Guilt vs Regret in Grief

When it comes to grief, guilt and regret are words that get tossed around pretty regularly.  We all have things we wish we’d done differently, things we wish we had or hadn’t said, things we feel terrible about.  This isn’t our first time writing about these topics.  We have a post on guilt here and a journaling exercise on regret here.  We also have a post on why you should never tell a griever not to feel guilty (or anyone else, for that matter!)  But we have never really talked about the important differences between these emotions, in part because I had not really given this distinction much thought until this past week.  I was running a grief group and someone in the group expressed some things that she was feeling guilty about and another woman responded saying, “I think what you are feeling is regret and not guilt”.  This led to a lengthy discussion about guilt vs regret, which proved surprisingly helpful to a number of group members.

So, what is this distinction in definitions all about?  To start, it is important to say there is no agreement about the definitions of these words.  I checked numerous online and text sources and found variations among each definition.  So what I will share here are some common definitions, and definitions that my grief group found useful this week.  No promises that you will agree!   First guilt: many suggest guilt occurs when we do something that we know is wrong while we are doing it, typically for ethical, moral or legal reasons.  Regret, on the other hand, is the emotion we experience when we look back on an action and  feel we should or could have done something differently.  It differs from guilt in that we didn’t know or feel at the time that we were doing something wrong, or we didn’t actually have control over the situation.  Also, it typically is not that we did something that falls in that morally or legally wrong category, but rather a benign action (or inaction) that we later wish was done differently based on an outcome.

Just so we’re clear, let me give a grief-related hypothetical example, loosely based on examples we have heard.  Say my grandmother is very ill and I receive a call that she likely only has a couple days to live and very much wants to see me.   Due to my own internal ‘stuff’ I am avoiding the situation so I lie and say I can’t get off work and I don’t go see her before she dies.  In this case I feel guilty because I actively made a decision to do something inconsistent with my values and love for my grandmother.  Alternately, say I get the call and rush to see my grandmother.  I am on my way to see her when my flight is cancelled and by the time I arrive she has already died.  In this situation the feeling I experience is more accurately regret, rather than guilt.  I did not know the flight would get cancelled, my actions did not cause that to occur, and I did not intend for it to happen.

Okay, so now comes the big, who cares?  If both situations result in you feeling like crap and wishing you could change the past, why not lump them both together?  Here is where I would say thinking about language and really understanding the nuance of these two different emotions can help us in our coping and healing.  When we are feeling  guilt, the work we need to do around taking responsibility, forgiveness and self-forgiveness may look somewhat different than when we feel regret.  If it is guilt, seeking to make reparations (if possible), seeking forgiveness from others, and seeking self-forgiveness all may be part of the work that has to happen to manage your guilt.  You can check out a lot more detail on coping with guilt here.  When you find your emotion is more accurately regret, you may find that working through it involves things like acceptance and determining how we can learn and grow from the experience.  A great place to start is this journal prompt on embracing regret.

Now that I have made this sound black and white, let me muddy it up a bit.   You have probably realized already that there are a thousand situations where guilt and regret are blurry.  When it comes to grief, we often wish we had said or done things differently and, knowing now that the person died, we can’t help but want to impose that onto what we knew at the time.  We say, I should have know X could lead to Y.  Or I should have always behaved as though each day could be his last, as that is always a possibility.  We allow these should haves to morph our regrets into guilt.  In the example above, when my flight was cancelled, I might say ‘I should have known flights get cancelled, so I should have drive’.   In these situations it is important to reconize this thinking and, when possible, cut ourselves a break and accept that we can’t possibly live out lives acting on every possible outcome of every situation (easier said than done, I know).

These may sound like small and detailed distinctions, but if we want to truly heal as we grieve, it is important that we always try to clearly understand our own emotions.  Guilt and regret are biggies, so it is worth taking some time to reflect on these and get a better understanding of your own experience.  So no real advice today, no how-tos.  Just some food for thought to better understand our own emotions in grief.untitled3

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April 12, 2017

14 responses on "Guilt vs Regret in Grief"

  1. I am having huge trouble coping..I took care of my mother till she died yesterday
    I was usually pretty attentive in the daytime but at nite when the sundowners kicked in, I was short and screamed at her. She was clean and well groomed and I often rubbed her back for comfort. I cut her hair and did her nails, toes, bed changes and baths. I just did not have same patience at nite as daytime because I was tired and worried about bills, family etc.She lived with me..I provided a medical bed, bedside toilet and all the anemities of home..

    Ultimately….She would not eat and knowing she would die without food, that mostly was my frustration as she became frail and lost over 100 lbs as I watched. When I went to bathroom, or even to get mail, she would scream where are you. I had no time to myself at all and when I did it costs me so much. When I had to go out of town for work about every 2-3 months she always had someone with her24/7. Early on, before she was bedridden, she would pout and cause me so much stress before I left that I stopped telling her to avoid leaving in a beaten up state of mind.

