Grief and Forgiveness Part Two: 12 Tips for Self-Forgiveness

Remember when I wrote a post on grief and forgiveness and I promised I would follow it up with a second post on grief and self-forgiveness?   Come on, think reeeally hard.  Go way back in your WYG memory.  Alright, or not.  It was a solid 6 months ago, you don’t commit all 0ur articles to memory. So I’ll just link back to it for you and suggest you go back and check it out if you want a good intro to forgiveness in general.  And while you are reading some recommended pre-reqs for this post, I would also recommend this post on guilt and grief (thinking about the shoulda, woulda, couldas) and this one on guilt vs regret.

Alright, caught up on the intro 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.  Because what is step one in coping with tough feelings?  You guessed it: acknowledging them.  Sitting with them.  Feeling their horrible, intrusive, sometimes totally overwhelming presence.  And guilt is a doozy.  Not only that, but it is an incredibly normal and common grief emotion.  Research proves it.  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 I just linked to here, 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, things we knew or didn’t know, decisions we made or didn’t make, things we said or didn’t say.

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?  Ultimately there is but one choice, and that is to find a way to forgive yourself.  Easier said than done, right?

First, let’s do a refresher on what forgiveness is, and 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 in Enright and North 1998).  Some important points 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.

  1. Embrace guilt.  This feels like a weird way to start the process of self-forgiveness, but it isn’t.  It is important to know that guilt has value and 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, and this post we wrote on why you should never tell a griever not to feel guilty.
  2. 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 are 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.
  3. Consider the difference between guilt and shame.  It is 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 are huge, sometimes they are unimaginably devastating, but there is a distinct and important difference between doing a bad thing and being a bad person.   It is important to consider if what you are 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.
  4. 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 is important to remember what you knew at the time, why you did what you did and what your intentions where.  Learn more about this distinction in our post about guilt vs. regret.
  5. Sit with the discomfort.  Guilt is a painful and unpleasant emotion so, no surprise, our instinct can be to avoid it.  The first step in working toward self-forgiveness is acknowledging exactly what we feel guilty for and facing it directly.
  6. 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 is important to remember that, though sometimes guilt is rational, sometimes it is not and we continue to feel guilt even when we know we didn’t have control over a situation, we had good intentions, etc.  This means that some pieces of forgiveness may be rational, others may not.
  7. 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?
  8. 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.
  9. Consider how you have grown.  Guilt and remorse often make us better people.  It helps us become better people, avoiding the same mistakes again.  Take the time to think about how you have learned and grown from your mistakes.  We have a journal prompt to help you out with loving your regret.
  10. Make amends.  This one can also be tricky because often the times 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.  You can check out an example here of what this looks like for me.
  11. 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 just 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.  It won’t be easy, it might not come right away, but make an active choice to let go.
  12. Listen to a self-forgiveness meditation.  There are many out there and these meditations can often help connect us with forgiveness and 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!

July 9, 2018

14 responses on "Grief and Forgiveness Part Two: 12 Tips for Self-Forgiveness"

  1. Hi
    2 months back my husband died of cancer. He had two sons from his first marriage. They burried him without even informing me. What makes me feel guilty is that I had left him after he had hit me. He called me saying he was dying and asked me to let him see our daughter I shouted at him calling him names I told him its ok if he dies .. all because I didnt believe him. Now he is dead. He is dead. I killed him because I left him. He begged me several times to forgive him . He had told me that he would die without me. He died in loneliness because of me. Pls help me I cant forgive myself

    • Hi nasrin …I’m so sorry about your pain. Its a tremendous burden for you to carry this pain.

      I know by responding that I may not say the right thing– so please forgive me is I say something not so helpful.

      I feel that you didn’t hv the knowledge you have now or you know you perhaps would have done things differently. There was a reason you didn’t believe him about his illness. Perhaps he didn’t quite tell you the truth before? For whatever the reason reason you didn’t believe him it was valid at the time….secondly, when you didn’t let him see your daughter, again you had reasons you didn’t that seemed valid then. Perhaps you had lots of hurt toward him what he had done to you? Maybe now you feel your anger was irrational after his passing? But again at the time you truly couldn’t help it because you would have done things differently with what you know now. I’m so sorry for you are going thru this terrible, terible pain.

      I know you probably heard all this. And you know about hindsight bias”– we see everything we did as totally horrible and even exaggerate the negative we did. The whole past is skewed when we feel guilt. Is it possible to believe that he would want you to forgive yourself? I know its very hard.

      I hesitate to write about my situation because its about my beloved cat. And some people might not think that its the same. I’m not telling you my guilt story to compare our pain but to share my pain of guilt in losing my beloved cat of 17. I put him thru so many medical procedures the last 3 pluss years. I never wanted to hv him in anyway hang on where he suffered. But one thing led to another. I gave him horrible meds everyday that made him afraid and run and hide. I did so much to him. I also felt the stress I put him thru with treatments along with the uncleaned polluted dirty air in my home contrubed to him giving up and dying. I also I didn’t spend much time as I should hv. And I done more also. All I can say is I was stressed, overwhelmed, had my own health issues, that I didn’t do what I should hv done at all. I have even been suicidal many days. My ex- girlfriend told me I tortured him by going to far and should hv put him down a long time ago and she said she wanted me to commit suicide also. Although I am hurt by what she said, I forgive her because she struggles with her own pain. And if she wasn’t in her own deep pain in life, then she wouldn’t want to do say what she did. And I truly don’t want her to feel torturous guilt in the rest of her life especially if o passed before her or God forbid I did end my life.

