This weekend, I got to spend a few hours with some of the most wonderful humans around (AKA amazing readers like YOU!) at the official release event for my new book. At the VIP afterparty, we went deep. I mean deep, deep. We took some time for Q&A and the vulnerable questions you shared cracked my heart open.
It turns out that the questions we have about grief aren’t easy ones to face:
- What if we’re already grieving a loss that we know is coming—anticipatory grief—and worry we’re wasting precious moments on premature sadness?
- Or we never really got to grieve because life got in the way?
- Or we’ve lost someone and now fear that it’ll happen again?
- Or, one of my personal favs, how can we take better care of our bodies when grief made us “swan dive into nachos and Reese’s Pieces?”
(Shoutout to the magical woman who asked that one. Lol! I’ve been there, baby. And got the T-shirt.)
These questions are all beautiful and important. But by far the biggest theme that emerged during our discussion? Guilt and regret.
Specifically how to deal with guilt when you’ve lost someone and there were words left unspoken, things ended on a sour note, or you didn’t get to say goodbye. Whew. These are tough trails to climb. I’d love to offer a few practices that may help you on your way, but first I’d like to say: I’m sorry you’re on the trail, at all, my friend. I’m sorry for the loss. And I’m sorry for whatever circumstances added guilt to the grief you already feel. I can’t fix it, but I’m here to walk beside you.
Let’s see if we can find our way forward today.
3 Practices to Help You Process Guilt or Regret
Practice 1. Return to the Present
Regret is a rearview emotion. Whenever we’re wracked with guilt or regret, we’re trying to live inside the unchangeable past. That’s especially true when we feel regret over our interactions (or lack thereof) with a loved one who’s passed on. We’re beating ourselves up for all the mistakes we made or the opportunities we didn’t take to reconnect. We’re frozen trying to change the end of a story that’s already been written. It’s a heavy feeling.
Before my Dad “got on the bus”—his euphemism for dying—he wanted to have a Zoom party with his friends in celebration of his life. The mere suggestion of that party melted my brain and made me shout, “I’m not ready for that!” He never got to have that gathering and, to this day, I still wish I’d handled that moment differently.
But as hard as it may be to accept, those moments are beyond our reach. We can’t fix it. We can’t change it. All we can do is be with ourselves authentically and compassionately today. The work of healing is to acknowledge what happened then and come back to this moment now.
- I’m disappointed that I wasn’t my best self in that moment. But I’m not there anymore. I’m here. And in this moment, I will forgive myself and learn from what happened.
- I’m so sad I didn’t get to say goodbye. But I can’t change that. All I can do is acknowledge the hurt without judgment and love myself through it today.
Reflecting is fine, but ruminating is corrosive. When you find yourself stuck in the past, take a deep breath and come back to the now.
Practice 2. Express Yourself
Our next healing practice can be best expressed in the immortal words of Charles Wright: “Express yourself.” (“Jumpin’ like a kangaroo” optional. 😉)
So many of our regrets can be linked to what we say (or fail to say). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve replayed the phrase: “I’m not ready for that!” in my head. If you find yourself rehearsing what you “should” have said in your head, maybe it’s time to get it out. Here are a few formats to consider:
- Have a conversation: I know we all hold different beliefs about the afterlife, so see if this one fits for you. For me, I believe in the continuity of life and love even after a loved one is “gone”. I believe my Dad can still hear me and I talk to him all the time. If you feel the same, find a private moment and have a conversation with your loved one either out loud or in your heart. You can still say all the things you wish you’d said. You just have to be willing to talk it out.
- Write a letter: This beautiful idea came from one of the VIPs on the call. If you’re more comfortable writing, why not put all those unsaids on paper? Write a letter to the person you love with everything you wish you could tell them. When you’re done, you can read it out loud to them. You can burn it to release that energy into the universe. Or bury it and put a marker like a heart stone on top to create a place where you can remember them. It’s not about closure—that’s often a myth. The big loves and losses in our lives have a way of staying with us. But there is connection—and a letter is a beautiful place to start.
- Find a flashlight: Navigating grief is tough, especially when it’s laced with guilt or regret. You’re walking into some dark places, which means that now’s a good time to find a flashlight: someone who can illuminate the path and help guide you through. Throughout this process, I’ve had my therapist, Carol, on speed dial. Consider finding your own flashlight (AKA a brilliant therapist) today.
Of course, these aren’t the only vehicles to express what you’re feeling. Journaling, somatic work, and EMDR are some of the other healing practices you can explore. But the bottom line is that you want to get all those big feelings out. When we try to shove them down, they don’t actually go away. Instead, they work their way into our psyches and our tissues only to pop back up later like a deranged Jack-in-the-Box.
You don’t have to shove it all down, cookie. You deserve to express yourself.
Practice 3. Choose Radical Compassion
For our final practice, may I have a drumroll, please?
Stop trying to be perfect.
It’s time to be kinder to yourself. You’ve got to lower the bar, my friend. Consider that section in I’m Not a Mourning Person specifically dedicated to you. You went through something massive and traumatizing. Being tough on yourself is not going to help your healing. Practicing radical self-compassion to your very core is the medicine you need.
You did the best you could.
You’re doing the best you can.
And that is enough.
Say it to yourself as often as you need to. “I’m doing the best I can and that’s enough.” And when those cruel, self-critical thoughts arise, I invite you to say to yourself what Dad always said to me when that happened: “Knock it off.” This is a bully-free zone and self-bullying is prohibited from now on.
Grace is the Antidote to Regret
It’s normal to feel regret, remorse or even guilt after a loved one “gets on the bus.” The antidote is grace every time. When I’m being too hard on myself, I find it helpful to look at a picture of me when I was little. In fact, I keep this one on my desk.
This little gal was very excited to hop on every ride at Playland for her birthday. And she’s still with me today. She needs me to feed her a sandwich at noon instead of “powering through” lunchtime. When we’ve had a full, busy day, she wants to relax and watch a movie she loves (no laundry-folding; just rest). And when she’s messed up or missed something important… she wants grace. She wants me to meet her with compassion. To wrap her in a hug, tell her she’s safe and loved despite all her imperfections. That I forgive her. That I’d never judge her. And that we can put that failure away and move forward together in love.
Little You is still there, too. Be kind to their tender heart today.
Your Turn: What’s your next step toward releasing regret? Share yours in the comments so we can learn from each other.
All my love,