    I obsessed with watching her on cameras in my absence and worrying about her. Thats all good except when you just break down and cry in front of her saying one day ” I dont deserve this life”, “why dont you appreciate me”. “Leave me alone”. I thought I was losing my mind so many times, I just broke down and cried.

    She just suddenly passed yesterday..I guess i have been seeing this for year, but jsut did not think it wodul JUST HAPPEN> and now I have tons of guilt as to how she must have felt. She did not want to be alone or die alone. As she was in pain, I called nurses and doctor who came to house and I was sitting talking to them in other room when she finally died. She had begged me not to let her die in a hospital so that was my main concern. I even went on porch for coffee because I could not bear to listen to her moan while waiting for doctor/nurses. I SHOULD HAVE BEEN STRONGER.. I REGRET I WASNT. I sat with her day and nite but I was absorbed in my own life and because she had demencia just did not get into crazy conversations with her feeling they would be meaningless

    How do I cope, what can I do now

    • Jill, I am so sorry for your loss. I hope you know that you did an amazing job caring for your mother. I work in hospice, many of my patients have dementia, and it is a very tricky disease, as you know well. People say and do all sorts of things they don’t mean. If it helps at all, I just want to tell you what a special person you are. Being a care giver for your mother with dementia is the HARDEST JOB ON THE PLANET! Yes, even over being a mother. The roles are reversed and now you are caring for the person who once cared for you, only now you are also caring for the person their disease makes them as well. It’s both the most rewarding and the most difficult job on the planet and no one will ever convince me otherwise. I won’t ever tell you not to feel guilty because guilt is a part of being human and that emotional is yours to feel if you need to. But I will tell you as many times as you need to hear it that you are strong, you are amazing, and you took wonderful care of your mother and she loves you so dearly for it. You gave her a gift that so many cannot. You gave her the gift of being home to die. And if you weren’t there when she passed, she planned it that way. Moms do this. They don’t want their babies to see them die so they slip away at moments when they are alone. I see it all the time. People will have someone with them 24 hours and they pass when the care giver goes to the bathroom. Please know that you are strong and wonderful and my wish for you is that this experience will only give you more strength in the long run although I know it hurts like hell right now. You deserved those few breaks you took and she knew that too, her disease just wouldn’t let her say it. Much love to you and best wishes for your journey. May you find peace in the happy memories you have of her and always know that you gave her a very special gift.

  2. I lost my wife 2 months ago. She was 55, and passed after 2 years of terrible illness, multiple operations and amputations (both legs). Finally she had a massive blood-clot in the brain, but still she hung on for 6 more weeks. Then the hospital informed us they were switching off her food (they had been feeding her intravenously). 4 days later she died. I had been sleeping next to her at the hospital every night for 3 weeks. The one night I was not there she died. She had Type 1 Diabetes since she was a child. We were only married for 5 years but I love her more than anything in the world. Now I’m overccome with regrets/guilt. Although I was a kind loving husband I didn’t show her as much physical affection as I should have. I assumed we had many more years together. Had I known we had such little time I would have been so much more attentive. I will never be able to forgive myself for this. And now its too late. she’s gone, and I can’t even say I’m sorry. I am haunted by every little cross word I said, or every time I was impatient with her. I actually feel now I deserved to lose her.

  3. Very helpful post. When my precious daughter in law was diagnosed with ovarian cancer (after a 20 year battle with multiple myeloma) I wanted to go to Florida to help her. she insisted that I wait until she had the cancer surgery. As things deteriorated i kept asking if I should come down and even a week before her death she insisted that she would need me when she had the cancer surgery. I finally booked a flight for my husband and i but 5 days before the scheduled trip she had to have an emergency colostomy due to intestinal blockage. The following morning my son called to say she’d been intubated and we might want to change our travel plans. We got on the next flight out but she died while we were enroute. I never got to see her again. So while I don’t have guilt, I do have regret. I am sorry that I didn’t follow my gut and go down…but then I also felt that I had to respect her wishes. Death is never easy. But I have no regrets where our relationship was concerned. I loved her and she loved me, a rare “in-law” relationship that was special. So thank you for defining what I feel. This grief journey is ever changing.

  4. Thank you. This was in my head and good to hear your explanation.

  5. Thank you for helping me…to define the differences helped me so much..

  6. Hello!
    It was actually in a John Edwards event that I came to another distinction .
    The Grief we feel, sometimes, is about LOST OPPORTUNITY.
    My father didn’t get to see his grandchildren grow up.
    They did not get to share THEIR life’s highlights with him.
    When you define it, it is also about LOST OPPORTUNITY for both the griever and the
    deceased. Defining this has helped me.
    ALSO…..some may find benefit in writing in AfterTalk.com’s “Private Conversations”.

