Your gain: In part two of this two-part series of processing guilt and regret after loss, we’re getting into the six types of guilt and four types of regret. We’ll look at how to handle both of emotions, and understand why guilt and regret are perfectly valid and okay to embrace!
By the way, you will not want to miss part one of this! There we look at the difference between guilt and regret, and 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”.
What Are The Types of Guilt or Regret?
Excellent question, so that you asked! Let’s dive right in with six kinds of guilt you might experience. Then we’ll get into four types of regret, because it’s important to distinguish each kind. And there IS a difference between guilt and regret, as we saw in part one.
Types of Guilt
With causation, you likely feel that you’re responsible because of something you did, or failed to do, with the death of another person. For my dad and I, it was regretting not forcing my mom to go to an actual doctor sooner. She had issues with gerd (like acid reflux) for far too long, closer to her diagnosis she had issues with swallowing, and low and behold she was eventually diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
“What if she had just gone to the doctor, we could have found it earlier and she would still be here” was a hot “what if” statement in our household, let me tell ya. But my mom preferred eastern medicine to western. She always said, so very ironically, “if you go to the doctor they’ll just find something wrong with you’”. Well, sadly, we know how that turned out.
You Can’t Force It (Or Other People)
So, as often as outsiders are quick to pull the “don’t feel guilty” card, we do what we can with what we’re given. My mom wasn’t going to go no matter how much we pestered her, and she was a grown adult who could make her own decisions. I wasn’t going to force her into a car, she never would have allowed that, so here we are.
Some choices result in significant consequences. As angry as we were with ourselves and, quite frankly, her at the time, it wouldn’t have changed what our present was going through her cancer journey.
Lastly, this could also show up in something small like something hurtful we said out of anger, or something poignant we failed to express. All of these levels of guilt, big or small, need to be released.
Here a griever feels the guilt is a punishment for a previous act. But remember, just because you feel guilty doesn’t mean you are. Grief can make us a little looney! We can sometimes dissect even the smallest moments with a loved one, give attention to every ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ statement out there as I have. Every “this could have led to that”, and we can damn near always find something to find guilt over.
So many times we often wish we had said or done things differently, and this only compounds the level of regret. If you’re in this boat, take a moment to breathe and begin to allow yourself to let this go. Those coulda, woulda, shoulda’s aren’t doing anyone any favors anymore.
This is where someone might feel they weren’t a good enough person to the one who passed (mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, what have you). This can often arise from a lot of situations, from being there toward the end of a loved one’s life in the form of caregiving or struggles with disease (or whatever the situation might have been), to perhaps periods of prolonged distance or not speaking after “X” amount of time, the list goes on.
I know a couple of family members on both sides went through this in not being able to see my parents or be there in a bigger way before they died. But again, circumstances are what they are and you just have to embrace what’s happening and what you can do in the moment.
Survivor’s guilt is, as the name implies, is where the person grieving may have thoughts or wishes that they were the one who had died instead of the person who actually did. This could be from an accident, warfare, etc.
I’m not going to throw out the “what was meant to happen was supposed to happen” thing here, but instead of dwelling, channel that into making their memory a beautiful thing to carry on that they would be proud of. Do something meaningful and intentional to make their death seem less in vain, if this is something you’re struggling with. My point here? Don’t waste your opportunity for life—use it as a way to learn, grow, and create something incredibly and worthwhile.
Yes, this is actually a thing. It’s where someone feels guilty that they’re not grieving well, which could be due to poor coping skills or other factors. But here’s the thing, and this is especially for those who haven’t been through a major loss before. If you haven’t journeyed through it, how do you know?! There’s no real rulebook here. Sure, there are ways people tend to move through grief. The 5 stages exist for a reason (though I don’t subscribe to those, and I’m sure most greivers wouldn’t, either).
What we have to remind ourselves of here is that grief isn’t linear. It comes and goes in waves. We often do or say irrational things. Our brain is trying SO hard to catch up with our new reality. It’s literally in the process of trying to create new predictions based on our new experiences without our loved one. It’s so used to this loved one being here with us. If this person had been in our life a long time, this is taxing on the brain! We have to give it time, which means we can not and should not allow this type of guilt get the best of us. Though it’s SO valid, never question that you’re doing something right or wrong. All you can do is put one foot in front of the other.
That said, if you really feel like you’re struggling with, please know my inbox and DMs are open and I’d love to chat with you more about this! Or, it might be time to seek out further help from that of a therapist or counselor.
I can actually say this is where I find myself most days. Here, a griever can feel that they’re almost coping too well. With the highs and lows that come with grief, it’s common to experience multiple types of guilt or regret day-to-day.
But this is actually a good thing! We have to explore it and feel it deeply to begin healing, and research shows that unresolved guilt or regret can actually complicate the grieving process. So, let the tears flow, let the regret come and go, and don’t you dare beat yourself up.
Types of Regret
This type of regret represents a “failure” to be responsible, conscientious, or judicious about something. It can leave you thinking. “If only I had done the work” or “I wish I had checked on [this] or [that]. Typically, a lot of finance and health-related regrets are in this category. For example, “if only I had pushed them harder to go to the doctor” (that’s one of mine).
