“I should have been there.”
“I could have done more.”
“If I hadn't done XYZ, he’d still be alive.”
Self-blame and guilt are common reactions to a loved one’s death. This is sometimes called survivor’s guilt. When a person has no responsibility for another’s death, they may feel powerless and helpless. This is part of the grief process for some people, especially if their grief is connected with any tragic, traumatic, or sudden deaths.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Tips on How to Stop Blaming Yourself After Someone Dies
- What to Say or How to Comfort Someone Who Blames Themselves After a Loved One’s Death
This guide can help you understand more about guilt and self-blame after someone dies, how to cope with it, and how to help someone else through this part of the grief journey. Sometimes guilt and grief are hard to work through, but compassion and support can help.
Tips on How to Stop Blaming Yourself After Someone Dies
Grief has a way of making you feel isolated and alone. You may struggle to put your experience and pain into words. And when something heavy like guilt grows inside, you may not be sure how to handle it or what it means. Here are a few tips on how to face and cope with these feelings.
Your guilty feelings are a normal grief reaction
You are not alone in feeling guilt. It’s a common part of the stages of grief, and it’s completely normal to feel it. Some days, your emotional pain may be so strong that the guilt feels like it’s washing over you. Your mind may be drawn to mistakes or things you wish you’d done.
You may intellectually understand that you aren’t responsible for your loved one’s death. But blame is easier to define, so your mind may choose that path to cope with the chaos of change.
It’s a sign that your mind is trying to grapple with the meaning of this loss, and that’s what it’s supposed to do. Both grief and guilt can look different for you weeks or months from now, so you may not feel the same later on. For now, find a way to accept that this is a normal reaction that many others can empathize with.
Look closely at your thoughts
A little mindfulness can help you understand the thoughts that go with guilty feelings. When pangs of guilt gnaw at you, take one step back and observe your thoughts. Do you hear or see words like “could have” or “should have?” Do you replay a different version of your loved one’s situation with these “could haves” in mind, making a case that you could have prevented their death?
Whatever your thoughts are, simply take note of them for now. You can’t help what pops into your mind, so just see what they look or sound like to you. As you try to understand more about the thoughts connected to your guilt, you may begin to see patterns or see how your thoughts and feelings amplify each other. These observations can help you demystify your reactions and learn to cope with them.
Letting go of guilty thoughts and emotions
Rather than trying to stop or push away these thoughts and emotions, invite them to move past you. Consider how a smaller person uses self-defense techniques against a larger or stronger individual.
Instead of overpowering the other person, the smaller individual moves out of the way. The larger person’s body weight carries them in a different direction, a safe distance from the smaller person.
Similarly, you can train your mind to redirect your thoughts and emotions. Instead of grabbing on and wrestling with them, visualize your mind gently encouraging them to float away into the sky.
With practice, these thoughts and emotions may feel less sticky in your mind. You won’t stop them from popping up, and you don’t have to resist them. But you can learn to shorten their stay.
Talk it out with someone you trust
Thoughts and feelings can get tangled up when you keep them to yourself. In isolation, your pain can become overwhelming and hard to cope with. And if you’re blaming yourself for their death or overcome with regrets, you may feel stuck and alone.
Instead of trying to cope with your grief alone, talk it out with someone you trust. They can’t make your pain go away, but they can support you and show that they care. You don’t even have to talk much to benefit from this together time.
When you know you are free to be yourself in front of someone, just feeling emotionally safe can feel soothing. When you’re ready, talking about your feelings can help you feel like you aren’t carrying the burden alone.
It’s OK to let go of your guilt
You may be hanging onto your guilt as a way of making sense of it. Letting go doesn’t mean you’re dismissing your grief. And it doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t real. It simply means you are untangling yourself from a feeling that doesn’t serve you and doesn’t reflect reality.
How you feel when someone dies does not mean you will feel the same way for the rest of your life, either. Both grief and guilt can be temporary. You can both accept guilty feelings and acknowledge that they’re irrational.
