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.

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