Your gain: Learn the difference between guilt and regret. Find tools to process these emotions after a loss without harping on the “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” or “if only” and “what if” statements that often plague us when we experience grief. And, why it’s so important to not tell a grieving person to “not feel guilty”.
And, be sure you don’t miss part two of this two-part series! There we look at the six types of guilt and four types of regret in more detail. We’ll look at how to handle both of these (which is really the crux of this whole topic, right?). And, understand why both guilt and regret are perfectly valid and okay to embrace!
Why Do We Experience Guilt or Regret During Grief?
Let me start by saying that feeling guilt or regret after a loss is 100% normal. However, it’s complex… and makes grieving tougher than it already is. There are actually a few kinds of grief you can go through which I’ll get to in a moment, because it’s good to identify which one you’re feeling to better cope.
Let’s get one thing straight here, though… there is a difference between guilt and regret.
What is Guilt
Generally speaking, guilt happens when we do something we know is wrong, unethical, immoral, or illegal.
What is Regret
I feel as though this is actually more typical during grief. Regret is ultimately the emotion we experience when we look back on an action and feel we should or could have done something differently.
What’s the Difference?
With regret, it’s often not so directly correlated to moral or legal wrongness. Instead, an action or inaction that we wish we could take back or do differently and thinking the outcome might be different. Trust me, more to come on this! If you want to skip right to this content and the difference and types of guilt and regret, go ahead and click here.
The Ongoing Pang of Guilt and Regret
One of the reasons I chose to write this entry when I did is because I was actually stung with this feeling of regret one morning recently. Totally randomly. I was still relatively asleep, kind of stirring awake. Suddenly, I felt guilty for not hanging out with my parents more. Not sure why that came on when it did, but here we are.
But it’s almost comical for me to think that, because I saw my parents a lot when they were here. I really did. In fact, after moving out in my early 20’s, I lived with them again for a year or two in my mid-20’s after my broken engagement. I mean, talk about some nice extra bonding time (so thankful for that now).
But there were times where maybe they wanted to do a family day outing on the weekend and I was tired from work, or simply wasn’t up for it. I just wanted to veg out on my day off. I could tell my parents (mostly my mom) were bummed I didn’t want to go. Even saying this now, I remember a couple of times where I was sitting on the recliner chair watching TV as they left. I’m kicking myself for not going and making those memories with them.
Yes, even now… years later. And guess what? My parents got over it, and didn’t even blink an eye after they got home. I mean, they expressed how nice the day was and wished I had joined, but they moved on. And they certainly didn’t take it with them when they passed.
Why It’s Important to Let Go of Guilt
Am I up at night worrying about this, though? Well, yes, admittedly I was. But not for long. Why? Because I can’t go back and change it. I can still feel it, but I can’t change my actions. And with that, I have to let it go. If you’re in this place right now, remember that you can’t go back and change yours either.
Just like I can’t change not being there for my dad when he passed away, which hurt like hell. I was there for my mom, why wasn’t I there for my dad? Well, I actually know why.
1) It happened before the hospice facility could let me know, so that’s really the driving force.
2) He never would have wanted me to witness that, and I know this about him. I am completely confident about that.
3) I had literally watched my mom take her last breath in front of me just months earlier. I was tapped the h*ll out with the parents dying thing.
Why You Can’t Beat Yourself Up
I also couldn’t bear to watch them put my sweet 19-year-old dog down. I was with her until the very last second, but it wasn’t something I could watch. Not again. I’ve for sure felt pangs of regret and guilt because of that. Almost like it was the wrong thing to do, if that makes sense. But I don’t let it live with me. I was doing what I could do emotionally and mentally at the time, and there’s something to be said for that.
Let me tell you this, and listen closely. If you’re dealing with this kind of guilt, the being there or not being there when someone passes kind, know that you were meant to be where you were when they left. Period.
You may hear about those situations where a child visiting a parent in a hospital will leave the room for just a moment (or a few hours, whatever it is). Then, they pass. Yeah, there’s something to that, I think. Our loved ones actually hold a lot of awesome power. Let’s let em’ have it and stop feeling guilty for that. Most importantly? They’re happy as heck living it up on the other side now where there isn’t any room for sadness or regret anyway.
Don’t Tell a Grieving Person “Don’t Feel Guilty”
I get into this a little bit in my post about 8 Things You Don’t Hear Enough About Grief, but I certainly went through this when I would express regret to friends or family. If you are/have been through this, you can likely relate and may have heard a person (or five) tell you…
“Oh, don’t feel guilty. There was nothing you could have done.”
“No, don’t you dare feel bad, it wasn’t your fault”
Or my favorite, “you were doing the best you could at the time”.
Yep, that’s all true. But my internal gut reaction to that was, “MKAY thanks, but don’t tell me how to feel”. Or, act like you can predict what I could or couldn’t have done. None of us could ever really know that, so there’s no point in them saying it and no point in us dwell on it, right?
Here’s why this is a no-no for those grieving. If you’re in a space of grief right now, I would bet you feel me on this.
Why To Avoid Saying “Don’t Feel Guilty”
Grievers are dealing with a lot of emotion. Like, a lot. It’s coming and going, freeflowin’, not sure what could trigger them next or when, and it’s freaking exhausting. I have a lot more on triggers here, too, if you’re interested (or tap the button below).
The last thing we need to be told is how to feel or when to feel it. And, for the record, we can’t stop feeling guilty because someone tells us to. Doesn’t work that way. So, a comment like that is all for not and, frankly, not helpful even with the best of intentions.
Rather than listening, accepting, and understanding how someone is feeling, they’re told what they’re feeling is essentially wrong or misguided. People assume that someone who’s grieving needs to be healed or is stuck in the process, when this is the process.
Closing Thoughts on Harboring Guilt or Regret
So when it comes to why we’re feeling this way and harboring this guilt—warranted or not—it’s more important for the person to reflect on those emotions and then find ways to cope with it. The first level of it is, truly, acceptance. Guilt and regret often comes because of a lack of feeling there’s any control in life, and that can be really scary.
With that, I leave you for now! If you’re ready for part 2, we get into the six types of guilt and four types of regret. We look at how to handle both of these, and understand why both guilt and regret are perfectly valid and okay to embrace.
Get Your Freebie From Me!
I have THREE free tools you can take advantage of if you’re ready to step up your grief work. I’m so excited to share these with you. My Gratitude in Grief Journal Prompt, From Grief to Grinning Toolkit, and A Practice in Presence Toolkit are ready and waiting for you to download, all you have to do is click here or the button below.