Ep #29: Guilt and Regret in Grief

So many of my clients, when they first come to me, have frequent feelings of guilt surrounding their husband’s death. I know I had a lot of thoughts after Hugo died, like if I had only parked my car further along after my tire deflated, or what if we had left five minutes later?

These feelings of guilt and regret in grief are incredibly common for people in our position, so it’s important to know you’re not alone. However, even though these seem like rational emotions, maybe even deserved emotions, there is a thought process that is leading you there, so I want to unpack what you’re going through a little bit today.

Join me on the podcast this week and discover where guilt and regret come from, what the difference between guilt and regret is, and what we can do to ease the burden. Trust me, we are not helpless in this situation, and a new perspective on this might just change your life.

Listen to the Full Episode:

If you like what you’ve been hearing on this podcast and want to create a future you can truly get excited about even after the loss of your spouse, I invite you to join my Mom Goes On coaching program. It’s small group coaching just for widowed moms like you where I’ll help you figure out what’s holding you back and give you the tools and support you need so you can move forward with confidence.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • What causes so many widows to feel guilt after their husband’s death.
  • Why feeling guilt or regret during grief is completely normal, no matter the circumstance.
  • How we often mistake guilt for regret and why the difference matters.
  • The reason many people in our situation choose to blame themselves for their husband’s passing.
  • Why allowing emotions like guilt and regret actually prevent suffering in the long-term.
  • How I know that, despite how you might feel right now, you are not a prisoner to emotions like guilt and regret.


Featured on the Show:

  • Interested in small-group coaching? Request a Consultation here!

Full Episode Transcript:

Welcome to The Widowed Mom Podcast, episode 29, Guilt and Regret in Grief.

Welcome to The Widowed Mom Podcast, the only podcast that offers a proven process to help you work through your grief to grow, evolve, and create a future you can actually look forward to. Here’s your host, certified life coach, grief expert, widow, and mom, Krista St-Germain.

Hey there. Welcome back to another episode of the podcast. I have to tell you, first of all, you might hear giggling in the background. It will not be me. It is my children. Who knows, random giggling is just happening. But this is what life is like and the podcast has to get done. So, if you hear giggling, it’s not me, it’s my kids.

And if you hear wind, “Holy wind, Batman…” actually, there was thunderstorms last night where I live. I live in Kansas. And we had thunderstorms, lightning, the whole deal. And now today, we have had wind gusts that are 50-plus miles an hour. And so, if you hear wind in the background, that’s what’s happening, keeping it real on the podcast.

So, before we jump into guilt, I want to read to you this time something different, something I’ve never done before. I want to read to you a couple of victories that women who are part of my Mom Goes On group coaching program posted in our online community.

Now, I’m going to keep it anonymous, so you won’t know who posted what, but these are the types of things that I am loving about the Mom Goes On coaching program, which, if you don’t know, is basically the only small group coaching program for widowed moms that not only shows you how to create a future you can look forward to, but how to live life to the fullest using what I teach, which is the science of post-traumatic growth and cognitive behavioral coaching tools; all the things that you’re learning on the podcast but at a much deeper level where we actually apply and coach and study and change our lives.

So, two of them I wanted to read to you. One was from a member who posted inside of our online community. She said, “Today, there were several times I could have become very angry with my kids over what they were doing. Instead, I approached it with calmness and handled each situation. It felt so good not to blow up at them.”

Now, I know that today’s episode is going to be about guilt and regret, but anger is another biggie. And lots of us struggle with it, struggle with how to deal with it, how to not react to it. And so it’s really exciting to see people making progress and feeling differently about anger.

And another client wrote – and this is all in the victories channel in the online community that we have inside this group. She wrote, “Something that’s been hard for me is this anger I feel when I think my mom doesn’t relate to me. Today, during a phone call, she disagreed with me on something, and normally that would have made me snap at her, become defensive, and shut down the conversation. This always instantly makes me feel terrible. I actually caught myself today. I felt the anger kick in, had a nasty thought about the situation, and then stopped myself from reacting that way. It all happened pretty quickly too. She didn’t even notice I got angry and our conversation just moved on naturally. This felt really, really good.”

