Something that truly breaks my heart is when I talk with grievers who are dealing with guilt and regrets after a loved one dies.
They share how they felt they could have prevented the death of their loved one, or they had an argument (or regret) right before their loved one’s death.
Some never had an opportunity to make things right with their loved one…or say, “I’m sorry”…or…”I love you.“
I also talk to other grievers who feel guilty for words left unspoken or not getting a second chance to say what was truly on their heart.
Some weren’t sure how to feel after a family member or friend’s death because the relationship was complicated (I’ll be writing about this topic – Complicated Grief – in an upcoming blog post).
I can genuinely relate to the pain of each of these situations.
I’ve been through times of grief where my guilt and regrets competed with my grief. It’s a terrible, agonizing feeling.
A few examples:
Right before my sister passed away, she and I got into an argument over something incredibly dumb. We very rarely argued so this particular incident was hurtful to the both of us. We both said things we ended up regretting. She was so mad, we didn’t talk for over a week. I ended up sending her flowers with a card that told her I was sorry and I missed her…but in my hurt and pride, I did not write the words, “I love you” on the card.
I’m grateful we worked the situation out before she died, but, boy, did this situation torment me for several years after she had passed away.
The guilt was thick…and my regrets ran deep. I asked myself a thousand times, “Why did you not tell her you loved her on that card?”…”Why didn’t you realize how sick she was or visit her in the hospital?”
I had told my sister I loved her tons of times throughout her life, and several times after that incident…we were best friends. And there’s no way I, or anyone else, could’ve realized how sick she was…she was only sick for a few weeks with what seemed to be seasonal allergies before she died. But after someone we love dies, we truly can balloon up every guilt and regret we have to a much bigger level.
Another situation of guilt and regret had deeply affected me a few years before my sister’s death:
I had a boyfriend who was going on a trip with friends. He came over to my house the night before he was to leave and told me he was considering calling off going…all I had to do was say the word. Not wanting to keep him from having fun, I told him I wasn’t going to tell him what to do…but I encouraged him to have a good time. We had plans the weekend after he was to get back so I explained we could spend time together then.
I’ll never forget my mom coming into my room with tears streaming down her face. She turned on the TV in my bedroom, and that’s when I saw on the news that my boyfriend had died while on his trip. Within half an hour, two of his best friends came over to my house to tell me what I already knew.
Seeing my mom’s tears, his friends faces…and especially seeing his mom at the funeral…left me with more guilt than I could handle. Why didn’t I tell him to stay?
It was several years before I had the ability to forgive myself for both of these situations.
I also had a lot of regrets to work through after a loved one committed suicide.
Guilt and regrets don’t just occur after a loved one’s death…they can also surface in many life situations: an event that destroys lives, adultery, poor decisions, parenting mistakes, estranged relationships, health/disability choices, a bad career move, abortion, unspoken grief events, not making wise life, marriage, or family choices, etc.
I know many people who struggle with deep guilt and regret from similar situations…stemming from both death and life decisions…or feeling as though they could’ve prevented a tragedy from happening…or unspoken words to loved ones who have passed on…or arguments and conflicts that never got resolved…or deep regrets from not communicating in a better way…or suicide issues…or holding back affection…or – and this is a big one – playing the tortuous game of “If only” and “I wish I would’ve”…etc.
So what do you do with regrets and guilt that torment you?
A few things that helped me significantly (and these may help you too):
1. Talking to God about the guilt and regrets and asking Him to heal your broken heart.
2. Asking God to ask loved ones for their forgiveness and asking Him to tell them how much you love and miss them.
3. Realizing that your loved one totally forgives you…In Heaven, they are not holding anything against anyone that had been said or done on earth. What once upset them here does not even remotely upset them in Heaven. They have forgiven others … and they truly want their loved ones to forgive themselves and live a purpose-filled, lovely life.
4. Writing your loved one a note about the situation then shredding it. As you shred it, imagine the situation being completely finished.
5. Forgiving yourself and realizing everyone is fallible. Hindsight is always 20/20. If each person would’ve known better, they totally would’ve done better. 100%! Our loved ones would want for us to know that they would’ve done better too.
6. I made it a priority to learn valuable lessons from my guilt and regrets. This isn’t always easy…but the lessons are there.
7. I chose and made a commitment not to ever repeat the same mistakes from this day forward. As you learn, you grow. Nobody will ever be perfect, but we can choose to continually improve ourselves daily.
I learned through guilt and regrets powerful lessons can be learned. I learned through the first situation to use my words much more carefully, to work out problems quickly, and to forgive others and myself…I also learned to say, “I love you,” to my loved ones more frequently. As a result, I am now very mindful of how I treat my loved ones and consistently treat them as well as I possibly can. I also am very mindful of considering the cost of any decisions I make.
I also learned life is precious. People can be here today and gone tomorrow. I do my best to not take loved ones – or life – for granted.
Grieving is tough. Navigating guilt and regrets is hard. But God is in the details and is willing to bring healing – if you look to Him.
God was so good to show me two Bible verses that gently hugged my broken heart and brought it back to life:
Psalms 139:16, “Your eyes saw me when I was formless; all my days were written in Your book and planned before a single one of them began.”
Deuteronomy 32:39, “See now that I alone am He; there is no God but Me. I bring death and I give life… No one can rescue anyone from My hand.”
Every day of my loved ones’ lives – their birth date and their death date – were pre-planned. I didn’t have the power to prevent tragedy.
God also surprised me with a bittersweet revelation: since Heaven is the ultimate goal…I could emotionally release my loved ones, my guilt and regrets, and all of my feelings to God and be thankful for blessing my loved ones with the gift of living with Him in paradise. Blaming myself was futile too…none of my loved ones would come back to earth if given the choice.
Guilt and regrets are agonizing when we look at things from an earthly perspective. When we look at things from an eternal perspective, that’s where we find healing.
If you are in the valley of guilt and regrets, I encourage you to pour your heart out to God. You have carried the guilt long enough. Carrying guilt and regrets may make you feel as though you are atoning for what happened in the past, but there is a better way: take your broken heart, guilt, and regrets to God, lay them in His loving hands, and ask Him to take these burdens from you. He has the power and ability to lift them as He truly heals your heart.
We cannot do anything about the past…but we can learn valuable lessons and choose to do better from this day forward.
God wants to take all of the heavy burdens life throws at us…and we continually need to allow Him to.
Life is precious! We need to spend time recovering our life, as much as we seek to recover from grief, guilt, and regrets.
I pray God truly and genuinely heals everybody’s heart who is going through guilt and regrets.
Gratitude, healing, & many blessings,
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