      I give you this example not because in anyway my situation is the same as yours. I don’t know what its like to be in your situation.. But I know the guilt is damaging enough to want to die. And for feeling I neglected or tortured him for over 3 yrs because I was so unsure, scared, or selfish at times, I’m learning that I’m exaggerated what negatively did. That I’m not seeing all the good in me. Another words I feel you arnt seeing all the good you’ve done for others. Maybe your husband forgave you in the end and you never knew. Also I would feel he would now want you now. I don’t know. But the more we are at peace with ourselves the more we want others who harmed us to be forgiven. I think given your suffering at the time you said the things you may be able to see you were in pain and did the best you can with the pain you had. I truly do believe that.

      This may be not helpful to you —or hopefully not more damaging to you. However, my hope you can heal from this awful pain you are now dealing with. My thoughts are with you. I feel without knowing you that you must be a good, loving person and don’t deserve the pain you feel right now. I know you feel you deserve this suffering. But I don’t think so

      Be well, Narsin… Hope you find peace somehow soon.

  2. My biggest regret also, I was married to a wonderful man but only after he died did I realise it. If only I could turn the clock back to show him how much I loved him.

  3. My husband and I took our 2 dogs on a walk a few weeks back. It was supposed to be short but it was a trail with the only exit being the beginning and it wasn’t until we reached the point I wanted to turn around that my eldest, 5, started to act tired and unwilling to move. It got hot and it was only getting hotter so we took breaks and gave them all our water but I also really tried to rush them back out to seek A/C and more water. I really thought it’d be best to just get them out. She had a heatstroke and passed less than 0.2 miles from the exit. My youngest, only 18 months, was seemingly fine so I got him shade and water and left him with a Samaritan while we wrapped her up in her seat cover and kissed her good bye. When I came back for him I realise that the stress of the situation also pushed him over the edge. I was so distraught I just couldn’t think straight, I let the park ranger talk to the vet and make the right moves but she got him too cold. I never saw him fully conscious again but he got to be held and kissed and apologised to the whole drive home and got to lay in his spot at home a few minutes before he passed as well. (We did also bring him into a vet but they gave him a death sentence and treated me like he was dying because I locked him out or left him in a car, but I didn’t! I was WITH him, and it wasn’t even an hour out, and it was COOLER than our usual walks at first) I feel like I killed my best friends, my children that I promised to take care of and keep out of harms way. The products of mine and my husbands love. I just wanted to show them a good day, they LOVED walks and adventures but I feel like I pushed them and killed them.

  4. At “now the big question: How?”, I thought maybe this would be the first article I’ve ever seen not to just say “just forgive yourself”. But no, the last step is… “Just forgive yourself”. As you yourself wrote – how the hell do I do that?

  5. Dealing with the loss of our family cat who had diabetes (two days ago). He began eating less and with the weight loss I should have adjusted his insulin dosage but didn’t know this. His sugar got too low and he began seizing and died. It just seems so obvious now that I should have lowered the amount of insulin. I feel responsible!

  6. I can’t write to my loved one, my sister passed away on May 21, 2016. My mom only will discuss her feelings and not listen to mine, and her son is struggling as I am. We don’t live near each other either. My husband and daughters comfort me… but no matter how they try, they don’t understand. I don’t know where to turn! I use to love being out and about around people, now I isolate myself at home with only my close family. I know I need to talk to someone, a counselor or therapist, but I’ve never had to do that, and have no idea how to start the process. I do know if my sister could, she would kick my backside!

  7. Family rowed after mothers death I wrote very hurtful letters to family members after telling them some hurtful things family members said about them noe there not talking me

    • For Anne, can you write more letters but express your regret at causing pain and how you now realise the shock and emotion of grief caused you to write those first letters. Life is too short not to try and make amends as soon as we realise our mistakes.

  8. Forgiveness happens on so many levels, love, friendships and even in the workforce – all places where we forgive one another for different reasons. Writing about it connects a writer to the reader and helps him relate to his own experiences. A good essay grabs the reader’s attention and holds it until the end, leaving him with lasting impact. Superb essays often get used repeatedly as examples of good writing and good messages.

  9. What I regret most is not showing my dear husband more of the small, simple daily kindnesses that could have enriched his life.

    Huge mistake and one I deeply regret.

  10. Well done. This is a really engaging, thought-provoking article on what is a very delicate subject.
    From my experience with RHC Funerals, I would very much stress the importance of accepting the past and moving on with your life. Although it might be hurtful at first, write down what you would have done differently if given the chance and realize that you acted as best as you could at the time. Recognizing our mistakes is the biggest step towards forgiving ourselves for them. Once you do that, you’re ready to put it behind you and move on.

  11. Once again a lovely article. As I read this one I thought, this all rings true, but gosh the steps to ease the guilt are complicated and long. Not because you made them complicated and long, but because they just are. Forgiveness (of myself, or others) is not my strong point.
    So much further I need to go on my journey.
    Thank you for all your articles and wonderful website. You are my online support team.

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