What They Don’t Tell You About Grief and Guilt and Regret

photo, green vine on white wall; words, what they don't tell you about grief and guilt and regret, blog post by Santa Rosa therapist Patty Bechtold

Grief and guilt and regret often come into our lives as an uninvited threesome. And that can be so hard when you’re in the midst of them, because we humans don’t exactly embrace guilt and regret.

Instead, we mostly live during times that encourage you to push your guilt down while at the same time proclaiming “no regrets.”

And yet, for all that, when you’re experiencing the complex tangle of grief and guilt and regret, you are perhaps more in touch with the deepest aspects of yourself. You may be closer than ever to understanding who you are at your core and what’s most important for you.

Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground.
-Oscar Wilde

The irony is that grief and guilt and regret can lead to unexpected wake-up calls.

Without a doubt it’s painful to be in the middle of this unwelcome trio. Sometimes the pain can seem unrelenting, leaving you feeling depressed and discouraged. I don’t want to minimize that for a second.

Loss of any kind can shake you up and take you to your knees. Yet, at the same time it has the capacity to wake you up too: to who you are at your core and to what matters most to you.

wood table, words: wisdom is the wake-up calls within grief and guilt and regret from wiselifetherapy.com

For example, a dear friend just set out on a cross-country trip.

Her journey follows the loss of a loved one whom she hadn’t spoken with for many years. Major feelings of guilt and regret followed. So on this trip she’ll be spending time with the people she most cares about.

Similarly, as a grief counselor and certified grief support specialist, I’ve companioned many clients through their own wake-up calls. The strange thing is that even though the guilt, grief, and regret are painful, they also may propel you to look inward and ponder some of the big existential questions of life:

  • Who am I?
  • How do I heal?
  • What have I neglected?
  • What matters most?
  • How much time do I have left?

As a result, my clients have done deep inner work, revived parts of themselves they thought they’d lost, changed professions, reassessed relationships, or made their health and self-care a priority.

Personally, when I lost one of my brothers several years ago my own grief and guilt propelled me to reach out to my other brother. Both of us were surprised (and not expecting much) when I suggested we start meeting regularly for lunch. We were equally surprised when our once-distant relationship blossomed.

The regret that comes with grief and guilt can even change the trajectory of your life.

Sometimes these wake-up calls happen almost instantaneously, but not always.

When my mother died many years ago I was barely out of my teens. It happened quickly and unexpectedly: she was here one minute and gone the next. So I put up a stoic front and tried to act as if I was okay, because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. In truth, it was a shock that reverberated for years.

Still, a wake-up call was brewing even though my grief and guilt and regret left me floundering for a long time. You see, I yearned to go home again but couldn’t make sense of the yearning. Yet a tiny voice within me kept urging me back to California, telling me that I would survive even though my mom wasn’t there anymore.

As muddled and rocky as it was when I returned home, I can see now that my life probably would have turned out very differently if I hadn’t followed that sad call.

You’re probably wondering: Why do grief and guilt so often go hand-in-hand?

According to the Hospice Foundation of America, it is a “normal but unnecessary burden.” In fact, there are six different types of grief and guilt:

  1. Causation: Your guilt stems from believing that you are in some way responsible for someone’s death, or you did not do enough to intervene.
  2. Moral: Your guilt stems from believing that the loss is a punishment for something you did.
  3. Role: Your guilt stems from believing you were not good enough in the role you played or the relationship you had with the person whom you lost.
  4. Survivor: Your guilt stems from believing that you should have been the one who died.
  5. Grief: Your guilt stems from believing that you are not grieving or coping well enough.
  6. Recovery: Your guilt stems from believing that you are coping too well.

My grief therapy clients have definitely experienced role-related grief and guilt.

In the throes of loss it is common to believe you weren’t good enough as a daughter, sister, partner, etc. You might also feel guilty because you believe that you aren’t living up to the expectations of the person you lost.

Furthermore, if you have any kind of trauma history with the person you lost, your guilt and regret may carry deep shame because of the complexity of traumatic relationships.

In fact, you may feel pulled between the guilt of thinking you should have been better able to stand up for yourself or be your own advocate, and the shame of believing you should have somehow been able to make everything okay.

If this sounds familiar, it’s critical to remember that you did the best you could and you are doing the best you can.

It is possible that another type of wake-up call is brewing for you.

This kind of wake-up call is more internal than external: reaching out to yourself and opening the door to give yourself more kindness, curiosity, and self-compassion.

This is very different from reaching out to repair relationships or making outward changes in your life.

In fact, the smallest actions and simple rituals can lead to the some of the most healing and heartfelt wake-up calls:

  • Writing a compassionate letter to yourself
  • Lighting a candle
  • Creating an alter
  • Making a collage

If you can take even a very small action with the intention of changing something on a greater scale, you may be surprised by the outcome.

When you are holding grief and guilt and regret, try to take the helpful parts and release the rest.

When guilt and regret intersect with grief, they can be both life-affirming and life-rejecting.

They can wake you up and help you see something important that you haven’t seen before. They can also help you look inward toward self-care and self-acceptance.

Or, they can keep you down by leaving you full of sorrow and recriminations.

So if you’re experiencing grief and guilt-related remorse and regret without possibility or hope, please don’t beat yourself up.

Like I said earlier, you did the best you could. You’re doing the best you can.

If you are in the sometimes more difficult aspect of the Life/Death/Life cycle, meaning in the side of entropy, losing energy, death, and all this occurs before transition to new life of whatever stripe or kind…the most enduring lantern I can light for you on your way through the dark, carries this one little but eternal golden flame: It has been so, it is now so and it will ever be so, that death is a night between two days.
-Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Take heart, and know that you are allowed to discover your own personal wake-up calls.

Grief Therapy in Santa Rosa and online can help you release the guilt and regret.

Patty Bechtold

Patty Bechtold

Welcome. I'm a Santa Rosa therapist and life coach, and I help women who feel like something’s missing in their lives or themselves. I specialize in self-esteem, anxiety, depression, grief, life transition, and women's groups. On this blog I write about different approaches to help you find your way back to your deepest wisdom. Thank you for being here.