Guilt and the Emotional Collage

Someone close to you has died – spouse, parent, child, dear friend. Now picture a collage made of pieces of tissue paper glued to an art board. The pieces are different sizes and colors. Each color represents a feeling and the size of each piece represents the intensity of that feeling. Perhaps red for anger, blue for sad, gray for lonely, purple for frustrated, yellow for relief, black for guilt.

My own grief experience has taught me that the sizes of the pieces/feelings change over time and, occasionally, disappear and new feelings surface. Often it’s a new color, like gold for happy memories, or maybe a smaller version of the original colors, like blue for sad.

The most difficult feeling for me is guilt. Others have told me that this is true for them, also. Like everyone else I’ve done or said things I regret or not done or said things I ought to have. When the other person is living I can ask for forgiveness or make amends in some way. Even if the other person was not wholly innocent, that’s not really all that important.

Guilt can be a motivator to do what needs to be done – reconcile if possible. What’s important is taking ownership for my part of the problem – whatever it is that I did or failed to do. Sometimes the offended party won’t accept my offer and I can’t do anything about that.  I have little or no control over the behavior of others, but I do have control over mine if I take it. I’ve done what I could and that helps me move on.

When the opportunity to seek forgiveness or make amends is lost, such as when a person dies, guilt can become a (if not the) dominant feeling in your loss. I’ve been there, and many I’ve known have been there.

The guilt burden some people carry is far beyond what I’ve experienced. I think of a young boy in my group at a bereavement camp who had a bitter argument with his dad before going to school and his dad took his own life that afternoon. I think of a friend who went home from the hospital for some rest and her husband died in the night and feels she missed the opportunity for one last touch or word. I think of how a business colleague didn’t confront his dad about his drinking and his dad died in an auto accident that also killed another person. I think of the parents of a boy who died by suicide because he was drinking, damaged the family car and was afraid to go home. I think of the wife in a bad marriage who wished her husband dead and he fell off a ladder and died. How do you deal with any of that? Remarkably, people do. They survive and move on – changed forever.

I wish that I had easy answers to coping with guilt in such tragic situations. I have some experience based on what I and others I know have done have found helpful:

  • Recognize that relationships in life can be difficult at times for most of us. Learning to forgive ourselves and draw from the experience lessons that make us better persons.
  • Be the kind of person we lost would be proud of. We can still offer our regrets and ask forgiveness in a letter addressed to the one who died. And, as someone I know, write a letter back from the one who died expressing understanding and forgiveness.
  • When the guilt burden just won’t ease or go away find a counselor. I’ve done so twice in my life and found it profoundly helpful. Others have found help in attending a bereavement support group where others truly understand the feeling. Comfort Zone Camp plays the same role for young children and adolescents. Others discover solace in a faith community. There are many paths to healing.
  • Remember the collage will change during your grief journey. It is when we move towards the hard feelings like guilt, rather than away from them, that the healing will occur.

The time frame is different with each of us. Grieving is a lifetime journey and not an overnight trip. Add gold to your collage by capturing the good memories, becoming the best you can be, helping others on their journey through your experience and treating yourself gently.

Photo Credit.


  1. Sandi Elzinga said on November 18, 2010 at 4:17 pm ... #

    I wished I had known after my husband died, how common guilt is. Would have saved me a lot of grief!
    Thanks for your informative article.

    GriefWalk: Hope Through The Dark Places

  2. Kim Go said on November 18, 2010 at 10:40 pm ... #

    I love this article, thank you for sharing your insights!

  3. veterinary technician said on December 4, 2010 at 10:37 am ... #

    My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

  4. Patti Jacobs said on November 1, 2012 at 1:16 pm ... #

    MY son died 05/25/2012 from a drug overdose. I had not seen nor talked to him in 7 years because of all the “Bad” things that had happened from his constant drug use. The guilt I carry now is so heavy.

  5. Cherie Hulet said on February 7, 2013 at 1:56 am ... #

    We were married 62 wonderful years.I know I didn’t tell him enough how much I appreciated him. I just hope he knows how much I miss him!

  6. Tammy said on August 28, 2013 at 9:58 pm ... #

    In just a few days it will be two years ago that we lost our younger brother to an alcohol overdose. It had been several years since my sister and I had been in contact with him due to his self destructive behavior. We had both tried to help in the past only to feel hurt and helpless.
    Our parents divorced when I was 21, my sister 19 and our brother 15. My father moved away and soon after remarried and started a new life without us. My mother was angry and bitter and decided it was time to live her life. She too pretty much walked out of our lives. My brother lived with her but she was often off traveling leaving him alone during most of his teen years.
    My sister and I tried to be there for my brother but she had moved 1500 miles away and I had a young family of my own. I always felt bad for the way my parents had treated my brother. Though he never said a word I know it was devastating to him.
    In spite of everything my brother was an amazing person. He had so many friends. He was always a really hard worker and to pride in everything he owned. After high school he mapped out a trip and road his bicycle from the east coast to the west coast and back again. He came back with wonderful stories and beautiful pictures and a new love of life.
    Somewhere after this time he seemed to lose his way. He began drinking and it quickly became out of control. I had him come and live with me. I have many memories of wonderful times together. But I also have sad memories of his out of control drinking. He got two DUI’s in a very short period of time. I could not sleep at night due to worry and I could not have that behavior around my two young children. I was moving to a new home and as difficult as it was I had to tell him he could not come with us. Shortly after that he lost a long time job and was pretty much homeless.
    My sister and I arranged for him to go live with her thinking a new start was what he need. All was fine for the first month and then the downward spiral began again. She too had a busy life and could not be responsible for him. She had to make the difficult decision to ask him to leave her home.
    He came back up north and moved back in with our mother. During all this time I had tried to talk to my father about what was going on with my brother. He is a recovering alcoholic so I thought perhaps he could help. His attitude was “He (my brother) just needs to quit the drinking and get his life together. He needs to “straighten up and fly right” . He had not seen my brother in 20 years when my brother past away.
    In the past years my brother went from a vibrent, funny wonderful person – to a sad in and out of homelessness alcoholic. The immense sadness of the situation haunts my sister and I every day.
    In three days it will be two years ago that I got the phone call that a man fitting my brothers description was found in the woods in the town we grew up in. He had nothing to identify him and had to be identified. It was my “little” brother. He had been dead for possibly a day. The handsome, sweet, athletic man was gone. He died in the woods behind the package store were he would by his alcohol . After he was taken away to the corner I cleaned up over 70 bottles of diffent sizes of vodka. It was obvious this was his latest routine. I wept for a week. I honestly thought I could die of a broken heart. He was 45 years old.
    At his service hundreds of people came to honor his memory. I was in awe. Everyone had a story. Everyone was so supportive and kind. I realized just how much he was loved. It was comforting but it did not take away our horrific grief and immense guilt of not saving him form himself. After all wasn’t that my job as his big sister? How could I failed so miserably? How could I have let this happen?
    Over the past two years I have gotten better about blaming myself for my brothers death. I am able to remember so many wonder times. I am now able to speak of of him with out crying (most times). My sister, brother and I were always close. The strength of my sisters and my relationship is what gets us through. We miss him every day… He took a piece of our hearts that day he went away. We put a memoriam in the local paper on the anniversary of his death. It reads the last to sentences of a poem I wrote for his service entitled “Our Greatest Loss”
    “If only wishes did come true… Our greatest loss would not be you”. If I did only have one wish I would have tried harder to get my brother the help he so desperately needed. I will always live with the guilt that I should have done more.

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