It helps to remember that feelings are not necessarily based on facts. They are instinctive reactions to circumstances and things in their environment, and it means you’re human. Feelings don’t always tell you the truth. So if your emotions conflict with information that makes sense in your world, it’s healthy to recognize and acknowledge this difference.
What to Say or How to Comfort Someone Who Blames Themselves After a Loved One’s Death
When a loved one is coping with death, your presence and support are vital. Grief is a personal journey, but it’s less overwhelming with a network of caring people. If you’re comforting someone who blames themselves for a loved one’s death, these tips can help you give support without interfering with their process.
Don’t try to talk them out of their guilt
Your efforts to convince your loved one that they aren’t guilty of anything probably won’t work. Why? Because we can’t actually change someone else’s feelings. It’s hard enough to cope with the shifts in our own emotions, much less make it happen with someone else.
Unless their actions directly led to someone’s death, they may know their guilt isn’t logical. None of your emotions have to make sense. But when learning to cope with something life-altering like death, your mind and emotions will try many things to create order out of chaos.
Most importantly, it’s not your job to untangle someone else’s feelings. That can take years for some situations. And while you certainly mean well, trying to use your logic on their feelings may not be the best idea. More than likely, you may feel some frustration that it didn’t seem to help. Worse yet, they may feel like you aren’t really listening to them.
Without meaning to, you could increase their sense of isolation. Resist the urge to talk them out of their guilt and try one of the other suggestions instead.
Validate and help them accept their guilty feelings
Feelings can get overwhelming and scary sometimes. They can even feel like they’re in charge of your life, and you can’t escape them. So when a person has trouble facing their feelings and coping with them, they get a heaping dose of helplessness on top of all the other emotions stirring inside them.
As you encourage them to open up, remember this. They may have trouble stepping back from their guilt at the moment. So instead of trying to push them away from it, join them there. Validate what they feel. Support their expression and recognition of it.
Many people may need to identify their emotions before they can step back and get perspective. Your comforting presence can assure them that facing and naming their emotions is OK. Their emotions won’t overrun them just by acknowledging them, even if it feels scary at first.
Keep in mind that there’s no firm timeline on grief, nor is there a firm progression of stages. Neither you nor your loved one knows how long it will take for them to process their loss. You may not even know what other emotions are blending in with the guilt, and they may not be sure right away either. Just be there, listen, and help them as they unfold their grief.
Listen to them often
When your loved one knows you’ll be there for them, your most helpful job is to listen. Do your best to avoid judging what they say. Ask for clarity. Ask them to tell you more or what they mean by something. Just focus on encouraging them to share as much as they’re comfortable with.
Also, repeat what you heard them say in your own words to be sure you’ve heard them. This can do something interesting. Sometimes when a person hears their own thoughts outside their mind, they can sound different. This can have an even bigger effect when those words come from another person.
All you’re doing is reflecting what they say. You’re not adding judgment, a solution, or another label. When you provide a safe space for your loved one to open up like this, these natural shifts can happen more easily.
Ultimately, grief is a long personal process. Only the griever can take the steps, but you can be there to help them explore those difficult emotional places along the way. When they continue to process their loss, they may find their guilt isn't as strong or doesn't fit as it did in the beginning.
Coping with Self-blame and Guilt After Someone’s Death
Self-blame and guilt can be difficult parts of grief. If you feel helpless and hopeless about your loved one’s death, you may be struggling with survivor’s guilt. Or, you may know someone going through it and have concerns about helping them through it.
Compassion and listening are key to getting through a phase of self-blame during grief. If you ever feel like it’s too much to bear, talk to someone. Speak with a loved one or seek help from a grief counselor.
- Collazo, Enrique, “A meditation for letting thoughts float by like bubbles.” Mindful.org, July 23, 2020, www.mindful.org/a-meditation-for-letting-thoughts-float-by-like-bubbles/
- Stroebe, Margaret, Wolfgang Stroebe, Rens van de Schoot, Henk Schut, Georgios Abakoumkin, and Jie Li. “Guilt in bereavement: the role of self-blame and regret in coping with loss.” PLOS One, May 12, 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4018291/