There are commonly two root thoughts for the guilt felt after someone dies.
- Why didn’t I …?
- I never…
WHY DIDN’T I…
As humans that are naturally at the center of our own small universe, we like to think that we have some semblance of control. It adds comfort and predictability to our days. What this also means is that if we are in control, we are responsible for things that happen.
This is great when things are going well—”Look at what a good job I’m doing!”—but when things go badly we burden ourselves with, “How could I let this happen?” This is how we end up with “why didn’t I” guilt when someone dies.
When I was 12 my dad died of kidney cancer. Before we knew it was cancer, my athletic father assumed his pain was a back injury and hadn’t pursued a more involved diagnosis until it was far too late.
I had watched him agonize his way in and out of the minivan for months, saw the constant pain he was in, but I didn’t push him to go to a doctor. So when he was finally diagnosed and was terminal, I felt guilty for seeing something was wrong and not pressuring him to do more. I thought that had I, a 12 year old child, done something more my dad might have had a chance to survive. I felt partly responsible for his death.
Now you may be reading this and thinking “that’s ridiculous…you were only a child…you couldn’t have known…cancer is nobody’s fault, etc.” And yes, you’re right, it’s not my fault. Rationally, from the outside, that makes complete sense but as we know when we’re in grief, there’s not a lot about it that makes perfect sense.
So if you’re experiencing the “why didn’t I…?” type of guilt you’ve either got to talk it out and wait for your rational mind to finally win and understand the scary truth, that some things are beyond your control (which is an mighty existential pill to swallow) and that this is TRULY not your fault. Or, if you believe unwaveringly that it is your fault (which it’s probably not, but I’m not going to tell you how to feel), then you have to find a way to gradually forgive yourself.
They second root thought of grief guilt is “I never …”
- I never told her I love her.
- I never apologized.
- I never saw him one last time.
- I never got there in time to be with her when she passed.
- I never took him to that one vacation spot he always wanted to go to.
- I never spent as much time with her as she wanted.
- I never visited him in the hospital.
This list could rain down like snowflakes with the millions of things we would’ve done differently in hindsight. Addressing this type of guilt means taking a cue from the previous type and realizing that whatever has been done cannot be undone and finding a constructive avenue to make peace with that, which must eventually, inevitably involve you gently forgiving yourself. You’re not perfect. You’re not perfectly in control of things. Your life did not not come with a manual. Mistakes were bound to be made.
The second way to address this type of guilt is to make some meaning out of it by creating change. If you feel guilt for not visiting a friend in hospice before they died, never let yourself do that again. If you feel guilt for not apologizing, be quicker to humility in the future. Don’t put off for tomorrow what you could do today. Tell people as often as you can how much you love them…etc, etc.
There are ways of moving forward that can make right the wrong you feel. That’s a gift of the wisdom you’ve earned through loss—you don’t have to make the same mistakes again; you can find a way to give your guilt purpose and in that find some resolution.
Though we loathe it, bad things happen that are beyond our control. You and I alone are not powerful enough to stop cancer, someone’s addiction, someone’s mental illness, all the other drivers on the road, whether plaque builds up in someone’s heart, the viability of a pregnancy, nor when a blood clot breaks loose. The way through thoughts of guilt is embracing the limits of your control, forgiving yourself, and if appropriate harnessing the wisdom to make different choices in the future.
Thanks for visiting Grief Compass. We’re sorry you have to be here, but are glad we’ve found each other.