And I love that because some people don’t struggle with it, and that’s okay too, and they’re working on the other things that they struggle with. But for those who are struggling with anger or who want to be less reactive to anger and not let it control them so much, this is a big deal. And I’m excited that we can work on fields like this in this coaching program.

So I wanted to share that with you because I’m very proud of it. I’m very proud of them. And I want to make sure you know it’s an option for you too. It’s not easy work, but it’s work worth doing, I promise you that it is. And if it’s something that you’re interested in doing, we’re now opening spots, or have some open spots I should say, for the group that will start in January.

And the way to kind of throw your name in the hat is to apply. You have to apply first. It’s application only because it’s not a good fit for everyone. I review all of the applications myself, and if it seems like a good fit, we’ll hop on the phone and I’ll get to know you and you’ll get to know me and we’ll make sure it’s a good fit. And if it’s not a good fit, you don’t have anything to lose. I’ll send you resources and ideas for other things that you can try too.

So you would just go to coachingwithkrista.com and then click on the request a consultation button. That will take you to the application. Fill that out and we’ll review it and get back to you in a couple of business days and we’ll see if it’s a good fit for you. It’s an investment of time. It’s an investment of money. But it is transformation at its finest.

Okay, how about be talk about guilt and regret in grief? Because who doesn’t want to do that, right? Guilt is one of the most common emotions experienced by those in grief. So we’re going to talk about the ins and outs of guilt, what causes it, what to do about it, and also one of guilt’s cousins, regret.

And I’ll tell you why I think we sometimes get the two confused and why you should even care. And just for fun, we’ll throw in a little discussion about blame and I’ll tell you why I think sometimes we choose blame and guilt on purpose.

To set the stage though, I want to share some of the reasons why widows I’ve coached have experienced guilt and regret and some of my experience with these emotions as well. So, for me, I for sure experienced guilt and regret about where I parked my car when I had the flat tire before the accident, telling myself that I should have pulled up farther along the road, that I shouldn’t have stopped exactly where I did.

If I had not stopped in such a narrow place on the side of the highway, if there was more shoulder room, that maybe the accident wouldn’t have happened. If I had had my tires checked before the trip, if I had insisted that we call AAA and not let him change the tire himself. If I had made us leave five minutes earlier or five minutes later, or if I had driven slower, or if had been able to identify where we were on the highway faster to tell the 911 operator.

I did a whole lot of would have, should have, could have thinking that generated guilt and regret for me. And I’ve worked with countless clients and heard so many stories. And maybe you might recognize yourself in some of these.

Some of them have been medical professionals, who in hindsight said they should have known what was happening with their husband’s health or should have insisted that he go get a second opinion or that he go to the doctor sooner, wives who now believe they should have set a better example with their own exercise or health choices or encouraged him to exercise more or prepared healthier meals or made sure that there wasn’t any junk food in the house and moms who have told me that they wished that they had hidden their pain meds so he couldn’t have taken them, a woman who thought she should have hidden her guns when he showed signs of instability.

And a widow, several, who believe they should have done CPR better, they didn’t do it well enough, they should have done it faster. Women who were abused or maybe exhausted from years of mental health challenges with their husband who were later beating themselves up because they felt relief at his passing and now they feel guilty for feeling relief.

Or one woman was beating herself up and feeling terribly guilty because she had kicked her husband out, and just after she did that, he took his own life. Another who couldn’t spend any of the life insurance money, even on her children, without feeling guilty because of how that money came to her. And one woman who introduced her boyfriend to drugs and then she later got clean but he didn’t and she blamed herself for his overdose.

A woman who stepped out of the hospital room to get a bite to eat after being by her husband’s side for hours on end, only to find that while she was gone, he passed. A woman who blamed herself for starting a fight just before her husband had a heart attack, and then she blamed herself for his heart attack.

There’s so many reasons, so many stories behind all of the conflicting emotions that we feel. Some of them probably worthy of their own episodes entirely, but I just want to remind you that most people, as a apart of grieving, feel guilt or regret. Lots of them for different reasons. Lots of them with different circumstances, but it’s so common. That’s why I want to talk about it today.