“If only we had saved more money, we wouldn’t be so stressed paying for this right now.”
The list goes on.
The learning here is to think ahead and make sure you put the necessary work in. This kind of regret is a beautiful opportunity for growth and a lesson in forethought. All you can do is work on being more vigilant in future situations. You can’t continue to beat yourself up here! Use this as a time for reflection and change.
Over time, humans are much more likely to regret inaction over action. Interesting, right? Those opportunities to have that conversation with your loved one and not feel awkward or nervous to do so. To tell someone how you really feel. Or even something less grand or even grief-related, like learning a new language or how to play an instrument.
These kinds of regrets can leave you thinking, “If only I had taken that chance.”
The learning here is to learn to embrace taking calculated risks. To not be afraid to try and fail. What does this look like to you? Is it taking the trip you would have gone on with your loved one? Maybe even by yourself, and to not fear that prospect? Speaking up on behalf of yourself or someone else and being an advocate? Starting the business you always dreamed about?
Life is meant to be lived… remember that. I hate to say “fortune favors the bold” here, but… think about it.
This regret is for those times when you had a choice and took the low road, if you will. These kinds of regrets are arguably the greatest in variety and, often, the most individually painful. Why? Because they leave you wondering, “If only I had done the right thing.” That can be a really personal thing to harp on and scold yourself for, because it sort of feels like you have no one to blame but yourself.
The moral of the story here, and the best action to take moving forward, is to simply take the high road. Do better. Be better. Do it for yourself, for the loved one you’re grieving and yearning to see again. But… mostly for yourself 😉 I love this quote, “your future self is watching, make them proud.”
Acknowledging Our Progress
This idea that we can look back at where we’ve been and see how far we’ve come is both exciting and daunting, in a way. Like, no pressure, right?! My thought on it is this: most of us can and will do the best we can in the moment in any situation. You don’t know what you don’t know, so we have to release guilt and regret in situations like that.
However, in many situations, emotion can often take hold and get the best of us. We react out of sadness, anger, frustration, etc. Have you ever had that happen to you? I’m sure all of us have at least once. One of the best pieces of advice I have—and I swear my dad was SO good at this—is to take a beat and just be present. Just bring yourself down. I have an entire blog post about in-the-moment breathing exercises which you can access here or below.
Gain composure and taking that moment to take a step back. Evaluate what’s going on in front of you with a sound mind and heart. THEN, make a decision will so often help us avoid moral regrets or guilt.
This type of regret can occur when you neglect the people who matter to you, and who help establish your sense of wholeness. This is some of the most common out there, because we as humans carry a massive amount of regret around fractured or unrealized relationships. Who can blame us?! No one enjoys feeling that kind of negativity around relationships, right?
These regrets might sound like, “If only I had reached out sooner.” Or, “If only I had been kinder or more understanding.”
These regrets can either be “open door”—as in there’s still time to do something about it. Or, “closed door,” in which the circumstances are impossible to change. For example, and probably most notably if you’re reading this, a death. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we can’t go back and change things.
Why We Must Let Go of Regret
This is a HARD concept to get our minds around, I know what you’re probably thinking right now. Easier said than done, as always. I’ve also said this before in this blog series and I’ll repeat it one more time—our deceased loved ones have forgiven us. They don’t have time for this negativity and regret where they are now. They just don’t.
I’ve read and heard so many interviews and articles about mediums who can connect with those that have passed. All of them said that on the “other side”, emotions like this simply don’t exist.
Now, whether or not you believe in the powers of a medium, either is okay. That’s not what I’m here to convince you of right now. But what I WILL tell you is this: whether you believe in mediumship or not, when our souls leave the physical body and earth as we know it here, emotions like this cease to exist. If they’re no longer embodying a physical being, they can’t and don’t feel the complex emotions we feel here. It’s just not possible.
So if you’re stuck in this place right now, I want you to remember this and begin to release it. Don’t allow yourself to be stuck in a purgatory of your own making.
How to Handle Guilt & Regret During Grief
So, what are we supposed to do with these pesky emotions, anyway? There are a lot of tips and tricks to help minimize both grief and regret and, hopefully, do away with it all together one day.
Just start here. Acknowledge what you’re feeling and accept that it’s a perfectly regular emotion to feel during this period in your life. Don’t allow others to minimize the validity of it, and don’t feel like you need to “get over it” for anyone but yourself.
Get to the Root of it
Ask yourself what exactly your guilt is about, and which kind you seem to be most feeling. Determine if it’s rational, irrational, or is it due to wanting some semblance of control?
Talk It Out
Use loved ones around you, like a community of like-minded folks around you (like those at Losses Become Gains!). Or, a counselor or therapist to chat about the guilt you’re feeling and work through it.
Analyze Your Thoughts
It’s so easy to let thoughts of guilt consume us. It can leave an unmistakable hole in your gut that just… hurts. It can lower our frequency and bring us down into a very isolating place where loneliness meets “what if” meets binge eating our feelings all come to play. This is what Losses Become Gains is all about, though. Turning around this negative, debilitating way of thinking into a statement we can grow from.
