How To Manage Guilt When Mourning The Death Of A Loved One

Are you remorseful because you believe you have done something wrong or were inadequate to meet the circumstances surrounding the death of your loved one? Although not everyone who is mourning experiences guilt, it is a fairly common experience.

Guilt comes in many forms when mourning. There are numerous failures in relationships that result in guilt. Not recognizing the seriousness of an illness early on, not taking a loved one to the right emergency room, not feeling badly enough, not intervening in a stronger way when care seems to be inadequate, feeling one should have visited more frequently, not doing what the other wanted to do, and the list can go on and on.

Here are several things to consider about guilt and some suggestions for dealing with it. You can reduce its effects and outlast it.

1. Never forget: it is nearly impossible to love someone and after their death not be able to find something to feel guilty about. We all review our relationship with our loved one, and if we had a chance to do it over, would quickly change some of the things we did or did not do. Much of this present radical response has to do with the way we have been brought up and been conditioned by the culture.

2. The most frequent type of guilt I see with mourners is what has been called illegitimate or neurotic guilt. That is, the feelings of guilt are way out of proportion to the cause. Beliefs like, “I should have gotten him to stop smoking” or “I wasn’t there when he died as I said I would be” or “Why was I spared and she had to die” are primarily forms of neurotic guilt (as are all of the above in the Introduction). And most of us are into this kind of thinking after a loved one dies.

3. Some people are more guilt prone than others. Sometimes early in life you may have done something you should not have done as a child that has stuck with you to the present day. Anything similar to the original act is considered wrong and you have to feel guilty about it. If there is something in your background that has been a perpetual source of guilt, go to a professional counselor for assistance. It can be looked at in a new light.

4. True cause and effect guilt is having omitted or committed something you know was wrong. It could be morally, socially, or ethically wrong. Rational guilt helps keep us doing the things that make a society stable. Without it we wouldn’t be able to relate well with others, study, do an honest day’s work, or obey the laws. It helps keep us from straying too far into negative or wrong choices. It is civilization’s gate keeper, regulating individual and societal behavior.

5. Don’t mix shame with guilt. Sometimes mourners are ashamed with the way they have responded to a crisis or by the type of death (suicide, alcoholism, etc.). That shame means you feel you are a bad person because of your response or due to the nature of the situation. And it is totally untrue. Guilt generally has to do with your behavior or a lack of it, be sure you are focusing on what you supposedly did or did not due, and not on indicting yourself. Your self-talk is crucial in this regard. Tell yourself you did the best you could at the time. Stop talking with guilt language.

6. Evaluate your behavior with this word: deliberate. With most all of the guilt generated when mourning, like so many others, you did not deliberately set out to inflict pain or suffering or contribute to the circumstances surrounding the death. As you look back now with hindsight, it is easy to say that you should have done this or that. You are not omnipotent: you did not realize all of the possible scenarios that could evolve. No one can.

7. Pretend a friend has come to you about his/ her guilt—which is exactly the same as yours. Carefully examine what you would say after hearing all of the details. You are the judge and jury and need to hear your friend honestly speak about his guilt. At this time, be open to hearing about anger, negative feelings toward the deceased, and/or the need for self-punishment, which often fuels guilt. Now turn it around, and apply your recommendations to yourself and make every effort to follow them.

And if you did not ask your friend this question ask it now: “Did you do what you thought should be done at that time?” Of course you did. Then start working at diverting your attention when those neurotic guilt thoughts start returning—by focusing on all the good things you did for your beloved. This is daily homework. Try following your advice to your friend for at least three full days.

8. Examine the beliefs you hold that are supporting your guilt and reappraise the guidelines you live by. Confront your guilt by putting it to a rational test. What beliefs are supporting your guilt thinking? Something you learned from a parent, or your church, or new age thinking? Wrong teachings can wreak havoc for a lifetime.

Women, for example, are brought up to believe—unrealistically—that they are responsible for everything. Even the behavior of others. They are especially sensitive to the ravages of feeling false guilt. Do you have unreasonable expectations of yourself? Should you really feel guilty?

9. And what if your guilt is rational and true? The key to finding peace is to search for a way to make reparation and say you are sorry. It’s the only way to freedom. Find a quiet place and talk to the person who died. Tell him/her what you feel and that you will donate some time and/or treasure to make reparation or complete a project. The deceased already knows you tried to do your best. If your guilt involves a living relative or friend, again apologize, ask for forgiveness, and offer to make some form of reparation. Then work on forgiving yourself as you put it behind you.

Outside of the mourning process, as well as within it, guilt is one of the most pervasive emotions we have to deal with. So much guilt is falsely induced when mourning by questionable beliefs, rules, and the influence of negative and conflicting precepts. Learn all you can about it, intervene early, and remember it is a normal and in most instances a needed human emotion.


Dr. LaGrand is a grief counselor and the author of eight books, the most recent, the popular Love Lives On: Learning from the Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved. He is known world-wide for his research on the Extraordinary Experiences of the bereaved (after-death communication phenomena), speaks throughout the US, and is one of the founders of Hospice of the St. Lawrence Valley, Inc. His website is

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