And, of course, I also want to remind you that grieving is really just the umbrella term for the thoughts and feelings that we experience following a loss. And everyone’s experience is different because everyone’s response to loss is different. None of them good or bad or better or worse, just different.

But for sure, when we look at the most commonly reported emotions in grief, guilt is very high on the list. I was actually planning to do the episode just on guilt, but then the more I thought about it, the more I decided I have to include regret because I think guilt is so often misunderstood and so often confused with regret, so that’s why I’m putting them together.

And today, we’re really just going to scratch the surface. I’m pretty sure, if we could get everyone listening to this podcast in a room together, we would have lots to say and we could talk for much longer than I’m going to talk today. But I do want to at least cover what guilt is, where it comes from, what guilt and regret have in common, what makes them different, how to know which one you’re experiencing, and give you some useful ways to think about what you might have experienced or still be experiencing.

So, first, guilt and regret, I want to talk about what they have in common. They both, number one, are feelings. They’re emotions. And just like any other emotion, believe it or not, guilt and regret aren’t actually problems. No emotions are ever really problems.

So please don’t tell yourself, or someone else for that matter, that you shouldn’t be feeling an emotion that you’re feeling. Whatever you’re feeling is fine and nothing’s gone wrong because you’re feeling it.

That doesn’t mean that you have to stay in that feeling forever. But accepting what we feel is absolutely required if we want to change it. And allowing ourselves to feel what we feel all the way through actually creates less negative emotion overall and makes our experience of negative emotion more pleasant.

I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but stick with me. The more we resist, try to numb negative emotion that already exists, the more negative emotion we create. So allowing negative emotions to run their course actually prevents suffering. And guilt and regret are no different. So, if you’re feeling them, we want to actually let them be there. We want to process them all the way through.

Also, like all other feelings, guilt and regret are caused by thoughts. They’re never caused by what happened or what didn’t happen, what we said, what we didn’t say, what we did, what we didn’t do. Guilt and regret are caused by what we’re thinking about what did or didn’t happen, what we did or didn’t say, what we did or didn’t do.

And usually, the thoughts that create guilt and regret have the word should in them. I shouldn’t have said that, I shouldn’t have done that, I should have known better, I should have done better, all caused by sentences. Also, guilt and regret are both caused by thoughts about the past.

Often, we think that we can’t experience different feelings unless we’re able to turn back the hands of time and actually do things differently. But this is not true. We only feel guilt and regret now because of the thoughts we’re thinking now.

And this is actually good news. Guilt and regret cannot follow us around. They can’t tie us down. You’re not prisoner to those emotions. They’re not actually caused by what has happened in the past. They’re not caused by events of the past.

Events of the past don’t actually cause emotions at all. Events of the past are just done. It’s our thoughts about the events of the past that continue creating our emotional experience of them. And guilt and regret are just emotions that are caused by stories we’re telling ourselves about what has happened in the past.

So for me, every time I told myself that I should have pulled up more on the highway and every time I told myself that story and I remembered exactly where I parked and, would-have, should-have, could-haved myself there, that’s when I created those painful emotions for myself.

The event had already happened. It was done long before. The event wasn’t what was causing my pain. Where I parked wasn’t what was creating my guilt and my regret. It was my thoughts that I should have done it differently. So whatever the story is that you’re telling yourself about what has happened to you is the source of these negative emotions.

Now, you get to choose. You don’t have to change your story if you don’t want to. And I remember, at a certain point when I was learning this work, that I was rather turned off by the idea that I could think of things differently. And at a certain point, it dawned on me that it wasn’t that I had to think of anything differently. It was just that I had the option. It was just that I got to make the choices.

And I went from feeling like I should be thinking differently, to, “Oh, I could think about this differently if I wanted to. I have a brain that’s powerful enough to do that.” The human brain is an amazing thing and I’m not stuck with experiencing what has happened to me in the same way, always and forever. If I ever want to do it differently, then I have that option.

And I can kind of hear some of you, like I’m imagining some of you saying, you know, “Krista, if you only knew my special circumstance. If you only knew the awful thing I did or the awful thing I said. If you know the details of what happened, you would totally agree, this is a problem, it will always be a problem.” And to that I say, in the most loving and compassionate way possible, no, my love.

