One of the most common experiences I hear about when counseling grieving clients who have lost a loved one is the guilt they have over some aspect of the relationship with the deceased.  Guilt over the last moments with the person, not “being there” for the person, having disagreements, not going somewhere with that person, choosing the “wrong” hospital or doctor, the list goes on.  This is when the “if only” or “what if” phrases emerge.

In our distress we have thoughts that if we did action A the person may not have died, or would have died knowing or feeling a certain way.  We convince ourselves that the power of our action would have changed something.

We do not know the truth of what would have happened if we did alter our past actions.  We only imagine a better scenario because the one lived is so painful we believe we had the ability to make a more favorable outcome.

Maybe it is that our loved one did not die and then lived a happier, less painful, or purposeful life.

Maybe it was if they did die, they would remember how much we loved them.

Maybe it was that we had more good times with them and that we all made more favorable memories.


The list goes on.  And it will continue for as long as we hold ourselves accountable.

I once had the opportunity to take my grandmother on a Mediterranean cruise to a destination she had wanted to visit.  I was in my 20’s, going to college. I did several months of travel preparations but at one point determined I couldn’t do it due to college obligations with school work.  My grandmother was disappointed but understood.

She passed away about 20 years later having never taken the cruise or ever going back to visit her county of origin, Italy.  The guilt I felt after her passing was horrible.  I chastised myself for not having taken the time to do this trip with my grandma. It would have meant so much to her.  I felt terrible and selfish and very angry at my younger self for not making that trip happen.

This experience of guilt has consequences on us.  It increases our suffering and “pours salt into the wound.”

Grief is painful enough…do we really need to torture ourselves even more?

No, we do not.

How do we “turn down the volume” on feeling guilty?

  1. Grief expert David Kessler suggests changing the words “what if” to “even if.” For example, if you begin a thought like

What if I had taken him to a different doctor? Try replacing it with

Even if I had taken him to a different doctor, might he have still died?  Since we truly do not know, the logical answer is yes. The word choice takes away the level of responsibility and control we think we had in the situation.


  1. If you did in fact do something you perceive as wrong, remind yourself that in that moment you were human. Fear, anger, sadness, disappointment, fatigue, stress cause us to do behaviors that sometimes are not admirable and certainly not the best version of ourselves.  We have to accept that things happened, words were said, and then accept our human responses.  We may not be able to make amends to that person physically now, but we can investigate how in the future we may do something different to act in a different manner with a different person. I the case of my grandma guilt, I had to remember that I was an overwhelmed, stressed young adult who reacted out of fear.


  1. Practice self-compassion. I the case of my grandma guilt, I had to forgive my younger self for putting so much emphasis on college schoolwork. I had to remind myself of how I valued being a conscientious student, which isn’t a bad value to have, and give some love to the overwhelmed, stressed young adult that I was.


After my father died, I felt guilty that I had not taken more time to go to the city where he lived 90 minutes away and visit him and the rest of my family of origin.  I blamed myself for getting consumed with immediate family life and work.  My dad passed unexpectedly and I always thought I’d have more time to visit him.  I had to forgive myself for not making the effort to visit more frequently.  I had to remind myself that getting caught up in daily family and work responsibilities is easy to do and show myself some grace.  I had to replace the thoughts I had of him missing me and feeling disappointed that I didn’t visit to him understanding that I loved him and cared about him.


  1. Investigate actions you can do to that would benefit another. If I felt guilty about not spending more time with my dad. I couldn’t do anything about it now but what I can do now is take action to be more available for others in my life whom I care about.  I now make an effort to visit my mom more frequently and spend more time with my siblings and nieces.


  1. Have patience with the process. It may take some time to release the guilt. Like forgiveness, it is not a “one and done” experience.  We may have to go back to it many times and make adjustments in our thinking and in our behaviors that result from the thoughts and feelings.  Getting support from trusted other sources, people, acts of self-kindness and spiritual beliefs may be helpful in the process of releasing or minimizing guilt feelings. You can then have the ability to invite more moments of peace.


I still feel some regret for not taking my grandmother on the cruise and not spending more time with my dad.  But the thoughts are infrequent and feelings of love I have for them consume more of my present thoughts of them. I remember them with more love than guilt. Our grief never leaves but other thoughts and feelings that are more pleasant and kind can grow more prominent as time passes. If you can’t believe that now, it’s ok.  I’ll hold that hope for you.

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