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.
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