Feelings of guilt over a deceased loved one: how to deal with it?
When a loved one dies, there is often a feeling of guilt: did not give, did not say, did not do, and now there is nothing to fix. Is this guilt always fair, or is there something else behind it?
The death of a loved one is associated not only with a sense of grief, but also with the experience of guilt.
When a loved one passes away, it seems that you are to blame: tired of the difficult care and painful last days, something was not given, did not take to another hospital, did not buy another medicine, stayed alive when he died.
Why does it arise and how justified? Psychologist, Director of Christian Psychological Service “Candle”, Doctor of Biological Sciences Alexandra Imasheva answers.
How and why guilt arises
Feelings of guilt at the loss of a loved one always arise. It is a normal reaction to the death of a loved one. Almost everyone who experiences loss experiences a feeling of guilt over the deceased.
This feeling can take many forms: guilt for the relief experienced, the end of a terrible, difficult period of illness of a loved one (it turns out, the person thinks that his death was the payment for my release, and I am glad of it). More often there is guilt for something that seems not to have been done or not to have been done completely (the wrong doctor was called, the wrong treatment).
There may be guilt for injustice that was done (or allegedly done) to the deceased while he or she was alive: you rarely visited him or her, made few phone calls, took poor care, and now there is nothing you can do about it.
There is even guilt for the fact that your neighbor died and you are still alive, “but he was better than me.
Sometimes guilt comes second, for example, first there is anger at the deceased – why did you leave me! – or at God (fate) – why did God take him away?! – and then immediately comes guilt: how could I think so, what a scoundrel I am. Guilt will find something to cling to.
It is extremely rare that guilt does have some basis in fact. For example, if our neighbor was very sick and didn’t want to be treated, and we went along with him because we didn’t want to bother with him. And then he died, and we feel guilty.
Or if his illness imposed some restrictions on him (like eating) and we ignored them and fed him everything, which led to a worsening of the illness and death.
Or if he suffered greatly from your quarrel and wanted to make peace, and you refused him, and it greatly marred his last days and hours.
In such rare cases of justified guilt, confession and repentance for the believer or a psychologist for the atheist will help.
But usually the guilt that almost inevitably comes after the death of a loved one is completely irrational.
It is also experienced by psychologists, who know very well the mechanism of this feeling and its unreasonableness. “I understand everything,” says the psychologist, “I know why it happens, I can lay it out, but I still feel guilty after mom’s death: I put her in the wrong hospital, I brought the wrong medicine. And after all, my mother was 89 years old, and she survived three heart attacks. Irrational guilt clings to any of the possible causes listed above and begins to gnaw at the person.
So why does it arise?
Death is a huge, out-of-control and completely unknowable event. It is as if we are looking into an impenetrable abyss.
When we experience the death of a neighbor, first we feel that there is nothing we can do, nothing we can prevent, and second, we inevitably realize that the same thing awaits us.
Our psyche finds itself in a very difficult situation of complete loss of control over what is happening, of absolute helplessness and experiencing complete uncertainty. An existential fear arises, bringing us back to some primary meanings: who I am and why I live, if my life too will inevitably end.
This leads us to an enormous, all-consuming horror that is simply unbearable: if you let it go, it will drive you mad. How is it possible that I will be gone!
The horror of meeting death “face to face” is so strong that it is easier for us to experience unpleasant feelings of guilt or anger, just to cover this fear with them.
Mental defense mechanisms operate beyond our desire and awareness: first, shock and denial “turn on” and make us “not see” death, then anger and guilt erupt.
Feelings of guilt and anger over the death of a loved one are the psyche’s response to its own helplessness, its inability to “control” the death
Feeling of guilt in this case is a compensatory feeling, which is designed, at least in an illusory form, to return us the possibility of control over what is happening. It is easier for us to feel guilty about not getting the right medicine (an action we can take control of!) and thus not preventing death (the illusion of controlling death!) than to admit frankly to ourselves that we could not help in any way to prevent the person from dying.
In other cases, guilt is a form of experiencing the irreversibility of what has happened and realizing that nothing can be changed. It is again a loss of control over what is happening, which is unbearable for us. For example, if when my mother-in-law was alive we fought with her, but we knew that in principle we could reconcile, then after her death this possibility is gone forever. Gone from our control. And this loss of power over reality is experienced as guilt for unrealized opportunities.
Exactly for the same reason a feeling of anger arises at the death of a neighbor. This is the psyche’s response to its own complete helplessness, its furious protest.
And anger can “cling” to anything that seems adequate to our psyche: anger at the deceased (how could he leave me!?), anger at God (how could He take him!?), anger at doctors (why didn’t they save him?!). But in the end, these are all just reactions of our psyche to our utter helplessness in the face of death.
Of course, it is much easier for believers to experience both the death of a neighbor and the thought of their own mortality. In the mind of a believer, death is not the end and disappearance, but a transition to another form of existence, so there remains hope of meeting with the departed, of being reconciled with them, and, very importantly, faith that even death will not make you disappear completely.
