Grieving Without Regret

grieving without regret

Can there be grieving without regret?  The experience of this strong emotion is both individual and universal to one extent or another.

We experience regret when we look back on our actions and  feel we should or could have done something differently.  In my article “When an Ex-Spouse Dies”, there are hundreds of comments from readers who experience regret following the death of their ex-spouse.  Emotions from their past stirred unexpected feelings of both sadness and regret even when many had moved on to new relationships and marriages.

Is it regret or guilt?

Sometimes guilt and regret seem to be the same thing when in fact they aren’t.  Guilt is that emotion we experience when we know something is morally wrong.  As I said above, regret pings our mind wondering if we could have done something differently.

Letting go of despair

I so often hear from those grieving when they are in a state of despair. They haven’t learned how to move through grief.  There is a great passage by Jerry Sittser the author of “A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss.” that offers perspective:

Many people are destroyed by loss because, learning what they could have been but failed to be, they choose to wallow in guilt and regret, to become bitter in spirit, or to fall into despair. While nothing they can do will reverse the loss, it is not true that there is nothing they can do to change. The difference between despair and hope, bitterness and forgiveness, hatred and love, and stagnation and vitality lies in the decisions we make about what to do in the face of regrets over an unchangeable and painful past. We cannot change the situation, but we can allow the situation to change us. We exacerbate our suffering needlessly when we allow one loss to lead to another. That causes gradual destruction of the soul. This destruction of the soul represents the tragedy of what I call the “second death,” and it can be a worse tragedy than the first. The death that comes through loss of spouse, children, parents, health, job, marriage, childhood, or any other kind is not the worst kind of death there is. Worse still is the death of the spirit, the death that comes through guilt, regret, bitterness, hatred, immorality, and despair.

Is Steps to dealing with regret and guilt

Helen Fitzgerald in The Mourning Handbook: A Complete Guide for the Bereaved offers several suggestions for dealing with regrets and guilt. Although this is an older publication many of these steps are practical and useful.

1. Begin by identifying what is causing you to feel regretful or guilty. Make a list and determine what causes you to feel guilty and what causes you to feel regretful. Writing the list may in itself be beneficial. Look at your list. Think about what you could do to reduce the regrets.
2. Be careful not to second-guess yourself. Don’t be overly critical of your behavior. People are generally doing the very best they can during a stressful time. Fitzgerald says “don’t assign greater strength to yourself now than those circumstances would have allowed.” We are not super human beings.
3. Try to be objective. If the guilt is real you may need professional help to deal with it. But if the guilt is more your own way of looking at the situation, talk about it with a trusted friend. Perhaps another person can help you look at the situation differently.
4. Plan to do something to eliminate your guilt. Maybe there’s a task you’ve been putting off doing or something you could do for someone else. You need to decide how much you should do in order to let go of your feelings of guilt.
5. Be ready to forgive yourself. If that seems hard to do; then think about why it is difficult.
6. Think about what you have learned. Ask yourself what you could do to prevent having similar feelings in the future. If you wish you had expressed your feelings of love then resolve to do it now to people you care about.
7. Finally, don’t forget the many good things you did for that person. Remember those good things when you start feeling bad about yourself. Writing them down may be helpful.

Forgiving yourself

I think the most important step in releasing regret is simply forgiving yourself.  Remember you made the best decision you could at the moment in time when you made it. Second guessing your decision is futile, but honoring your decisions and forgiving yourself for feeling regret is a big step to healing.

We can’t change the past – we can only make different decisions for the future.  Saying out loud “I forgive you and I love you” is powerful.  If you are a person of faith you can pray to the person who has passed and tell them your regrets and then let them go.

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