grief, death
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the thing about guilt

When a loved one dies – no matter how it happens – there are bound to be things that keep us up at night. Things we would change if we had the opportunity. When that death is by suicide, the guilt multiplies exponentially.

Allow me to spew forth the things I screwed up with Matt and will probably feel guilty about for the rest of my life.

  1. I went to an Ani DiFranco concert the week of Matt’s death and I didn’t invite him.
  2. Matt called and left a message for me the week of his death and I didn’t call him back.
  3. Once I told Matt he had “beady eyes”. I even have a recording of it.

I think that’s pretty much it. To you it may not seem like much, but to me, these 3 things have haunted me for 14 years.

Our minds don’t do us any favors when it comes to guilt. In our attempts to understand what has happened, we search through the mental catalogue of past events, things we’ve said, arguments we’ve had…searching for a possible reason WHY. Since our minds are also egocentric little buggers, we love to assume that WE played an incredibly significant role in the other person’s decision making process. Here are a few ways you can challenge your mind’s inclination toward blaming yourself and remaining stuck in guilt (Attention, ego: this may sting a bit.):

  1. Don’t give yourself that much credit. Look. I know we all like to think of ourselves as mega-important, but the fact of the matter is, we aren’t. We can’t think for others, feel for others, or live others’ lives for them. No matter what you did or how much it may have hurt, they chose how to respond to it. Would Matt have lived longer if I would have called him back? Maybe. Would I have been able to change the entire trajectory of his life, guaranteeing him years of happiness, health, and success? I can’t even guarantee that for myself!
  2. Hindsight is always 20/20. I think it might have been Louise Hay who said something like, “we are always doing the best we can, given the knowledge that we have, in that particular time and place.”
    Of course in hindsight, I picture Matt and I having the time of our lives at that Ani DiFranco concert! It would have been amazing! Afterwards he would have confided in me that he was depressed and I would have bought him coffee and he would have changed his mind and would have stood up for my wedding and would now be living happily ever after!
    But that’s me, looking back 14 years later, forgetting (or choosing to overlook) the real details. At the time of the concert, Matt was not always making healthy choices for himself. I was pretty sure he was going to get us into trouble at the concert. I was just about to start student teaching – you know, one of those jobs that required background checks, even in 2004 – and I was worried that something would happen. I was covering myself, basically. Yes, if I would have known it was his last week to live, I might have risked it. But at the time, given what I knew and what I considered important, I made the best decision I could.
  3. Depression is a serious illness. You wouldn’t try to cure someone’s flu by your mere presence, would you? Don’t believe that you can cure someone’s depression that way, either. I suppose, hypothetically, I could have quit school, moved into an apartment next door, and started a band with Matt. But I honestly don’t think it would have changed a thing. We can support each other as best we can, but we can only do so much. Depression claims so many lives each year. It’s the real deal. I have the cards and letters to prove that I did my best in cheering Matt up, but again: I couldn’t think, create, or feel on his behalf.
  4. They wouldn’t want you to beat yourself up. Is all of this guilt doing you one bit of good? Is it bringing them back to life? Would they even want you to feel guilty in the first place? Is this guilt life-giving, or is it sucking up your energy? Now that you realize how precious life is, do you want to waste one second of it with unproductive guilt?
  5. You’re assuming that something here went terribly wrong. This one hurts the most, but…death is a part of life. Yes, it feels unfair. Yes, it feels tragic. No, it doesn’t make sense. But maybe that’s not for you to figure out. Perhaps things unfolded as they were meant to unfold. This is not to say you don’t have every right to feel angry and destroyed about it, but it might be worth looking at the entire situation from a place of curiosity and wonder rather than trying to find the flaw.


So there you have it! Five very rational reasons for why you shouldn’t feel guilty!

Don’t feel better yet?

No kidding. Me neither. That’s the thing…we may very well understand that guilt is pointless, and yet we can’t get out of the endless loop of “should haves” and “shouldn’t haves”.

Do you know why we can’t “think” our guilt away? Because it’s a feeling.

And you should know by now that feelings tend to exist rather they’re rational or not.

Let’s try something else instead.

  1. Write about it. Write a letter of apology to the person who has passed, and then write a letter back to yourself from that person. What do you think they would tell you if they were here? (I’m 99.9% sure Matt would say he didn’t commit suicide because I said he had beady eyes.) Say the words you need to say, and then say the words you need to hear.
  2. Find the guilt in your body and then massage it with the breath. Yeah, yeah. I know this sounds a bit “out there”. Close your eyes and breathe. Scan the body for a place that holds a bit more tension, energy, or “feeling” than the rest (common places are the chest, throat or stomach). Now breathe in and out, focusing on that area of the body, sending the air to that location and massaging it with the breath. Can you even say “I love you” to this feeling? Show yourself some love and compassion, and let the feeling be there. You might be surprised by what happens next.
  3. Stop trying to push the guilt away. Guilt, like pain, is unfortunately part of the process. We may actually not ever be 100% guilt-free, but we can acknowledge it, accept it, and then become willing to love ourselves whether it’s there or not. We can work towards forgiveness. We can make space for guilt in our lives. Over time, that space will hopefully become smaller and smaller. One technique I really appreciate for this is affirmations:”I have totally made mistakes. I screwed it up. And I am still worthy and deserving of love, abundance, and all of the good things that life has to offer. I am willing to forgive myself.”
  4. Own it. When we look back at our past mistakes, we long to change something. Or we make excuses for ourselves. We try to reason it away. We negotiate.
    What about stopping the negotiation and analysis? What about taking a break from the reasoning? Instead, take responsibility for it.
    When we take responsibility for what we’ve done, we take back our power. We no longer whine about how unfair it all is, or how it could have been or should have been. We look the shitiness straight in the face and say “YEAH, that was crap. AND I DID THAT CRAP ALL BY MYSELF!!”
    When we accept responsibility, the inner dialogue stops. There’s nothing more to argue about. We remind ourselves that we are in control of our actions, and we always have been.
  5. The #1 remedy for guilt: you know the real reason why you feel guilty? It’s LOVE. This isn’t about you, this is about the fact that they’re gone. When you catch yourself feeling guilty, remind yourself: I’m feeling this way because I love them so much it hurts. I love you, (insert name here). And damn, I wish you were here with me.

In our struggle with guilt, may we remind ourselves that guilt is simply a feeling and that we are human beings who make mistakes. When we acknowledge our feelings, take responsibility for our actions, and choose love, we open ourselves up to freedom and peace.

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Photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash


  • Rebecca

    Guilt comes in so many forms and so many ways. We can feel guilty for so many different decisions in our lives. Your reminder about guilt being a feeling is so good! Massaging it with breath, feeling it, accepting it and realizing we are still worthy of love is something so many people need to try. I’m taking comfort in your experience and wisdom.

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