Low vs. High Frequency Thoughts
For example, a negative, low frequency statement could be:
“If I had only been at the hospital an hour sooner, I could have been there to hold their hand and comfort them.”
A higher frequency statement would be:
“I was with [insert loved one here] as much as I could be at the time. I’m grateful for each moment I had in their presence, and acknowledge the joy it now provides me. I was doing the best I could with what I knew.”
These positive, loving “I am” (or I was, in the above case) statements are powerful and so beautiful because they give you credit where credit is due. Acknowledge how amazing you are, and don’t fault yourself for being human. We often do the best we can with the hand we’re dealt, and with the knowledge we have at the time. Lean into that.
I get more into frequency levels in this journal entry here (or you can hit the button below), which is CRAZY important to keep as high as possible as you’re going through the thick of your grief. Definitely check it out.
Thinking Irrationally? Admit it.
You’re not being dismissive of your feelings here. You’re simply acknowledging that you’re not actually at fault—despite feeling that way. For example, one hard pill for me to swallow was not knowing my dad’s cancer had spread to the point it did. And, that he was also depressed from losing my mom.
But guess what? I’m not a doctor! How would I have known it was spreading? I can’t see into his body. I had never seen someone go through depression. Why was I beating myself up for not noticing nuances about his decline (i.e. not eating much, etc.) earlier? His mobility had been lessened by the treatments, so I assumed it was that. I guilted myself like crazy for it, but the point is I cared, and I tried.
The second I realized his cognitive function was diminishing and he wasn’t himself because it had spread to his brain, I called 9-11 and got him the help he needed that I couldn’t give. That’s action being taken, right?! That’s something I need to give myself grace for.
I did the best I could with the information and life training I had at the time. You can’t predict the future, you can’t change the past, and there could have been other factors at play. Just be honest and kind to yourself, and know that a little irrational grief is normal–just don’t live there.
Forgive (And Actually Forgive)
Listen, this is easier said than done, amirite? Whether rational or irrational, this is going to take time. If there’s really something to feel guilty for and amends need to be made, I highly encourage you to do a little research on the best ways to do this.
Forgiveness can mean accepting that we may have done something we regret, but discovering a new attitude and perspective on it is the healthiest course of action. We’re not forgetting, we’re simply finding a new way forward.
And please, if you take away anything, remember this… forgiveness frees and releases YOU, not the other way around. It releases you from the shackles that resentment and harping on a situation can cause. It’s the healthiest possible thing you can do for yourself. I’ll say it again—I KNOW this is easier said than done. Even while we might not always forget, we can learn something, right? More on this below.
Determine What You’ve Learned
To build off what I was just getting at, another pillar of Losses Become Gains is what the heck you’re supposed to learn from this loss going on around you. So, go ahead and embrace that! I promise you, there’s a nugget of something special in there.
It can be something about ourselves, how we handle loved ones or acquaintances, the world as a whole, you name it. We can learn how to treat ourselves and others. We can find ways to be kind to ourselves and learn that our expectations may not always meet our reality. And you know what? That’s perfectly okay.
What’s beautiful (albeit twisted at times) from going through tragedies like this is we can learn and grow from anything the universe throws at us, so don’t take that for granted.
If you need a little help in this category, one method I heard about was writing your regrets down on a piece of paper. Then, on a second sheet write down all of the ways you’ve grown and the lessons you’ve learned. You might realize you’ve actually come a long way, or will with time.
Do Something With Your Regret
Hey, I started Losses Become Gains with mine. ‘Nuff said. What will you do with yours?
… okay, one more thing to say here. Just remember that you can do something wonderful with this short end of the stick. Educate others or support those going through the same or similar thing. Raise awareness of a cause of death close to your heart; or, simply encourage others to seek the help they need.
Help out those around you and bring positivity into this world when you’re feeling like garbage. It’ll make you feel better… I promise.
Why Grief and Regret Are Okay
Guilt and regret are completely valid human emotions to feel when we’ve experienced a tough loss. But here’s the thing that I always come back to: it shows you care. And we need more caring, compassionate individuals out there. It shows you have a good moral compass.
You now have the ability to become an even more empathetic individual through growth and can cope with these very real, very painful gnawing feelings. Be realistic with your expectations, but put in the work to begin releasing that regret and guilt for good.
A Final Thought… Summon Your Loved One(s)
When in doubt, if it’s a loved one you’ve lost, think about what they would say to you right now. Really hone in on that, close your eyes, and envision them sitting right in front of you. Let them come through.
There are days where I feel like I’ll forget my parents’ voices or what advice they would give me, but they have their ways of making it known. And, there’s this little thing called your intuition that’s pretty spectacular (and spot on most of the time, too). They like to come through that avenue as well.
Lean on them and visualize telling them how you’re feeling and let them take that burden from you. Imagine that guilt and regret floating above you in a bright yellow balloon (or whatever color suits your fancy, yellow reminds me of my mom) and then taking that far away. With time, not only will it likely ease up but you’ll find ways of coping with it and looking at your pangs of guilt and regret differently.
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, 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.