Guilt and Blame

Some of the most common but troublesome components of the grief process are guilt, anger and blame. While we will deal with anger in our next blog, all three of these difficult emotions often walk hand in hand, because, believe it or not, they all have the same root cause.

Listen to what one lady said after her husband died:

 “Jim and I had a wonderful relationship, and he was always saying ‘No regrets.’ But somehow since he died, I just feel so guilty thinking of all the things I could have done better or didn’t do. I blame myself that I didn’t do more for him.”

Many times over the years, I have heard similar sentiments. People tell their story of a good, positive relationship they shared, but at the end they say, “And I feel so guilty.” Our first instinct is to respond, “You mustn’t feel like that. You’ve nothing to feel guilty about.” But for whatever reason, they do feel guilty.

Perhaps some of you may have been beating yourselves up over things that have happened (or haven’t happened) during this crisis, perhaps feeling guilty, possibly blaming others or yourself for things you wish could have been different. You may be surprised to learn what is really happening!

Grief is unwelcome because it forces us to live with circumstances that we would love to change, or with an outcome that is not we wanted or as we had hoped. When tragedies occur, we wish there was something we could have done to prevent, postpone or even prohibit the inevitable. Most would say that they would be willing to do anything to change what has happened, but now, sadly, there is nothing we can do to alter what is now unchangeable.

And then the question becomes, “What do you do when there’s nothing you can do?” While that may seem contradictory, it is a very real issue.

One of the things we often “do” when there is “nothing we can do” is to express guilt, anger and blame. The reason we do this because we would rather feel guilty, angry, or blame others than admit that we are powerless to change what has happened and there is nothing we can do!

I am suggesting that at the “root” of these three emotions is our feelings of helplessness and powerless to change what has happened.

But let’s begin with guilt. In a situation where there is nothing we can do, we try to discover what we could have done. Every guilt statement contains variations on the verb “to do” expressed in “if only” phrases.

If only I had done this. What if I had done that? I should have done things differently. I could have done … I wish I had done … something more. If only I hadn’t allowed something to happen. And we go on and on.

Most guilt is based on the false assumption that “if I had tried harder, things would be different”. Every time we feel we could have “done” something it gives us a feeling of control. Each “if only” suggests the disaster could have been averted or at least postponed if something different had been done.

But sadly it is an illusion of control, because sometimes we cannot manage situations as much as we would like to, or think we can. Every “if only” takes todays knowledge and tries to apply it to yesterday’s experience. If only I had known”, we cry; but that’s the point. We didn’t know … so why do we feel guilty for something we did not have knowledge about to be able to control or change it.

Guilt then is often an attempt to punish myself for what I did not do, but could have done, should have done, wish I’d done, that might have changed the outcome.  But because I did not do something, guilt is the retribution, an attempt to rebuke ourselves for not being able to prevent what has happened.

I have come to realize that there is a big difference between being guilty, and feeling guilty. Many people feel at fault even though there may not be much evidence to suggest that they are really to blame.

So here is the heart-breaking bottom line: Most people would rather feel guilty than feel helpless.

By the way, blame is exactly the same issue. Guilt says, “I could have done something”, while blame says “You (or they) should have done something.” Some people take the responsibility upon themselves, whether they have any responsibility or not. But the majority blames others; blaming everyone for else for what has gone wrong. Think of the times you have heard people or politicians playing that “blame game”. Guilt says ‘It’s my fault” which may or may not be true; blame says “It’s somebody else’s fault.” Both assume that there has to be “fault” which as we will see is not necessarily so.

Most guilt is based on the false assumption that “if I had tried harder, things would be different”. We often feel guilty because we feel like we did not do enough. But when it comes to someone you love, how much is enough? Here is the problem: When you have done everything for someone you love, it never feels like it is enough.

But sometimes in life “stuff happens” in spite of our best intentions. Remind yourself about all the things you DID do and let the rest go.

The only real answer to guilt is in forgiveness. Forgiveness can be necessary on three levels. First, sometimes there are things that we are really guilty about and we struggle with our sins of omission or neglect… not just feeling guilty, perhaps we need to make amends, or to find peace with God. We need to accept that forgiveness, mercy and grace for ourselves, and then determine to go on with life learning from our mistakes.

On another level, we need also to accept the forgiveness of our loved one. What would they say to you, if they could see you beating yourself up with regret and remorse? Think about it this way. If you had died, would you want your loved one to go through life tormented by guilt or blame? Of course not, and so accept their desire for your happiness and let that guilt go.

Most crucial of all, forgive yourself. But you may ask: what do I have to forgive myself for, especially if I am only “feeling” guilty? Why do I need to forgive myself if “stuff has happened” and it’s really nobody’s fault or if nobody is really to blame?

We often have to forgive ourselves for being human. Sometimes we are not in control of what happens, especially preventing the death of people we love, and that is part of our humanity we need to accept.

Go easy on yourself.  Focus on all the things you DID do for your loved one. Make a list of all the good things, all the special times, all the gifts and surprises.  Eventually you will see you did everything you could, and maybe the rest is not very important.

Next time, we will be looking at anger and many other emotions