I have never been an English teacher, but I remember teachers pointing me to the dictionary to make sure I had a proper understanding of my words. Good advice! So, let’s start with some dictionary definitions:
GUILT: (1) the fact or state of having done something wrong or having committed a crime. (2) guilt is also a feeling of anxiety or unhappiness that you may have done something wrong, such as causing harm to another person.
REGRET: (1) a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened, has been done, or left undone. (2) feeling sorry or unhappy about something you did or were unable to do.
It is a rare person who can say, “I have had no feelings of guilt or regret since my family member died.” Some raise their eyebrows at such a statement and ask (or wonder silently), “Really? Honestly?” And, when we do acknowledge that we may have some guilt or regrets, some of the folks around us my make us feel more guilty by insisting that we shouldn’t feel guilty! Then we may think, “Hmm… if I shouldn’t feel guilty, but I do, then there must be something wrong with me… and that’s something else to feel guilty about!”
It’s possible that our feelings about guilt and regrets have something to do with definitions. Notice that the second part of each of the definitions above (2) include the word “feeling.” I believe that it’s possible to have feelings of guilt or regret without being guilty of doing anything wrong. And, my philosophy about feelings is that they are neither right nor wrong – they just are. If I am feeling guilty about something I did or failed to do during my loved one’s illness or death, a well-intentioned family member or friend can’t talk me out of that feeling by simply telling me that I shouldn’t feel that way.
Notice that I’m not saying there is never any reason to feel guilt in grief. Maybe we are convinced that we did something wrong or failed to so something we wish we could have done. OK, if you really did “mess up,” give yourself a “guilty” sentence – then commute that sentence with the gift of forgiveness. Let yourself off the hook. It’s not healthy to continue to carry the heavy rocks of guilt around in your “backpack” through life.
Sometimes we need help sorting it out. I recall a school-age boy who, in his support group, was finally able to admit that he felt responsible for the death of his baby brother. The group leaders allowed him to tell his story – which included the fact that the baby had been born with serious physical conditions. But one afternoon, while the boy and his older siblings were babysitting, the doorbell rang. The boy jumped up and hurried to the door, only to bump the baby seat that his baby brother was resting in on the floor. It rolled over on its side, but as the older siblings confirmed, no harm had come to the baby. But, when the baby died in the following weeks, the boy was racked with guilty feelings – convinced that he had caused the death! Once he could talk about it to the group, and later his parents, a meeting was scheduled with the baby’s primary physician, who explained in easy-to-understand terms that the child’s death was not caused by him rolling over on the carpeted floor that day. The death was caused by the insurmountable physical problems which the parents and doctor had realized would take his life. The boy felt guilty, even though he was not actually guilty of any wrong doing.
After all, we usually do the best we can in the circumstances at the time. Remember – it’s one thing to be guilty of an act or an omission, but it’s another to just feel the remorse of “I wish I had…” or “If only…” I’m trying to make the distinction between true guilt and feelings of regret.
Most of us will continue to live with some regrets, but if they loom over us time after time, it may be time to make a conscious effort to release them. You could do that through a “conversation” with the loved one’s picture sitting in a chair across from you – while you pour out your heart of love and your admission of the regrets which have been consuming you. Or, you could write your regrets in a letter to the deceased – one that you could burn in a fireplace and feel released as the ashes drift upward. Or, you could write your regrets with a marker on a helium filled balloon, then release your feelings with the balloon and watch them drift away.
Our reality includes the fact that there is no “re-wind” or “undo / redo” button in life. We can’t live in the past, neither should we allow the regrets of the past to maintain their controlling grip on us. Let’s release our guilt and regrets and move forward with the task of reinvesting our energy in the future. We can live with hope and healing!
Submitted by Danny Mize, Advisory Council member for The Hope & Healing Place
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