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A Hidden Burden: Bereavement, Loss and Guilt

Updated: Jun 11

The state of bereavement is one that is often hidden from the world. Within this, an experience that comes up again and again is a doubly hidden aspect: Guilt.

With bereavement, guilt is the remorseful idea that you did something wrong, or that you failed to do something you should in relation to the person that's died.
It doesn't matter whether or not you actually have, or haven't, done the thing, it's something you feel. And behind it is the sense that if you had, or hadn't done whatever it is, things would have turned out differently, or better. Perhaps even that your loved one wouldn't have died.

Feeling this kind of deep, self-reproach can become the main filter through which you grieve, something you just can't get past. A guilty secret, something to keep hidden. Sometimes people describe feeling so guilty that they've 'no right' to really grieve, that their guilt means they've foregone that right.

If you've experienced this yourself, you'll be aware of how excruciating it is to be in this place. It can feel like you're held in a vice, imprisoned, condemned even. And who is the gaoler? Yourself? The person that's died? The world for letting this happen? It can sometimes be any combination of these.

We may feel deeply guilty about how we're grieving for the person:

Maybe you feel so angry with them for leaving you, or leaving you with so many problems, or stuff to sort out, difficult circumstances. Then so guilty for feeling this way

We may feel guilty because our relationship with them wasn't perfect

It's really common in the stress of loss to focus on moments of conflict, or things said or left unsaid. Maybe it was a complicated relationship with lingering feelings of conflict and uncertainty.

Quite often though, the focus is on the time leading up to the death:

You should have done more to help them

You should have recognised the signs sooner and insisted on medical attention

Maybe you saw the signs, but didn't do anything

Maybe you didn't spend as much time with them as you wish you had

Or the time of the actual death:

You weren't with them

You had wanted to be with them, but missed it

You hadn't been able to face being there: too afraid, overwhelmed or overwrought. This is really common, profoundly understandable, but it can feel like a final abandonment.

There are many things we might try to say to someone in this situation to try and reassure them, maybe you've heard some of them yourself?

"You did everything you could, you couldn't know what would happen"

"The times you were there mattered so much. They will have felt your love"

"Just remember all the wonderful things you did do. You brought so much joy to their life".

These compassionate responses are meaningful because they often hold truth and can offer comfort in the moment. The last response in particular is worth giving time to:

Consider the difference it made to them to have had you in their life for all of the time that you were. What had it meant to them to have had you in their life? In what ways might their life have been less without you in it?

Spending time reflecting on how much you brought to your loved one's life over the years can truly offer a shift in your perspective, particularly as a balance against feelings of guilt.

I know though that that nagging inner voice can be persistent.

A phrase we use quite a lot in day-to-day conversation is 'with the benefit of hindsight'. When we use this, we know it means that something we did in the past was perhaps not the best action, but we didn't know then what we know now. So why aren't we able to apply this to ourselves when we're grieving?

The overwhelming and shattering impact of the loss upon us.

I've discussed in another post how our brains process change after a loss (link at the end of this post).

The key takeaway is that our brains often act as if nothing has changed. Meanwhile, of course, we are acutely aware that everything is drastically different. Caught between these conflicting realities, we find ourselves struggling to make sense of the situation. This feeling of the bottom dropping out of your world is an apt description of the profound disorientation and confusion that can accompany grief.

This leaves you trying to make sense of what's happened... how did it happen? There must have been something... There must have been a point at which the direction of things, or the outcome, could have been changed...

Notice how this effort to make sense of things and to make everything better again connects us with our loved one. We're trying to weave them back into our life because it feels like the only thing we can do. Not trying leaves us feeling helpless and lost in that gap.

The question we desperately want to answer is: what can I do NOW to make it so that what happened THEN never happened ?

The intense inner turmoil and repetitive almost desperate longing for things to be different can go something like:

"What can I do?

I can't bear that this has happened.

If only I could undo it.

I need to believe it can be changed because the reality is too painful

If only I had the power to reverse it, but I don't. And that's unbearable.

If only I could change it, but I can't.

What can I do?...."

You experience guilt because you're a grieving human being.

It's one of the ways that we process our grief. You're trying to re-write history because at this point no other route feels open to you.

The things we feel guilty about are not things to which we can now ever get a definite answer: we can never know for sure what the outcome would have been if we had.. hadn't.. etc

So, if it wasn't this particular thing consuming you, chances are it would be something else

One of the most succinct utterances I have heard on the subject of loss and grieving is by Robert Neimeyer:

This is such a poignant point and a profound truth about we humans, it captures the essence of our experience. From birth throughout our lives we form forever-feeling bonds and connections with loved ones, people places and experiences. All while we're living in a world that's transient and constantly changing.

These bonds are the threads that weave the fabric of our lives. They provide us with love, security and a sense of belonging. These connections are vital to our well-being, yet they are also the source of our deepest pain when they are broken by loss.

Guilt and regret are reflections of our deep love and the expectations we have of our relationships and of how life is. They underscore the profound significance to us as human beings of our bonds and the value we place on our connections. No wonder we can't give them up without a fight, even though it's ourselves on the receiving end.

That's why I wanted to just give a bit of particular attention to guilt. It's a normal, understandable, part of grieving, but it can feel like being caught in a trap that is hard to get past. Hard to get past because of how it makes us feel about ourselves and perhaps how it makes us feel about the person we've lost and our place in the world from now on. The purpose of writing this has been to try and help anyone reading it who is in this situation find how to extend kindness and compassion to themselves instead.

You don't have to be on your own with this. Counselling is a vital, non-judgemental space where all your experience can be examined and explored exactly as it is happening for you. It provides the tools to understanding and the space for you to process your grief at your own pace. I am here to walk with you on this path, offering compassion and support as you work through your guilt and find a way to move on, so reach out and take the first step towards finding peace amidst the pain.

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