Monday, May 18, 2015

Guilt And Regret Following The Death of a Friend

[Reviewed and updated January 19, 2019]

Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.  ~ Maria Robinson

A reader writes: Do you have any articles or can you suggest a book that will be helpful to me? I lost a long time friend. We had some unresolved conflict caused by me. I was unable to be with her during the past 2 years as she fought cancer. She shut me out. I deserved it. I am grieving the loss, the lack of closure, and guilt. It is hell. Can you point me to some help? Please?

My response: I’m so sorry to learn of the death of your friend, and of course there is nothing I can say to erase the load of guilt that you are carrying around with you in the wake of your loss. In the end, the only one who can forgive you is you, as I'm sure you already know.

I certainly can tell you that guilt is one of the most common reactions in loss – guilt for what you may have done or failed to say or do.

I don’t know what happened between you and your friend, but I encourage you to take some time to just sit alone with the accusation you’re placing on yourself. Ask yourself how much of the accusation is true, and own that – but be careful about taking on too much guilt for a particular incident. 

It may help to write out the accusation (“I accuse myself of . . .”), then date the indictment. Let it sit for a while. When you revisit it, examine the accusation closely and objectively. Is there evidence to back up the accusation? Just because you feel guilty does not mean that you are guilty as charged. Feelings aren't always logical or rational.

Nevertheless, if after examining all the facts you decide that you should have done things differently, then the only thing you can do at this point is to learn from your mistakes and promise yourself that if you are presented with the very same set of circumstances again, you will do things differently next time. Harsh as it sounds, there is nothing you can do now to go back and change what has already been done. (If you cannot do this exercise by yourself, I strongly suggest that you find someone you trust who will listen to the details of your story without passing judgment upon you: a relative, trusted friend, spiritual adviser, grief counselor or therapist. If you’re being too hard on yourself, you may need some outside help in processing your guilt issues more objectively.)

You might also think about finding some way to communicate with your friend’s spirit and asking for her forgiveness. That may be by praying, meditating, writing her a letter and saying all you need to say to her, or by finding a quiet place and lighting a candle and speaking to her in your mind about your troubling memories – whatever way you choose is up to you. If you like, you can also write a letter from your friend back to you. (You might try writing your letter to her with your dominant hand, and her letter in response to you with your opposite hand.) The goal is to find some way to externalize and express all those guilty feelings, so you can release them, forgive yourself and move forward in your grief process.

If you write a letter asking for forgiveness, consider one of these options: Take the letter to your friend’s grave and read it out loud; Take it to a place that had meaning for the two of you and read it aloud; or share the letter with your clergy person or counselor by reading it aloud. Then, having read the letter, destroy it – or burn it and imagine your guilt being carried away with the smoke.

Noted grief educator and author Harold Ivan Smith has this to say about guilt:

“Eleven words could salvage most regretful relational memories: ‘I am sorry. I was wrong. I want to be forgiven.’ Suppose the positions were reversed: you had died, your loved one survived. How would you want your loved one to deal with forgiveness? Ask yourself, ‘Where is my loved one now? Would she be ungracious in forgiving me?’”

You might also make the effort to find a grief support group, either in person or on the Internet, and talk with others whose experiences may be similar to your own. Sometimes sharing our story in this way enables us to unburden ourselves and to obtain the absolution we may need from others. None of us is perfect; we are all human, we've all made mistakes and we've all done things about which we feel guilty. The point of all of this is to find some way to forgive yourself, to apologize and make amends to the one you believe you have harmed, to learn from your mistakes and to move on. That's the only way you will begin to heal from this loss.

I don’t know about your past experiences with losing someone to death, but if you haven't already done so, I hope you'll pay a visit to my Grief Healing website. There you may find the information, comfort and support you need at this difficult time. Learning what is normal in response to losing a loved one can be very helpful, because you will discover that you are not "crazy" for feeling the way you do, you'll learn what to expect in the weeks and months ahead, and you'll discover many useful, specific ways that you can manage your own reactions.

If you decide to participate in our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups, you will discover that you are not alone in what you are feeling, and you will avail yourself of some very caring support and inspiration from others.

See too my Death of a Friend page, which will point you to some other relevant resources.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below. If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weekly Grief Healing NewsletterSignup here

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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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