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If Only

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

“I can’t believe I let him go. I should have made him stay home.”

“I should have insisted she go to the ER.”

“If only I wouldn’t have had that last beer.”

“It’s my fault.”

“I should never have left the door unlocked.”

“Why didn’t I look before I backed up?”

“I never should have argued before he left.”

Guilt and grief are a wicked combination, often leading to self-loathing, shaming and plenty of remorse. We feel as if our actions caused the death or we feel we could have prevented the death. We judge ourselves, insisting that we could have, should have and would have prevented it. We create “if only” scenarios.

Guilt is a common feeling among those that are living with grief. Guilt, shame and remorse are often mistaken as the same thing in grief. Although they are very similar in that each one makes us feel like a failure, they actually are quite different. It is because of these differences, that it is beneficial to discern which one you are experiencing.

Guilt is judgement that comes from within. When my twins were stillborn, I was convinced that the extra mocha coffee I enjoyed that morning somehow harmed them and I caused their death. I felt guilty because I thought I was responsible for their death.

Shame is judgement from outside of ourselves and comes from others. Shame can also be from how we think others think about us. I felt my grief was not valid and I should not feel as devastated as I was feeling. Other people said things like, “God must have needed more angels” or “Thankfully you already have three daughters” or “At least they died before you knew them”. Even though people meant well and they thought their words we encouraging, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Their words did not validate my grief. Their words actually shamed me into thinking I should not be feeling what I was feeling.

Remorse are those things I wished I would have done. Remorse is hindsight thinking. If only I would have gone to the doctor when I noticed their activity in the womb had slowed down a bit. I should have given my three daughters a chance to come to the hospital and meet their little brothers. If only statements are full of remorse.

Have you done this? Are you judging yourself because you think you could have or should have done something differently that could have prevented this death? Are you condemning yourself for perhaps having an argument before your loved one had a heart attack and died? Do you think that if circumstances would have been different your loved one would still be alive? Are you feeling guilty because your loved one has died and you are relived because the pain of suffering is finally gone? There are times when actions do indeed cause a death. Maybe you are truly the cause of the death because of an accident or negligent act. Your guilt is valid and you deserve to be seen and heard and held. Your grief is real and your remorse is heavy.

The feelings of guilt, shame and remorse, even though are quite common lead many to feel very isolated. No one wanted to hear about my feelings of guilt. I felt I was being shamed when I would share a feeling or a thought and I was told not to feel that way or my feelings of guilt were silly. When my faith community told me, it was “God’s will”, how could I argue with God? Honestly, I was very angry with God and I kept it to myself because I felt shameful. The isolation and loneliness only compounded the guilt.

An exercise that I have read about and have suggested for others is to write a letter to your loved one. Tell them how you feel. Tell them of your guilt and anguish. Ask for forgiveness and grace. This process may take a long time to complete and that is ok. No one ever needs to read your letter and neither do you. If you choose, you can destroy it when you have completed it. The next part is to write yourself a letter from your loved one. How would they respond? Be open to the response you get. If your loved one forgives you, accept it with grace and love.

Those of us that are living with grief in our lives don’t want to be made to feel better. We don’t want anyone to say or do anything that will take our grief away, we have earned it. We want to be seen, heard and validated. And so, it is with the guilt that is a part of grief. Don’t think that you can say anything that will take it away. What we want is for someone to listen to us, without any judgement. Listen to the depth of our agony. Hold us when we come out of the darkness. When we face the guilt, call it guilt, shame or remorse, we can work with it. When we acknowledge our guilt, sit with it and ponder it, we can then say “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” If we never face our guilt, we never live it. If we never live it, we never get relief. By living our guilt, we are living with Grief in Life.


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