Grief & Guilt: Partners in Crime

A young woman sought my support while she was deep in despair over the loss of her mother. During our time together, we talked at length about their relationship, the void left in her life without her mom, and the extreme sadness she felt when she imagined a future without her mother in it. Our first coaching session together flew by, and we set up a second session to continue the work we had just begun. That’s when Grief’s evil twin Guilt reared her ugly head. You see, grief and guilt tend to be attached at the hip.

The guilt was absolutely crushing this woman, squeezing her into a pit of darkness that she couldn’t imagine being able to be pulled out of. Her mother had passed away from Covid-19, and she was alone in a hospital room, with no one there to hold her hand and walk alongside her during her final days.  Unimaginable pain plagued this woman as she questioned her every decision, every conversation, every … single …. move she made leading up to the day she got the call. She could still remember that call from the nurse on the other line saying: “We’re sorry. She’s gone.”

As this woman shared her tragic and very vulnerable story, I paused to reflect on guilt and how often grief and guilt partner up after the loss of a loved one. That motto “two is company, three is a crowd” has merit when it comes to grief and guilt. The only problem is, they join forces and try to take you down in the process.

For me, I feel guilty that I was a bratty 16-year-old when I lost my mom; that I wasted precious time with her … and for what? For others, guilt may creep up in all the things left unsaid, all the visits that could have been but weren’t, all of the signs that something was wrong that were missed or dismissed. The “what if’s” can truly dominate you if you let them, and that’s the goal of the grief and guilt partnership. 

In the span of our coaching together, this woman shared deep insights with me, ones that she may have never voiced otherwise. She shared that she wished she had taken her mom to a different hospital … that she had been more demanding with the hospital staff … that she had not had that holiday get-together where her mom may have picked up the virus … that she had insisted on being with her mom at the end … that she had said “NO” to the ventilator … that she had quarantined more diligently … that her kids had spent more time with their grandma when she was alive. It was physically heart-wrenching to listen her endless list of regrets. It was really no wonder she struggled to get out of bed some days.

Together, we made process, although it wasn’t easy. Quite honestly, it never is. Like most people, this woman had good days and bad days, but our focus was always on learning how to separate her grief from her guilt. Here are a few tips on how you can begin to do the same:

  • Focus on what you truly have control over and begin to let go of the rest. The sad reality about Covid is that it robbed this woman of her control, and there was absolutely nothing she could have done differently. Many times, loss comes with a sense of hindsight bias, but sifting through what is within your control today versus what is beyond your control yesterday is a good place to start.
  • Reflect on what your loved one would want. As you navigate loss, you feel a heavy weight of grief. Rest assured, your loved one would not want you to carry that weight. During my time with this woman, we focused heavily on the fact that her mom knew she was loved and did not die feeling unloved. Being alone and being unloved are very different. Love knows no physical boundaries. Once we established these two things, she began to be able to address her grief without the spiral of what ifs. 
  • Find ways to keep their memory alive in meaningful ways. Stop looking in the past and start looking ahead. How can you turn pain into purpose? The woman and I spoke about ways to continue her mom’s legacy of caring for others, and opportunities to honor her in a special way on her birthday. I call these “deliberate steps forward.” This is when the healing begins. 

It’s not just Covid-related deaths that produce this sort of guilt. I believe there is a guilt component to nearly every loss. As humans, we are conditioned to believe we have control over most things in our lives. So when I think about the day my mom punished me for getting a “B” on a test and she later found my journal where I had written “I hate my mom” in large block letters, I am filled with regret and guilt. I pray that she didn’t die thinking this was true, but I cannot change that I said this. I cannot change that she read this. I cannot change that she died. I can, however, tell my 16-year-old self that I forgive her for being a brat. Sometimes your first step in your grief journey can be that simple.

Stacey Sassine, certified grief coach and founder and chief transformation coach of Epic Reboot, helps individuals navigate grief by finding purpose in their pain. Through one-on-one and group support sessions, Stacey provides guidance on shifting one’s mindset so they can move from tragedy to triumph. She also is a sought-after professional speaker, and loves to share her inspirational story and tried-and-true tactics with those who could benefit from them most. Connect with Stacey today, and invite her into your life or your community.

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