Remember when I wrote a post on grief and forgiveness and promised I would follow it up with a second post on grief and self-forgiveness? It was a solid six months ago, but I suggest you go back and check it out if you want a good introduction to forgiveness in general. And, while you’re reading some recommended pre-reqs for this post, I would also recommend this post on guilt and grief and this one on guilt versus regret.
Are you caught up on those posts and feeling all tapped into your guilt feelings? Great. Well, not great that you have guilt feelings… But great that you’re thinking about them. After all, what is Step #1 in coping with tough feelings? You guessed it: Acknowledging them. Sitting with them. Feeling their horrible, intrusive, sometimes totally overwhelming presence.
Guilt, in particular, is a doozy. Not only that, but it’s an incredibly normal and common grief emotion. Even research says so… and so do the comments of the zillions of grievers we work with, talk with, and who comment on our posts here. I won’t rehash all the guilt posts we’ve done, but I will say this: After someone dies, we feel guilty for so many reasons. For things we did, for things we didn’t do, for things we knew or didn’t know, for decisions we made or didn’t make, for things we said or didn’t say, etc.
We can get stuck in these vicious cycles where we rehash everything. Sometimes our guilt is warranted, sometimes not so much. Either way, we often have people telling us not to feel guilty… which of course isn’t helpful at all. We can’t just will our way out of feelings (But wouldn’t it be nice if we could?). But what do you DO about guilt? How do you move forward? There is ultimately only one choice, and that is to find a way to forgive yourself. I know, I know. Easier said than done.
Let’s begin by doing a refresher on what forgiveness is and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t. There are many definitions of forgiveness, but the one we prefer is:
A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior to one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her.”(Enright et al., 1998).
An important point there: Forgiveness does NOT mean excusing something or eliminating the mistake. It means you make decisions about what to let go of and what to hold on to.
Now the big question: How? Last time we focused on forgiving others, but the one thing that can be even harder than forgiving others is forgiving ourselves.
- Embrace Guilt. This feels like a weird way to start the process of self-forgiveness, but it isn’t (I promise). It’s important to know that guilt has value, and that self-forgiveness does not mean you will no longer feel remorse or guilt. You can forgive yourself—releasing the feelings of resentment and negative judgment—while still having a healthy level of guilt that stays with you. If this concept confuses you, read this amazing post by a mom who lost her daughter and embraces her guilt. While you’re at it, read this post we wrote on why you should never tell a griever not to feel guilty.
- Figure Out What You Need to Forgive Yourself For. This may seem obvious, but sometimes we have generalized feelings of guilt and we don’t even know what for. If you’re going to do the work of self-forgiveness, it must be specific. This can be a very concrete process and you may want to write it down.
- Consider the Difference Between Guilt and Shame. It’s important to be aware of the feeling that you made a mistake or did something wrong… and then the feeling that, by extension, you are a bad person. We all screw up. Sometimes those screw-ups are small, sometimes they’re huge, and sometimes they’re downright devastating… But there is a distinct and important difference between doing a bad thing and being a bad person. It’s important to consider whether what you’re feeling is guilt alone, or has it bled into shame. Research has shown that those who feel guilt, rather than shame, are less likely to make the same mistakes.
- Remember Your Motives. Sometimes we are quick to beat ourselves up about each and everything we did or decision we made before a death using the benefit of hindsight. It’s important to remember what you knew at the time, why you did what you did, and what your intentions were.
- Sit With Discomfort. Guilt is a painful and unpleasant emotion so, no surprise, our instinct can be to avoid it (Read Grief Emotions Aren’t Good Or Bad, They Just Are). The first step in working toward self-forgiveness is acknowledging exactly what we feel guilty for and facing it directly.
- Accept That Guilt is Not Always Rational. You may try to reason your way out of guilt and fail. Others may try to reason with you that you should not feel guilty and also fail. It’s important to remember that, though sometimes guilt is rational, sometimes it’s not. In other words, we may continue to feel guilt even when we know we didn’t have control over a situation, we had good intentions, etc.
- Consider If You Are Holding Yourself to a Different Standard. Would you forgive a friend or family member in the same situation? Or would you tell them to forgive themselves? If so, consider why you are treating yourself differently than you would someone else. What would allow you to forgive that person and not yourself?
- Talk to Your Loved One. Okay, of course, you can’t literally do that… But you know your loved one amazingly well and can imagine what they would say. Write a letter to yourself as your loved one, or tell yourself what you think your loved one would tell you if they were here to discuss your guilt with you.
- Consider How You Have Grown. Guilt and remorse often make us better people. They help us become better people, by making us avoid making the same mistakes again. Take the time to think about how you have learned and grown from your mistakes. We have a great journal prompt for this!
- Make Amends. This one can also be tricky because, oftentimes, the person you really want to forgive you or with whom you want to make amends is the person who died. So sometimes this means considering what else you can do that may symbolically make amends. For example, read how I remember my sister’s boyfriend, John, who died of an overdose.
- Actively Decide to Forgive Yourself. When it comes to grief and forgiveness, at some point you have to be active. Sitting around waiting for guilt (or grief) to disappear without working at it is not a good plan. Once you have taken the steps above, make an active decision to let go of the self-judgment, criticism, and resentment you are carrying. Yes, it won’t be easy. Yes, it might not come right away… But make an active choice to let go.
- Listen to a Self-Forgiveness Meditation. These meditations can often help connect us with forgiveness, and/or reinforce our active decision to forgive. There are many online, but here is one example.
What has your experience been with grief and forgiveness? Leave a comment to let us know! And don’t forget to subscribe to get our new posts sent to you by email.