How to recover from the death of a neighbor
In modern culture there is a tendency to get rid of negative feelings as quickly as possible.
Long suffering, long grief is not welcomed by society, such a person is looked down upon and every effort is made to “pull” him out of this state.
They use hatched consolations such as “don’t cry”, “do something else”, “take your mind off something”, “pull yourself together”, “it is time for you to calm down” and other pseudo-positive recipes that do not work.
They do not help, but irritate or make you feel even more guilty – because with their suffering you strain others. A person tries to “skip over” their grief as quickly as possible, does not experience it fully and only drives it deep inside.
But our grief at the loss of a loved one is payment for our love for him or her. And the stronger the love, the deeper will be the grief, so do not be ashamed of it, consider yourself weak, to go along with those who believe that it is time to stop suffering. Grieving takes time: to survive the grief of the death of a loved one, you need at least a year.
Psychologists speak of the “work of grief” – the loss must be accepted, lived through and experienced. After this, in a normal situation, grief turns into light sadness and bright memories. If a year and a half passes, and it does not get easier, then it is unhealthy experience of grief, and requires the help of a specialist – a psychologist or psychotherapist.
How quickly the heavy grief will pass, it also depends on our relationship with the deceased.
If the relationship was good, healthy, then the grief will be easier, if they were something complicated, and grieving will be more difficult.
We will see all the time that nothing can be undone, and this irreversibility will put additional pressure on us.
But we have to live up to it. In the beginning, after the initial shock of the loss, there will be many negative feelings – anger, guilt, longing, and loneliness. Guilt, which takes many forms, may arise right in the first days after the death of a loved one and remain until the end of grieving. Feeling guilt over the deceased is a natural part of experiencing grief, and experiencing grief is the only way to return to normal life.
Live through the grief.
– No matter how bad things get, it’s important to remind yourself that grief will pass. But this does not mean that we will not forget the person, become indifferent to him, but the sharp sorrow will be replaced by a peaceful sorrow.
You can write yourself on a piece of paper or card three statements and carry them around, take them out and reread, or stick them on the fridge so they are always before your eyes:
- My feelings are normal.
- I’ll get better.
- I can handle it as others have done before me.
– If guilt is related to the relief experienced after the death of a seriously ill, tormented person, you should tell yourself that it was objectively a heavy burden, and the relief after the burden is lifted is a normal, natural feeling. There is no dislike for the deceased, no egoism, but an ordinary, uncontrollable reaction of the psyche to the release. This relief does not cancel the grief of death, nor does it diminish our love for the departed. And there is no need to punish ourselves for it.
– It is important to observe the rituals associated with death. It is not for nothing that they have been consecrated for centuries. The first thing that can alleviate the distress of loved ones is to take care of the funeral, funeral, cemetery, coffin, wreaths, flowers. Arranging a wake, gathering for nine and forty days are all things that really help to get over grief. After all, by doing all these things, we show our concern for the deceased.
At a wake, we share our grief and love for the deceased with others, we talk and listen to others speak warm, good words about him, and we feel better.
A wake is a very compressed process of grief. It often happens that they begin with tears, even sobs, and end in a much more positive mood. It’s as if a whole year is lived in a few hours.
– Don’t banish memories of the deceased. Don’t try to “block them out” with other thoughts or distract yourself if they come. Don’t deliberately bring up these memories, especially if they are painful to you, but if they come up, dive into them and live them out.
– Cry. Tears are not too accepted in our culture, even if it is to cry for the deceased. One of the most trivial “consolations” is the entreaty of “don’t cry, calm down, drink some valerian.” In fact, tears are a natural painkiller (when a person cries, the body produces substances that calm the nervous system), and a way to express and thereby “let out” mental pain and longing.
When a grieving person cries, it is not a sign of weakness, but a sign that the grief experience is moving in the right direction.
– Talk about the person who died and your experiences. If memories of your deceased loved one, their last days and other distressing things come up, you need to find someone to talk to about it.
It is common after a loss to want to talk about a loved one who has passed away, especially if their death was tragic and sudden. Often you want to share your feelings, talk about your worries. Do not be afraid to call a friend or girlfriend, honestly say: It’s very hard for me, I keep remembering the deceased, let’s talk to you about him.
Recommendation to friends and relatives of the grieving person: do not close from such conversations, and participate in them, so that the person does not feel trapped in his grief.
Patiently listen to everything he tells you. In a state of grief, especially in the first days after the loss, the grieving person may be verbose and repeat the same thing, do not rush him. Or he may become silent – then just stay with him. Offer the grieving person practical help in making funeral or memorial arrangements. If they are feeling guilty about something they didn’t have time to do or say, or about the relief they experienced after the death of a seriously ill person, explain to them that this is understandable, natural and understandable.
– Try not to shut yourself away, no matter how much you might want to. Grief is a process that is better experienced with people. Even if you don’t want to talk, it is better to have them by your side. Communicating with those who have recently experienced a similar loss helps a lot.
