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Guilt and Our What if’s….

When we hear on the news of senseless shootings or tragic accidents where innocent victims are killed, our first thoughts may be “why” or “how could this happen”; often followed with “what if”. What if I hadn’t let my teen go to that party, or what if. . .

Senseless tragedies are emotionally charged events that beg answers to our questions. But in the not-so-charged arena of life, we also ask questions of ourselves about our losses, especially the “what if’s” of our decisions that leave us with lingering doubts, guilt and anger.

Working through guilt

Guilt is an emotion that helps us correct behaviors. It indicates we have done something wrong and we need to make amends. Guilt along with shame helps us say we’re sorry. But when faced with an irretrievable loss, we may be plagued with a guilt that is misplaced, blown out of proportion or not even applicable to the situation.

What if I hadn’t put my wife in a nursing home, would she have died with family around her; what if I hadn’t said such hurtful things; what if my friend lived and I had died; what if I had realized the depth of his despair, would I have been able to prevent the suicide? What if. . . The list is endless.

Coming to terms with our loss means we come to terms with ourselves as human beings. If the guilt is appropriate to the event, such as driving drunk and hurting somebody, then guilt is an important precursor to turning your life around. Hanging on to guilt beyond its purpose, however, will not change the past and beating yourself up will not bring you peace. Forgiveness enables us to take positive action instead of remaining in a past we cannot change.

When we feel guilt disproportionate to any actions we may have taken, or because we couldn’t know the future, guilt can become toxic. Caring individuals often take more responsibility than is either appropriate or realistic for what is happening.

We cannot change the past; but we can change our responses. If you are feeling disproportionate guilt over a loss, ask yourself the following questions.

• Could I really have done something different?

• What information do I have today that I didn’t have back then?

• Am I taking responsibility for things that were out of my control?

• Am I trying to be responsible for other people’s actions?

• Is my guilt a way to ease some of the pain I feel without having to correct something?

• Is it keeping me from grieving my loss, letting go and moving forward?

Making sense of what happened often means coming to terms with what doesn’t make sense. Acceptance means we stop struggling for answers we may never get. Acceptance means we give ourselves permission to let go without answers.

While it is appropriate and necessary to question, sometimes all we can do is accept that we make mistakes, others make mistakes, accidents can be tragic and there may be no rhyme or reason to it. We can use our emotional responses to propel us forward in positive ways. In the end, however, acceptance is the realization we are human and live in a less than okay world.

 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC


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