Friday, December 11, 2020

The intersection of Grief and Guilt

by Kim Vargas, LCSW

It is certainly not surprising that a significant amount of the therapeutic work I am currently doing with clients revolves around working on feelings of loss. The pandemic has triggered intense experiences of grief. People are grieving the loss of loved ones who have died of COVID. They are grieving deaths unrelated to COVID, but where COVID made it impossible to attend hospital stays and funerals. They are grieving the loss of jobs and schools and connections. They are grieving the loss of normalcy.

It is important to note that grief can be cumulative. In 2001, when I worked with survivors of the Pentagon terrorist attack, I was amazed by how many people talked about losses completely unrelated to recent events. I heard about lost siblings, partners, and close friends who had died years before. It turned out that the grief related to the recent event was significant in itself, but that it also provoked thoughts and feelings about previous losses. The combination sent people reeling. The same is true today. Those processing losses brought about by COVID may also be suddenly inundated by sadness and grief from earlier bereavement. If not known and understood, this can feel terrifying.

While grief alone is excruciating, many of these same people also experience guilt. For some, this guilt is a relatively small piece of the bigger picture. For others, the guilt is crushing and overwhelming, and sometimes overshadows the grief itself.

Prior to COVID’s arrival, I had already been exploring this intersection of guilt and grief in my clients’ lives. I initially found it puzzling that it was such a universal part of grief to feel guilty. I started to unpack what my clients meant when they said “I feel so bad” after a major loss. Time after time, with deeper examination, what initially appeared to be guilt was often actually another manifestation of intense grief.

Part of this comes from the notion that grief is such a confusing, disempowering feeling, that people may seek to better understand it by inserting themselves into the equation. Guilt gives us the false sense that we could have controlled something that was truly out of our control. For many people, disempowerment feels worse than almost anything else, and can be terrifying.

Often the guilt is irrational and truly has little or nothing to do with the actual loss. Sometimes it seems easier to feel guilt that to sit in the horror of the loss. Focusing on our own role in the loss also distances us from the actual loss feelings.  In the end, of course, this only serves to make us feel worse. However, we are rarely aware in the moment of this progression, and the loss and guilt sometimes meld together until it feels like we are carrying a million pounds of feelings.

I encourage my clients to deeply consider the role of guilt. Feeling guilty about something can be useful; it may make us stop a behavior, or be less likely to do the same thing in the future. But beyond guilt’s ability to inspire us to make changes, it rarely serves a purpose. For that reason, I suggest that clients consider how they can empower themselves, by first thinking through what specifically they feel badly about. When we unpack the bad feelings, what often comes to the surface is a more pure form of grief. And while that grief can be agonizing, it is imperative to the healing process to really name and understand the genuine emotion.

Kim Vargas, LCSW provides therapy to individuals, couples, and groups. Kim works with her clients to address a variety of issues, including depression, anxiety, grief, self esteem, and relationships. She also specializes in helping moms and dads to navigate postpartum issues and parenting. To learn more or schedule an appointment, contact Kim at or 267-568-7846.

Steps to walk yourself through grief-related guilt

by Kim Vargas, LCSW

Name the feeling. Do not allow yourself to just call it guilt without really digging deep to determine whether you believe you actually have something legitimate that you feel you did wrong. Talk to someone you trust about these feelings.

Acknowledge cumulative grief if applicable. Ask yourself whether some of the grief/guilt might be related to a previous loss. If so, be mindful of the cumulative effect of the grief.  Naming and assigning the grief to its separate roots can be helpful.

Address any legitimate guilt. If you do determine that you have done something wrong, try to find ways to make amends or plan to behave differently in the future. Remind yourself that you cannot change the past, but you can take control of the future.

Accept the sadness. Once you have acknowledged grief as the primary emotion, allow yourself to feel the sadness. Sometimes it is better to sit in the pain than to try to banish it without examination. It can be especially helpful to process these feelings with a trusted individual.

Practice self care and self compassion. Grief takes a tremendous toll on people. In order to keep functioning, it is vital to take care of yourself. In addition, having compassion for oneself makes the process easier. There may be times when the grief is crushing, and other times when it feels more manageable. Giving yourself grace during the hardest times will encourage healing.

Empower yourself. Given that part of the guilt may be a dysfunctional way to feel more in control, it is useful to find healthy ways to empower yourself. This may or may not be related to the grief itself. In some cases, finding empowerment in any realm of one’s life can be incredibly beneficial. This may mean a major life shift, but more often takes the form of something in the moment. Accomplishing a task, cleaning your house, or going out for a run are small examples that may have a large impact.

For Grief

by John O’Donohue (From To Bless the Space Between Us)


When you lose someone you love,

Your life becomes strange,

The ground beneath you gets fragile,

Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;

And some dead echo drags your voice down

Where words have no confidence.


Your heart has grown heavy with loss;

And though this loss has wounded others too,

No one knows what has been taken from you

When the silence of absence deepens.


Flickers of guilt kindle regret

For all that was left unsaid or undone.


There are days when you wake up happy;

Again inside the fullness of life,

Until the moment breaks

And you are thrown back

Onto the black tide of loss.


Days when you have your heart back,

You are able to function well

Until in the middle of work or encounter,

Suddenly with no warning,

You are ambushed by grief.


It becomes hard to trust yourself.

All you can depend on now is that

Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.

More than you, it knows its way

And will find the right time

To pull and pull the rope of grief

Until that coiled hill of tears

Has reduced to its last drop.


Gradually, you will learn acquaintance

With the invisible form of your departed;

And when the work of grief is done,

The wound of loss will heal

And you will have learned

To wean your eyes

From that gap in the air

And be able to enter the hearth

In your soul where your loved one

Has awaited your return

All the time.


A Fire In The Head

 by Dean Solon

words are empty.
we infuse them with grace
and with grit.
they have no home
but what we give them.

i consider this,
i contemplate this.
what arises 
is grace,
an experience of who i was
before i was born
into this strange and awkward world.

when i was born,
i came into a light that welcomed me
as another stranger 
in a strange land.
my eyes opened to a terrain
brand new
and oddly familiar,
a land that breathed life
into my recently formed lungs.

i was born to be here,
blown by the winds of seeming chance
that have transfigured as i have grown older
to be something else:
an essence,
a vitality of living matter
infused with purpose and passion
to be an originality of form
and to be a singularity of spirit,
one soul among billions
teeming, streaming
on the planet.

i remember no other home 
but this one we call earth.
yet here I am
wondering out loud:
what brought me to this galaxy,
what took hold of me
to bring me here
and make these footprints 
in these sands of time and place

The Inner Ocean #7

 By Dean Solon

another episode of the ocean clearing the synapses,
washing clean the stray thought forms that pop up.
the waves bringing the good news:
my head has been emptied 

the excellent practice of witnessing what is present
in the space between thoughts
is rendered nearly obsolete:
where the brain is silenced
there is no space to be filled...
when the brain is silenced 
all there is is the fullness of timeless time...

i am noticing the sun beginning
it’s daily descent into nothingness.
it does so with a big show
of fantastical shifting colors,
of daring drops toward the horizon,
of tricking me into thinking it has gone somewhere
when it is here, always here,
a shining light presence
in the boundlessness of our inner ocean worlds.