Guilt and responsibility

In grief, particularly following a suicide, it is not uncommon to experience feelings of guilt. These feelings can be very uncomfortable and distressing.

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Guilt is the feeling of having done something wrong, or of having failed in some way. It is important to realise that guilt may be experienced even where there is no fault at all. It is not something that is logical and rational and, as a result, can be difficult to manage.

As the reasons for feeling guilt are complex, it can be very difficult to let go of the belief that we are at fault in some way. Guilt tends not to feel like a thought or a feeling, but we tend to experience it very powerfully as a fact; it is ‘true’. Yet, most of the time it is not. Sometimes though, no matter how many times it is said, we cannot be convinced that a loved one’s death was not our fault.

Guilt is an experience that can benefit from professional support to work through; consider contacting one of the services listed below.

Why do I feel guilty?

Guilt can develop from a need to make sense of the loss of a loved one. When life events are catastrophic, traumatic and overwhelming our mind searches for an explanation and an understanding of what has happened. We want to ensure that something like this can never happen again. One of the explanations is that we caused it, that it is our fault.

We find ways to make the world more controllable and less frightening.

In this way, guilt acts to protect from frightening and uncontrollable experiences. However, it is important to  be aware that it does not mean we are responsible for or caused what has happened.

No single event or interaction brings about a suicide. It is a complex behaviour which has multiple contributing factors.

It is also true to say, that when we love someone, whether as a parent, partner, sibling or friend, we feel responsible for them. We tend to believe that if we care for someone, we will be able protect them. It is painful to realise that there are limits to our capacity to protect those we love.

The experience of guilt

A few of the other reasons that people experience guilt are listed below:

  • a sense you are grieving ‘wrongly’ or ‘not enough’
  • the difficulty in acknowledging that all emotions, even those like anger, towards the loved one are reasonable
  • the sense that the death might not have happened if something had been said and done or not said and done
  • a feeling of failure; that the person was let down in some way
  • surviving beyond a loved one
  • keeping information secret from others
  • an idea that the loss is a result of past misdeeds
  • a parent’s ‘job’ is to keep their children safe.

Feelings of guilt can occur regardless of the situation. They are normal and, with help, can be managed.

Ways of managing guilt

It is helpful to acknowledge that experiencing guilt is a normal part of the suicide bereavement process. Some ideas for responding to guilt are listed here:

  • realise that you were doing the best you could with the information you had at the time
  • try to focus on the positives from the relationship with your loved one. Write down examples of the caring and comfort and the happy moments that have been shared
  • if other people are saying unhelpful things, take time to plan and perhaps write down things to respond with the next time. For example, “I understand things were out of my hands, but I am still feeling some guilt right now that needs to be worked through,” or, “I feel guilty enough about this already. If I was aware things were that bad I would have done things differently”
  • when experiencing recurring strong guilty thoughts try raising a hand and say aloud “stop”. This should be loud enough to become slightly startled. Over time this should make the thoughts less strong and less frequent
  • have a mental break. Decide on a week where there will be no guilty thoughts and make an effort throughout this week to stop guilty thoughts. When guilty thoughts or negative thinking arise say out loud “It’s okay. This week I’m putting aside my guilt. I’m just going to let it go”
  • try to reduce or eliminate any sign of punishing behaviour towards yourself or others
  • imagine what you would say to someone else, a friend or family member, if they were in your situation
  • create something that will capture memories such as a scrap book, audio and video tapes or a series of stories

It is important not to go through this experience alone. Grief is hard enough by itself and a strong sense of guilt complicates matters a great deal. It is often helpful to seek some kind of support and assistance before the negative and destructive thinking patterns become entrenched.