There is a heartbreaking pain that comes when we realize that we have hurt someone. When we realize that we have (or may have) hurt someone who is gone, it can seem like the pain will never be healed. People who are grieving the loss of a loved one often call this painful feeling guilt. They say that they feel guilty and regret that they cannot go back and undo the harm that was done.
But guilt implies intent to harm.
Unless you set out to purposely hurt the person in question, you’re probably not feeling guilt at all but something else… like grief or regret.
If you regret what you said or failed to say, if you wish that you had done more, done better or somehow acted differently, then what you’re feeling is likely regret, anger, heartbreak or the mix of emotions we call grief.
How is it that so many folks make this mistake? For many of us guilt is a time-honoured label to hang on our painful emotions but it is seldom the most accurate one.
Here’s an example you’ll probably recognize:
You get a call from your mom saying that your favourite aunt isn’t doing well. Because she is your favourite aunt you start making plans to go see her during your upcoming vacation. But things happen and auntie doesn’t live as long as you expected she would and before you get a chance to see her she catches an infection. Suddenly she is gone.
It’s common under these circumstances for people to say that they feel guilty for not going to see auntie right away but the truth is, you did intend to see her and you certainly did not intend to hurt auntie or cause her harm. It’s more likely that you regret that you didn’t know how short auntie’s time might be. Or you regret that you didn’t get there in time. Maybe you feel heartbroken that you didn’t get to say a final goodbye. Or maybe you’re feeling all of these things.
If “guilt” isn’t the most accurate word to define what you’ve been feeling, let it go and use the word or words that better describe what you’re actually feeling. Try out different words for yourself. “I feel sad that…” “I regret that…”. “I ache that…”, “I am heartbroken that…”. If any one of these feels right and you know that you didn’t intend to cause harm, let go of the guilt.
Written by Catherine Mitchell, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist serving the Durham Region.