No, your special circumstance is no exception, I promise you. I’ve heard hundreds of them, and even the worst of the stories, the violent ones, all of them, I promise you, none of them sentence anyone to a lifetime of guilt or regret. And it may take work, and it may not happen overnight, but no one has to stay stuck there.

This is the kind of work I do with clients all the time. I know what I am talking about here. I promise you, there’s nothing you could tell me, even if you could reach right through Apple Podcasts and tell me your story, I promise, there’s nothing you could tell me that would mean that you have to stay stuck in either guilt or regret forever. I just promise you, so you just have to go with me and trust me. Okay?

Alright, so guilt and regret – both are emotions.  Both are caused by thoughts. Now, what are the differences between guilt and regret? Are you curious yet? So, I researched definitions for guilt and for regret and I found several.

And the one I liked best for guilt was, “A feeling of deserving blame for offenses.” And I think the word offenses is key here because deserving blame for offenses implies that, at the time, whatever we did or didn’t do or said or didn’t say or happened or didn’t happen happened because we had the intent to do wrong.

So guilt arises when we do some action that, at the time when we did it, we didn’t believe it was the right thing to do and we did it anyway. And this is different than regret, which thee definition I found of regret that I liked is, “Sorrow aroused by circumstances beyond one’s control or power to repair which results in knowing something could have been done better compared to the way it was actually done.”

So it’s beyond one’s control.  In our case, it’s in the past. It’s beyond our power to repair. In our case, it’s in the past. And it results in knowing something could have been done better compared to the way it was actually done.

So, let me say that again in a slightly different way. Guilt assumes we could have done better but chose not to. Regret assumes we did the best we could but now, with a different perspective, with hindsight, we wish we would have done it differently.

So unless you knew what you were doing at the time was wrong, then what you’re probably calling guilt is more accurately called regret. And it may seem like semantics, but I don’t think that it is. Because, if we want to address it, we need to know what it is first, right?

So I want you to ask yourself, is this guilt or regret? Did you intend harm, whatever this thing is that you think you’re feeling guilty about? Did you intend harm?  Did you believe at the time that what you were doing wasn’t right? Did you think it was the wrong choice but you did it anyway and therefore you did it on purpose? That’s guilt. That’s when guilt is appropriate.

And if guilt is appropriate, are you new feeling remorse? If we want to make amends and we’re feeling remorse, then we can start looking at how we might do so. Can we take responsibility for what we’ve done? Can we make reparations? Can we seek forgiveness from others or work on granting forgiveness to ourselves?

What would someone we love say to us about what we’ve done if indeed we did it on purpose? And if you didn’t believe that at the time you were doing something wrong, then what you’ve been feeling isn’t guilt, it’s regret.

And again, there’s nothing wrong with any emotion. It’s just caused by a thought too. But now, if you want to do the work on regret, you can use the tools I teach and decide to think differently.

So, the chances are high that what you’ve been calling guilt is probably regret. I don’t believe that most of us wake up in the morning, or really at any point during the day, and consciously choose to make the wrong decision.

I love what Maya Angelou teaches. She always is known for saying, you know, “When you know better, you do better.” And that’s true. Most of us wake up and we try to do the best job that we know how to do. Nobody wakes up saying, “I want to suck today. At life, I would just like to go down in flames today.”

No, we don’t. We wake up and every day we do the best we can. And none of us lives with the benefit of hindsight. We have to live life going forward, right?

So you don’t have to hold yourself hostage to decisions you’ve made in the past. You don’t have to feel guilty. If it really wasn’t something that you intended harm with, if you weren’t choosing making the wrong choice on purpose in the moment, then it’s not really guilt. You did the best you could with what you knew at the time.

So that’s guilt versus regret. Now at least, I hope that you are clear on what it is you’re actually feeling. And maybe you’re feeling some of each, and that’s okay too.

Alright, so I told you we’d have a little bit of fun, and I laugh because I think my idea of fun, I don’t know, maybe it’s a little demented, but a little fun with the idea of blame. And here’s what I want you to think about; would we knowingly choose guilt or blame?

I don’t know that we would do it intentionally. But when you think about it, guilt is a way of assigning blame. We’re blaming ourselves. And sometimes we tend to want to blame other people too.

