My Account

Grief and Guilt: Partners in Crime

Rose withering on the vine in black and white. This is similar to what grief and guilt do to us.
Nothing withers life more than grief. Yet grief rarely acts alone, without its best buddy, guilt.

Questioning Guilt and Grief Is a Worthwhile Meditation

When someone dies, or when I have a loss of any kind, I feel victimized. What I was depending on just collapsed. I am disoriented, and the mind keeps circling back to “what was” or “what could have been,” which only intensifies the grief.

It’s like a broken record: “she shouldn’t have died, she’s gone, I want her back.” These hopeless thoughts are the fuel of grief as the mind tries to attack what it can’t change. It reaches for something or someone to blame. Sometimes, there is a person at fault, and the mind lands there. Sometimes it’s life that I blame. But sometimes, the mind circles back to blame me.

When it does, I feel guilt. In its quest to avoid accepting the reality of the loss, the mind digs up all kinds of things. “I should not have refused the package Mom sent so many years ago. That really hurt her feelings.” Or “I should not have moved without telling her. That hurt her too.” If I dwell on these things that I did, I can become very guilty. 

What Does Guilt Accomplish?

For me, guilt is a distraction, a kind of irrational way of trying to regain control. “If only I had accepted that package, then I could let her go in peace.” “If only I had been a better communicator with her, then she would know without doubt how much I loved her.”

This is the mind’s way of trying to rewrite the past in order to have peace in the present. The problem is it’s impossible to do. So guilty thoughts lead nowhere but back to grief. 

Somehow the Cycle of Guilt and Grief Must Be Broken

The problem with grief is that the loss really did happen. And the problem with guilt is that I often really did do some regretful things. So the mind meets with no resistance as it spins around in a circle.

The only thing that can stop it is a bigger truth. Here’s my favorite way to look for a bigger perspective for my spinning mind.

The Work of Byron Katie

The Work of Byron Katie (4 Questions and Turnarounds) is a meditation that slows the mind down. It starts by picking a stressful thought, a guilt thought for example. I write it down verbatim as it comes out of the mind, “I should have told Mom I was moving.” 

Now the thought has been captured. This alone goes a long way to stop the mind from spinning. But this is just the beginning. The Work of Byron Katie slows it down further by questioning the validity of the thought: “I should have told Mom I was moving, is it true?” 

This is meditation. 

Guilt and Grief Slow Down When I Find Understanding for Myself

When I go through this process of inquiry, and look back on my life at the time, I find that I was desperately trying to stand up for myself in my twenties. I went against my mom’s preferences for how I should live my life. I moved without telling her because that’s the only way I could see to stand up for myself.

When I see it this way, I find understanding for myself. And my guilt no longer grips me. 

This simple process of questioning my stressful thoughts is how I worked through the grief when my mom died, one thought at a time.

And I Invite You to Do The Same

I’ll be offering a course called Dealing with Grief, where we will spend a week together questioning all the nuanced thoughts related to grief. Join us Sep 20-27 in Austria for the course.

Have a great week,

“Humility is what happens when you’re caught and exposed to yourself, and you realize that you’re no one and you’ve been trying to be someone. You just die and die into the truth of that. You die into what you have done and who you have been, and it’s a very sweet thing; there’s no guilt or shame in it. You become totally vulnerable, like a little child. Defense and justification keep falling away, and you die into the brilliance of what is real.” Byron Katie, A Thousand Names for Joy

Further reading: Byron Katie’s Examples May Not Be Yours

Todd Smith has been doing The Work of Byron Katie on an almost daily basis since 2007. He is just as excited about this simple process of self-inquiry today as he was when he first came across it. He also enjoys writing about The Work, and training others in the subtleties of this meditative process. Join Todd for The Work 101 online course, private sessions, virtual retreats, and his ongoing Inquiry Circle group.