Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death.

It can be a common yet complex emotion in grief. Guilt does not always have to be rational to be real. Even when we realize our guilt is not based on reality we may still experience it.

Two researchers, Margaret Miles and Alice Demi, identified six different types of guilt:

  • Causation Guilt: Here, one feels guilty that they are responsible. Because of something they did or failed to do that they believe led to the death of their loved one. Maybe our loved one never went to the doctor. When they passed from a health related issue we feel guilty that we didn’t push them enough to get checked out.
  • Moral guilt: Here the person grieving believes that the loss is some sort of a punishment for a prior act.
  • Role guilt: is the feeling that you were not a good enough brother, father, mother, sister, spouse in the person’s life. Such guilt often can arise as one struggles with the demands of caregiving. In other cases guilt may result from earlier aspects of the relationship. We may feel guilty and regret that we had not spoken to our family member prior to their death.
  • Survivor guilt: can be experi­enced as a wish that the person grieving had died instead of the person who actually did.
  • Grief guilt: is where one feels guilty that he or she is not grieving well, or correctly.
  • Recovery guilt: is often referenced when grievers sense that they are coping too well and feel a sense of guilt when experiencing happiness without their loved one.

Grief is a roller coaster experience of ups and downs. It is not unusual to experience all types of guilt in the normal cycle of good and bad days. While grief is a normal reaction to loss, it is one we have to explore, as research has indicated that unre­solved guilt can complicate our grief.

First, we should try to recognize and under­stand guilt as a common and inevitable part of the experience of grief. Second, try to fully examine it. How real is it? We may have unrealistic expectations of what we can control or accomplish. Try asking yourself if others would find you guilty.

Other times, we may need to do something tangible such as write a letter, speak to an empty chair, or say something at the grave­side. We may need to explore our beliefs. Every faith or philosophy understands the need for forgiveness, including forgiving ourselves.

Guilt is a heavy burden in grief and we do not need to carry guilt forever on the journey with loss.


Doka, K. J. (2018). Guilt: A normal but unnecessary burden. Guilt: A Normal but Unnecessary Burden.

Miles, M. & Demi, A. (1992). A comparison of guilt in parents whose children died of suicide, accident, and chronic disease. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 24, 203-215.