Because, I think, when we have someone or something to blame, it feels slightly less threatening than accepting the idea that bad things just happen with no rhyme or reason, no sense, no logic, no predictability. And it’s arguably easier to blame ourselves or someone else because finding fault is something tangible that we can hang our hat on.

It offers us a sense of control. And we want to believe that the world we live in is orderly and safe and logical. We crave the predictability that comes with structure.

Do we like guilt or blame or fault-finding or judgment? No. But sometimes, they’re the devil we know and it seems like a better option than accepting that we live in a universe where bad things happen out of nowhere and consequences are unpredictable and chaotic.

So I think some of these emotions are a better alternative to us than groundlessness. It’s less disconcerting to feel blame or guilt or find fault than it is to feel untethered and at the whim of who knows what. And if you grew up believing that bad things don’t happen to good people and you want to keep that belief and other beliefs like it intact, then you might very well find yourself jumping on the blame train.

So it makes sense, doesn’t it? I want to remind you, before I conclude, that all of these emotions are optional. You don’t have to let any of them go. I want to offer to you that you can decide if you want to hold onto an emotion. You can, but you don’t have to. There’s no moral high ground in any feeling.

And some people in the grief world teach that holding onto negative emotion is a way of maintaining connection with the deceased. And I understand how we conflate these ideas. And I think it’s comforting in a way. But I really don’t think our connection with those we love is in any way diminished by letting go of emotions that we no longer wish to carry.

Moving forward without negative emotion does not mean that we are betraying him or leaving him behind. I promise, it doesn’t. And if we’re used to experiencing guilt or regret, if it’s a common emotional state for us, then letting it go will certainly feel foreign. It may feel terribly uncomfortable.

But sometimes, discomfort is the path to the life that we want. Anytime we want to create new pathways in our brain, we’re going to feel uncomfortable. That’s just the way of it.

So, if you want to create something else for yourself, you’re going to have to go toward discomfort. And I know it seems weird, but sometime, even just to move from a negative emotion to a more positive one – and I use those terms in air quotes because it’s so subjective – but to move from one emotion to another, form one habitual state, from one emotional habitual pattern to a new way of being doesn’t feel good. It feels weird and uncomfortable.

And so it can feel like you’re giving up a connection with your husband because you aren’t feeling these emotions on the regular anymore or because you’re choosing other emotions instead, but I just don’t think that’s true.

I think the connection you feel with him is a product of the memories. It’s a product of the way you choose to think and there’s nothing that can ever take that away from you. And you don’t have to stay in negative emotion just to maintain a connection. It’s just not true.

So, I hope that was insightful and useful to you. That’s my goal with this podcast. Do me a favor. If this is helpful to you, if you think it would be helpful to others, share it. Tell them about the podcast. That’s how more people are going to hear it.

You know that the goal is to get this podcast into the ears of a million widows because this is the kind of information I know I wished I would have had after my husband died three years ago. I hope it’s information that is helping you.

Grab a screen capture of it. Post it on social media. Find me on Instagram, @lifecoachkrista, come find me on Facebook @coachingwithkrista, or you can just use the little three dots in the bottom-right corner of Apple Podcasts and share the podcast that way. Okay, alright, I hope you have an amazing week. I love you and you’ve got this. See you next time. Take care.

Ready to start building a future you can actually look forward to? Get a free copy of Krista’s Love Your Life Again Game Plan, and learn her three-step process so you can stop feeling stuck and start creating your next great chapter. No matter what you’ve been through, your past does not have to define what’s possible in your future.

Text the word PLAN to 1-858-widows-1, or visit coachingwithkrista.com/plan and get Krista’s Love Your Life Again Game Plan delivered straight to your inbox. A future you love is still possible and you are worth it. Text the word PLAN to 1-858-widows-1, or visit coachingwithkrista.com/plan and get your free game plan today.

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About your coach

I created a new life using small, manageable steps and techniques that made sense. The changes I experienced were so profound I became a Master Certified Life Coach and created a group coaching program for widows like us called Mom Goes On. It’s now my mission to show widowed moms exactly how to do what I’ve done and create a future they can look forward to.

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