by Jan McDaniel
"Guilt is an emotion."
A good while after my husband's death, I felt shocked to hear those words. I had thought the self-accusing finger of guilt pointed to facts, a common reaction when loss is by suicide. Startled, I realized I should put some thought (research) into the "shoulda, woulda, coulda's" that burned into my brain as blame turned inward to all those things I might have done differently to stop my husband's suicide. Shouldering the responsibility did shield me from facing the loss itself for a while, but processing the guilt I felt was an integral step in healing just as so many other things were.
This is what I learned. A free download of this material as a .PDF file is on Way for Hope's Resources page.
Battling Guilt and Regret
Sometimes these two emotions can collapse into each other, one counselor told me, and it can be difficult to distinguish one from the other.
Guilt is an emotion that happens automatically within the body. It comes from feeling responsibility or shame and can occur even when uncontrollable circumstances exist. Sorting "true guilt" – for which there is some deserved blame and which we use to make positive changes – from "false guilt" – which is often chronic and damaging to our lives (sometimes called toxic guilt) – is vital to healing after traumatic loss, such as loss to suicide.
Regret is a feeling of sorrow that something happened ... or that one did or said something (or did not do or say something) he wishes he had done differently ... even when these thoughts come in the form of an uncontrollable, emotional earthquake. Distress, confusion, and pain are difficult to think through. And, of course, it is natural to regret that the loss happened at all. Additionally, life is now changed, futures are uncertain and certainly not what had been expected. Recovery is so complex. But healing does happen, new life does emerge, and a duality does grow within us. One finds ways to live with this loss, to have both moments of regret and happiness.
Coping techniques and strategies make a huge difference in the aftermath of suicide. Haunting thoughts, extreme emotions and nervous systems that are not working properly due to the effects of stress on the body need care. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other conditions need professional treatment, but there are things a person can do to aid in his or her own healing. Self-care includes purposely diverting thoughts that threaten to overwhelm you. Hold up your hand and say, “Stop!” Consciously move to some other activity, or replace traumatic memories with memories of your loved one in happier times. Distract your mind. Move your body. And believe that this will become easier.
1. Look up definitions for “guilt” and “regret.” What is the difference between these two terms? Use a journal, notebook, or index cards to answer the following questions.
Why do I feel I have done something wrong?
How did my words or actions hurt someone I love?
Was what happened my fault?
2. Now, check each of your answers with the following questions.
Does my answer indicate true guilt or false guilt?
Were there other factors?
How much control did I really have?
What complicated the situation?
Regret - Journal Prompts
1. Finish the sentences below.
I will always love (insert name of loved one) because ________________________.
I wish I could have ____________________________________________________.
I wish my loved one could have _________________________________________.
I regret these things: __________________________________________________.
2. Write your own definitions of “guilt” and “regret.”
If you are struggling with these issues, taking action can help. The looping thoughts may take time to quiet, but they will soften as you continue to tell yourself the truth. What happened to your loved one was a tragedy, one that couldn't be stopped in that moment. For whatever reasons, you and your loved one were not in control of what happened though we wish we had been.
Way for Hope
Losing someone you love is difficult, but it can mean a lot to hear from others traveling similar paths.
Follow on Instagram!
Links of Value:
Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Word of God
"My Story" Big Daddy Weave
"Hope in Front of Me"
The Joy FM
Traumatic loss or preexisting conditions can worsen mental health. Use this info graphic to find help.
"Take Charge of Your Mental Health" - a free download from www.nami.org: