Monday, March 12, 2012

Guilt and Regret in Grief

[Reviewed and Updated December 10, 2023]

The message of shame is “I am bad.” The message of guilt is “I did something bad.” ~ Dale Larson

A reader writes: Since my mother died, there are so many things I feel guilty about. All of the times she asked me to do something for her and I put it off. All of the times I rolled my eyes when she couldn't do things for herself. She lived in our home for two years after a major heart attack. I took care of her up until the last two weeks, when I finally called in hospice to help. That was the best thing I ever did. They helped us get through the dying process. But the guilt I feel is driving me crazy. I feel like a horrible person, and I wish I could tell her how I feel. She was 90 when she died, and lived a good life, had many friends and she seemed to be happy up until the last few weeks, when she became too weak to do the things she enjoyed. I wasn't always there for her, as I also work full time. I don't quite know how to handle this guilt and I am very depressed. Has anyone else had these kinds of feelings?

My response: This feeling of guilt in the aftermath of significant loss is so common as to be universal. Much has been written about why we experience it and what we can do to cope with it. (See, for example, Grief and the Burden of Guilt.)

Some authors make the distinction between guilt and regret, noting that guilt is the feeling we have when our conscience is violated, while regret is the feeling of sadness that results when things don’t turn out the way we had hoped. Guilt implies that we are at fault for something we’ve done or failed to do; regret is a reflection of our humanness.

As imperfect human beings, we are limited in our capacities ~ after all, there is only so much anyone can do in the face of insurmountable odds. We cannot be held accountable for circumstances beyond our control or for consequences we cannot foresee. At some point we must forgive ourselves for our human imperfections.

In his beautiful book, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss, author Jerry Sittser observes that, if we give in to those feelings of guilt and regret, we are in danger of what he calls the death of the spirit:
Many people are destroyed by loss because, learning what they could have been but failed to be, they choose to wallow in guilt and regret, to become bitter in spirit, or to fall into despair. While nothing they can do will reverse the loss, it is not true that there is nothing they can do to change. The difference between despair and hope, bitterness and forgiveness, hatred and love, and stagnation and vitality lies in the decisions we make about what to do in the face of regrets over an unchangeable and painful past. We cannot change the situation, but we can allow the situation to change us. We exacerbate our suffering needlessly when we allow one loss to lead to another. That causes gradual destruction of the soul. This destruction of the soul represents the tragedy of what I call the “second death,” and it can be a worse tragedy than the first. The death that comes through loss of spouse, children, parents, health, job, marriage, childhood, or any other kind is not the worst kind of death there is. Worse still is the death of the spirit, the death that comes through guilt, regret, bitterness, hatred, immorality, and despair. The first kind of death happens to us; the second kind of death happens in us. It is a death we bring upon ourselves if we refuse to be transformed by the first death [pp. 99-100]. 
See also Irene Kendig’s helpful article on the Open to Hope Web site, How to Release Regret.

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