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      Yes definitely! We write about this as “loss of hopes for the future”. We imagine we will have a certain life or people will be there for certain life events, so when they are not we grieve that loss.

  7. Hello –

    I’ve wrote in my journal, and I have a regular psychiatrist, therapist, and more recently – a grief counselor, who recommended that I take a look at What’s Your
    Grief. Being a person who has a blog at WordPress.com, it is easier for me to articulate my experiences and feelings in the form of prose.

    I had my first loss in August of 1996. My grandfather died of renal failure, just before his ninetieth birthday. I moved my family from South Carolina to Virginia, to be caregivers for my grandfather in late
    1993. My mother, who had a stroke in December 1989, was in a vegetative state from 1991 through 1998.

    So, in effect, I was a working musician, a ‘Mr. Mom’ to my kids, and I tried to maintain a marriage to a functional alcoholic. My father had begun to drink after my mother’s stroke, and while we’re on the subject – I was a binge drinker, and a marijuana user when I traveled out of town for musical engagements.

    Being the first-born son in a family based in Italian culture, I made the
    arrangements for the funerals, did the ‘meet and greet’ during these, and, the eulogies.

    So, to sum things up: my
    grandfather passed in 1996; my mother, who had been on life support for nearly eight years, finally succumbed to a massive infection in 1998; then, in 2006, my father died of cancer, after my family moved him in with us after our return to South Carolina (he came in 2000; his house had become a wreck in Virginia, and I was the only one to show up, clean things up, and help him move).

    Three deaths in a little less than a decade. Being the primary caregiver for all concerned, I never really got the chance to grieve. Since I wasn’t taking good care of myself, I’d been through back surgeries, my diabetes wasn’t being kept up with, and just before the economy tanked during the last part of the Bush II presidency, my marriage had officially ended; with no work, or support system, I ended up
    homeless, living out of an SUV and homeless
    shelters.

    Do I have guilt? Yes. While in a relationship during my homeless phase, I pawned over $14,000 dollars worth of musical gear, to keep us in housing (and groceries/sundries) at an
    extended stay hotel. I was promised that I would get it all back at tax time. Instead, our relationship ended – I was homeless once again, and all of the stuff we had in a storage unit – which included my parents’ cremains and family legacies – were no longer accessible to me, as the lady removed me from the account, and changed the access combination. It has been going on five years, and I finally contacted the storage facility and confirmed that my ex-girlfriend still had the storage unit, and now – with the help of law enforcement – I will be able to get my parents’ cremains and family legacies back, and the ‘guilt part’ of my life may get a ‘breather’. My kids, now approaching their mid-twenties – and, your’s truly – stay in touch. I’ve been drug-free for seven years, and alcohol-free for almost six… plus, I’ve got the most wonderful woman in my life (who nearly died in 2014 from the H1N1 Virus) – I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time, though my lady’s daughter passed away from cancer last year.

    Life changes can be tough. The loss of loved ones, even more so. Though I’m now disabled, I can still play, write, and sing music (thank you, M & M).

    I still have hope. D.

    I f

    • You have been through SO much and yet you are still here to talk about it! That says volumes about your strength of character. Keep playing you music, it soothes the soul!
      Linda

  8. After living in the same city as my older daughter, my husband and I decided to move to another area where we also had children. I did not tell her until we were ready to sell our home. She didn’t say much, but now since she passed away in March, I feel guilt that I should have told her sooner and possibly knowing her circumstances should not have moved.

  9. I feel both guilt & regret, I lost my wife of over 50 year 2/2/14
    I regret that I didn’t tell Her I love you more often.

  10. Thank you so much for giving me the language that clearly shows the distinction. In my grief group there was a discussion about true guilt, so I asked what would be the opposite of true guilt, working with the supposition that if there’s true guilt, then there must be an opposite, and what would be an example of false guilt. We had a long discussion, and eventually, I asked if the difference between the two would be intent. We all agreed that it seemed to be logical. So, I’m glad to know that we were on the right track.

  11. As I told last week, the man I loved was married to another woman. He had been my first love when we were 17. When he told me he had metastatic cancer my first thought was to jump on a plane and see him before it was too late. I live in NY and he lived in London, UK. He told me not to come so I didn’t go. I regret it and will do so for the rest of my life. I just wanted to hold him, kiss him and comfort him one last time. I understand it would have been awkward with his wife there but I was willing to subject myself to her anger. I think about it every day and I am so sorry I didn’t take a chance and just go. Yesterday was his birthday and all I could do was light a candle and say a prayer, not much comfort for me.

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