impact our loved ones. Often this happens in the form of anger (another result of grief), and it’s easy to misdirect it.
Recovery guilt is the exact opposite of grief guilt. Instead of feeling bad for how poorly we’re coping, we feel shame for how well we are handling it. Maybe we’re happy too soon, or smiling too much, or crying too little. Or, we even feel badly because we’re finding joy and believe it is too soon.
Guilt is definitely part of the grief process. Yet, just because you feel guilty, doesn’t mean you are guilty. Grief can make you think you are crazy, and you begin to dissect every moment of time no matter what loss was experienced. Thus, shoulda, woulda, coulda is the only result. Our hurting heart will find anything it can to make us feel guilty. It’s as though we think the guilt might actually take the hurt away. Instead, it can consume us, only intensifying the pain.
Helps to Process Guilt
Grieving is a process that can seem endless, and feeling guilty can make it even worse. However, there are some things you can do to handle it in a healthy way.
- Recognizing guilt is a normal part of the grieving process. No matter what anyone says, your feelings are real. Don’t allow others to minimize how you are feeling by telling you to not feel guilty.
- Determine what is driving your guilt. Is it real? Is it rational? Is it misguided? Guilt can be perceived but that doesn’t mean there is a reason to feel it.
- Talk it over with others who understand. Not everyone can identify with this process, but talking about your guilt can help you think differently about it. This is the point when you might need to seek a good counselor or a support group to allow you to discuss your guilt feelings safely.
- Explore your thoughts. Too often guilt, whether real or misguided, can begin to consume you, taking you into a black hole. It may make you isolate yourself and spiral into depression. So, taking an honest look at your guilt thoughts will help you recognize when they start to come up.
- Be prepared to admit your feelings of guilt could be misguided. This doesn’t mean you ignore them or act like they don’t exist. Instead, even though you feel guilty, in reality you most likely are not guilty of anything. For instance, look at your actions and give yourself credit for doing your best with the information you had at the time. There are so many times when we don’t know what we don’t know. It is important to be honest about your guilt. Grief sometimes causes irrational feelings and guilt is one of them.
- Balance your guilt feelings with positive thoughts. We cannot keep the negative thoughts from popping into our minds. We can, however, make a conscious effort to stop them from consuming us. Counteract the negative thought with a truth. For example, when you start thinking you didn’t do enough, try remembering all the things you were able to doz
- Be willing to forgive yourself. There are many verses in the Bible that indicate we are to forgive others. And, even though it is not specifically addressed, it is crucial we look at our guilt, regret, shame or remorse, and recognize that our part in any perceived offense must be forgiven. If we don’t, it keeps us from experiencing God’s complete love and acceptance. Proverbs 19:11 (NIV) says, “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.” Forgiving ourselves does not let us off the hook and does not justify what we believe happened. Forgiveness is a courageous choice, and it gives us the opportunity to become an overcomer rather than remaining a victim of our own scorn.
- Try to discover what you learned. Many times, our guilt can teach us something, whether it is something about ourselves or others. Allow yourself to learn and grow from it, rather than letting it take you down.
- Turn your guilt into a positive by doing something because of it. Allow this situation to spur you to help others. By sharing your feelings with others experiencing the same situation, it can be encouraging for those trying to cope to know there is hope.
Validate Your Feelings
Always remember guilt is a feeling, and your feelings are valid no matter what anyone says. Someone can’t tell you to stop feeling guilty or your guilt isn’t a big deal. Our feelings are what they are. So, work to cope with the guilt, and accept it as a normal part of grieving. Examine the facts of your situation truthfully. If your expectations were legitimate, and there were things that could have been done differently, then accept it, admit it, and take responsibility. Healthy guilt allows us to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes. Healthy grieving is a process, and guilt can slow it down. Take a truthful look at your feelings, work to understand them, and then most of all, forgive yourself.
Let Go of Guilt
Paul, in his letter to Philippi, gives the best example of how to view healing, forgiving ourselves and moving ahead in our grief. Philippians 3:13-15 (NIV) says, “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” The Hebrew word translated here as “forget” is not defined as no longer remembering. It is better understood to mean “neglecting, no longer caring for.” By letting go of any guilt, shame or other self-condemnation, we can focus on moving forward. It will enable us to open our heart to the Lord, and accept this situation as part of his will for our life.