– After some time (during the first year), be sure to sort out and give away the belongings of the deceased. It is not necessary to build a “temple” of the deceased person at home, to leave his room untouched, as if he were still alive. This will only prolong the experience of grief. Of course, getting rid of things dear to the deceased is very hard, feeling as if with your own hands finally give him and the memory of him. Usually with this flow of tears – let them flow. But during the first year, you have to do it.
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Feelings of guilt after the death of my mother: it’s important to know
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Hi Marina! You did the right thing in giving your mom to the hospital. If you had not given mom in the hospital she would have died even earlier from a myocardial infarction. It’s normal that old people don’t want to go to the hospital. My mom, too, with a heart attack did not want to go to the hospital (we all tried to persuade her). Your mom’s heart failed ( her age, heart attack, cerebellar hemorrhage, pneumonia). It is scary to lose loved ones ( it does not matter how old they are), but we are all strangers and aliens on this earth, and everyone has his time. I think mom was grateful to you when she got up after the surgery. She loved you. Don’t beat yourself up, you were a wonderful daughter who loved her mom and wanted her mom to live. It was just a time of parting on this earth. Mom has gone to eternity, where we all will go, just at our own hour. And the fact that Mom is gone, as they say, death will find a reason. There’s no getting away from it. It’s not your fault. You are a beautiful loving daughter and in eternity you will meet your mother. Take care of yourself and your loved ones! Good health to you!
Hello Marina ! You did the right thing when you sent her to the hospital. You are going through a separation, and the feeling of “What could I have done to prevent this” is a natural question, many people go through similar situations when they lose their loved ones, while blaming themselves. At this point of time you will still have those thoughts, but in time they will go away, as well as your pain, it will subside and begin to acquire completely different feelings, you will begin to realize that the person was of age and not much depended on you, in fact. The best remedy against your worries now is to start taking care of yourself so you don’t fall into a depressive syndrome. More often transform your own thoughts into positive, good ones, so that it would be easier. The psyche will give the installation that it should be so, and everything passes, without fears and great regrets. Everything takes time, dear Marina!
Hello Marina! Please accept my sympathy for the loss of your mother… The death of a person is always a tragedy, always pain. and it is impossible to accept this loss. Over time, the pain may become less, not as severe, but it will still remain. The guilt you feel is natural, and almost every living person experiences the death of someone close to them. You have a long way to go in accepting this pain. It is important to acknowledge your sense of helplessness and powerlessness, your devastation and loss. It is important to leave inside yourself all the love, tenderness and warmth that your mother left you. It is important to accept and remember that she loved you, cared about you, was worried about you and did not want you to suffer at all. In the meantime, you will have to endure the pain, the disappointment, the bitterness of the loss, and only then does humility come before that loss. And you will be left with the bright image of your mother, which will shine in your life.
Hello Marina! I sincerely empathize with your loss. It is unlikely that you will be able to let go of this pain, over time it may become smaller, less acute, but it will still lie on your heart. You have a long road of acceptance and humility ahead of you – accepting what you could not change, accepting that your mom is gone, accepting your feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, devastation and pain. You blame yourself now, so you don’t let her go from you, as if looking for an answer to why this happened, BUT, not because you caused it, but because this is your mother’s way. You can’t forget your mother, you don’t need to. It is important for you to leave inside yourself the warmth, love and goodness that she gave you, so that the memory of her would not be overshadowed by grief and pain. And she was inside you, and she will stay. Think about it, your mother loved you, and what could she leave you with her leaving? Hardly black pain and grief, I doubt she would have wanted you to suffer. Would your mother have blamed you? Would she have wanted you to live with that? She leaves you with love and warmth. And it’s important for you to keep that inside you. But you still have to go through the pain of loss, anger, disappointment, devastation, and only after that the acceptance will come, and you will be able to keep her image in a corner of your heart, your soul, which will illuminate your path and always stay with you!
Marina, hello! You have done everything right. How can you not ask for help when someone is having a heart attack? That was the situation, and maybe it was fate. Your mother was in her old age and her heart could not cope with the load. You need to grieve her loss to the end and let her go. It’s not your fault.
Hello, Marina. It’s impossible to predict what her condition would have been like at home. Especially considering the cerebral hemorrhage and heart attack. Without treatment, her condition would have deteriorated even faster. So you did the right thing.
Hello. Do you have any doubts that mom would have survived without the heart surgery? The fact that the operation was done urgently shows that you brought her back in time, otherwise she would have died at home due to lack of care. Elderly people often refuse to go to the hospital when they are told in good sense that it is necessary. I understand your pain of loss, but it is not your fault. YOU did the right thing to help your mom at the time of the seizure and prolong her life. And it is not your fault that an elderly woman’s body, weakened by the disease, could not cope with further infections. I’m very sorry for your loss. Grieving the loss of a loved one is very hard. You are at your best.
You are going through a very difficult time. And the loss of a loved one is always a huge grief and stress for a person. Don’t blame yourself. You did everything you could for your mom. You were acting with the best of intentions. At the hospital you could have given your mom the best possible treatment, not at home. You are dealing with a loss and guilt is a part of it. But it wasn’t your fault. You wanted to do what you could and you did it for your own good. That is life.