Experiencing the death of a loved one can have you reeling with mixed emotions from the moment you get the news. You can expect to feel the effects of shock and disbelief lasting anywhere from a few hours to several weeks following the death of your loved one.
Depending on the circumstances surrounding the death and your relationship to the person who died, it may be that you find yourself struggling with feeling both grief and guilt over their death.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Why Do People Feel Guilt and Regret When Experiencing Grief?
- Tips for Coping With Grief, Regret, and Guilt
When these emotions weave into your grief, you might end up managing more complicated types of grief. Working through your grief and finding ways of coping may be more difficult than when dealing with ordinary grief.
Below you'll find explanations of both and ways of dealing with feelings of grief mixed with guilt and regret as you learn to cope with your losses suffered.
Why Do People Feel Guilt and Regret When Experiencing Grief?
A sudden and unexpected death or one that was avoidable is usually what causes someone to experience survivor’s guilt.
Some people feel guilt and regret mixed in with their grief when they feel that they could’ve prevented the death or done more to keep their loved one from dying. This is the case especially with accidental deaths where the survivor caused the accident to occur, or when a caregiver feels as if they didn’t provide proper care.
Finding a way to cope when you're dealing with these complicated emotions is tied to knowing when to ask for help. Factors that affect how you'll process your grief include the state of your emotional and psychological well-being at the time of their death and how the death occurred.
Tips for Coping With Grief, Regret, and Guilt
Coping with grief can be overwhelming especially when others depend on you to take the lead when it comes to the end-of-life planning associated with a death. If you're the head of your household, the stress associated with experiencing the death of a loved one can be that much harder on you.
Grief, regret, and guilt sometimes combine as a result of situations that caused the death of a loved one where you may have either been at fault, partially at fault, or where you failed to take appropriate action to prevent the death.
Other times, this combination of feelings and emotions arises because you may have missed the opportunity to connect with your loved one or make amends with them before they died. Below are some ways in which you can learn to cope with these emotions as you navigate through your grief.
1. Get organized
One of the first steps to coping with cumulative grief is to take things one day at a time. Cumulative grief is a form of complicated grief where you experience loss on top of loss. This type of grief doesn’t allow for the resolution of one layer of grief before another loss occurs.
An example of cumulative grief includes driving under the influence and causing the accidental death of a loved one. In this example, the initial loss is that of a life, followed by the loss of a driver’s license, and freedom due to incarceration.
Getting organized equates to prioritizing your grief or compartmentalizing it in different imaginary grief boxes. It can be overwhelming to deal with all of these emotions at once. It helps to put each type of grief into its own box so that you can deal with it one loss at a time.
2. Assess the situation
Looking at things with a fresh perspective might make you see things differently. You may have been so blinded by grief that you automatically assumed you were at fault in causing the death of your loved one.
When things settle for you and you begin to regain your rational thinking sense, take a step back and evaluate everything that happened. Read police, EMT, and medical reports to help explain the cause of death. It may be that while it may have appeared that you contributed to the loss, other external forces may have been at play.
3. Take a fresh look
One major reason why people often feel regret after their loved one dies is that they didn’t find closure — a damaged relationship didn’t get repaired, no one said “I love you” before the other died, or an estrangement didn’t get resolved.
If you’re feeling guilty that you didn’t do your part in restoring a failed relationship, try and find all the positive things that made your relationship with your loved one special. Did you try to reach out to them? Did you send invitations, gifts, and cards despite tensions between the two of you? Did you help them out financially when they were in a bind?
All these things are what make a relationship special. The act alone of trying to mend a broken relationship is sometimes enough to show the other person that you love and care for them.
Even if the loved one who passed away is someone you couldn't get along with, death can shed a new perspective on the relationship you had with them and allow you to begin healing.
4. Ask for forgiveness
It’s never too late to ask for forgiveness. You can still continue the relationship and bond you had with your loved one even after their death. You’ll have to get used to having many one-sided conversations before you start feeling comfortable with the process of continuing bonds with a loved one who’s died.
Ways in which you can ask for forgiveness include:
- Writing a letter to your loved one and reading it out loud
- Taking a long walk alone so you can have some one-on-one time with your loved one
- Reconnecting with others closely associated with your loved one who’s died
- Righting the wrongs that you created if possible even after death
5. Honor your loved one
One of the most beautiful ways to honor the life of your loved one is to hold a vigil or memorial service in their honor. If you aren’t able to hold one in person, consider a virtual one through the use of apps such as Zoom, WebEx, or FaceTime.
Memorial services are a way to remember and honor loved ones who’ve died. You can ask others to help you plan a few words to say, or to take part by sharing stories of their own.
6. Donate to charity
A donation to a charity in the name of your loved one who’s died is a gesture of love and support for the causes they held dear to their hearts.
Consider a one-time donation or starting a yearly scholarship fund in their honor. Select a charity that they would’ve chosen.
7. Connect with loved ones
Living with regret can cause your health and well-being to suffer. Consider reconnecting with loved ones whom you’ve alienated in the past. Most of the time all it takes is a sincere apology and asking for a second chance at making things right.
The death of a loved one can sometimes open the door to reestablishing other broken connections. Take small steps in correcting your past mistakes. Remember to show yourself love and compassion the same way you would to others in your shoes.
8. Live a better life
When you didn’t find the closure or forgiveness you were hoping for before your loved one died, there’s still hope. You can make up for things that you didn’t say or do when they were alive by living your life in ways that honor your loved one.
Some examples are:
- If you never told them that you loved them, start by saying it often to the people who are still in your life.
- If you were under the influence when you caused an accident, start by living a more responsible life and give your time to educate others of the perils.
- If you were an overall bad parent, become a better grandparent, sibling, or child.
9. Seek support
Reaching out to others for help and support is only a phone call or mouse click away. There are also online grief support groups available if you don’t have the needed support available to you at home or in your community.
Sometimes it helps to remain anonymous as you work through your grief with the help of others. It can feel safer to demonstrate your vulnerabilities when the person on the other end doesn’t know who you are.
10. Forgive yourself
When you learn to forgive others it becomes easier to forgive yourself. In order to forgive yourself you’ll need to be able to demonstrate and understand the following:
- Empathy. Having self-empathy means treating yourself with kindness and not being so critical of oneself. It’s easier to show empathy toward others, and more difficult to show it to yourself because you’re your own worst critic. Everyone makes mistakes and no one’s perfect. When you retrain yourself to think along these terms, you’ll realize that forgiveness is possible.
- Kindness. Showing kindness to yourself also means not being so critical of yourself or judging yourself too harshly.
- Compassion. Self-compassion includes recognizing, cultivating, and forgiving yourself. It also includes being understanding toward yourself when you fail, make a mistake, or suffer.
- Understanding. This included understanding your strengths and weaknesses, your fears and motivations, and your tolerances and boundaries.
Feelings of Guilt, Grief, and Regret
The combined emotions of guilt, grief, and regret work together to complicate your grieving process. It helps to separate each one of these emotions from the other to more effectively work through your grief.
You may feel overwhelmed and unable to move forward when trying to tackle all of these emotions in one fell swoop. Take each one day at a time.