Advice from Claire: How to Cope with Guilt When You’re Grieving

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Are you beating yourself up for something you said or did before someone you love died? Claire gives you some tips on ways to alleviate some of the guilt you may be feeling around someone’s death. Plus, she answers a question from a listener who fears death as a result of experiencing so many losses early in her life.

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Claire Bidwell-Smith

Claire Bidwell-Smith  00:00

If you could go back and do things over, would you do them differently? Are you beating yourself up for something you said or did before someone you love died?

Claire Bidwell-Smith  00:13

I’m Claire Bidwell Smith. And that’s what we’re talking about today on NEW DAY. Guilt is perhaps group’s most painful companion. That’s one of my favorite quotes by Elisabeth Kubler Ross, who coined the famed five stages of grief. It’s really rare in my work that I come across someone who’s grieving who doesn’t wish they could have a do over. Maybe you’re beating yourself up for not trying out more doctors or treatments for a dying loved one. Maybe you didn’t make it there in time to say goodbye. Maybe you are in an argument or a strained relationship before someone you love died. Maybe you feel like you could have prevented their death altogether. Whatever it is, it’s cycling around in your head, isn’t it? You just wish you could go back and do it differently. It’s common and normal to feel this way after we lose someone we love. Sometimes it’s just a way of holding on to them. It’s the feeling that if you were to be okay with whatever the thing is, like, if you were okay, that you didn’t make it in time, are okay with not stopping them from getting into that accident or addiction, or okay with having gotten into that fight before they died, then that means it’s okay that they’re gone. But let me tell you right now, it’s never going to be okay that they’re gone. There’s not going to come a day when you’re just fine with it. You’re always going to miss them. Always going to wish you had more time. Always want them here still. But you can also forgive yourself for whatever you think you did wrong. The thing is, sometimes we hold on to guilt as a way of holding on to our person. But there are ways to forgive ourselves and other ways to hold on to the people we love and lose. Find ways to make amends, write them a letter, 10 letters, telling them how you wish you could have done things differently. Apologize for whatever you want or need to apologize for. Seek out spiritual, religious or therapeutic counsel to sort through some of this guilt. Do something in their honor. Do something for their loved ones. Do something for yourself. Try forgiveness journals and self-compassion exercises. Remember that just because you forgive yourself doesn’t mean you’re okay with everything that happened or that you don’t care anymore that they died. It means you still get to grieve and miss them. And also that you’re a human being living your life. Find ways to stay connected to them that aren’t through obsessive guilty thoughts, do work or volunteering in their honor. Talk about them, talk to them, write to them, hang up photos of them around your house, create rituals that make you feel closer to them. Share memories of them with other friends and family. Holding on to guilt is self-sabotage. And sometimes that feels good when we’re in pain. But ultimately, it’s not something you want to dwell on forever. So find ways to make amends, find ways to forgive yourself, and find other ways to hold on to your person.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  03:02

Now we’re gonna move on from guilt to fear. Today’s question hit close to home for me, I really relate to what all of you asked me about. And I love being able to provide some insights. So if you have a question, please send it in. You can email me at Or fill out the online form at, you’ll find the link in the show notes. Marcia in Michigan wants to know, how do we make peace with the fear of death and dying when one has experienced so many losses so young in their life? Hi, Marcia. This is a big question. And it’s one I’m personally very familiar with, not to mention one that I see a ton of my clients grapple with. I think when we go through multiple losses, the world can start to feel really unsafe, and life can feel uncertain. Like something bad could happen at any time. But we can also get stuck viewing it through that lens. And sometimes it takes a little work to shift that perception. The first thing I think you need to do is face your fears. So instead of pushing the fear away every time it arises, let yourself explore it. What are you afraid of exactly? Are you afraid of the physicality of death itself of potential pain and suffering? Are you afraid of what happens after we die? Are you afraid of leaving your loved ones and your life behind? Dig into these a little, let yourself be curious. If you’re afraid of pain and suffering and the physical aspects of death, then do some investigation and research into that area. Read about hospice and palliative care options. Watch my friend Dr. BJ Miller’s TED talk or listen to my episode with him for some like really interesting insights on death and suffering. Or is it the afterlife you’re fretting about? If that’s it, open up to your spiritual side. Talk to some people of faith, rabbis, priests, shamans, other advisors, read some spiritual books. Watch some documentaries about the afterlife. Let yourself explore things that resonate with you and give you comfort. Now if your fears are about leaving behind people you love or your life itself, use that as a wakeup call. Are you living your best life? Are you being true to yourself? Do you have relationships you need to repair? Do you have bucket list stuff you need to work on achieving? Do you just want to change jobs or end an unfulfilling relationship? This area is one that I’ve struggled with fear around myself, mainly what it would be like to die and leave my kids behind. It’s been really helpful for me to explore my spiritual side. But it’s also really helped me to do some end of life planning. I’ve created a will; I’ve written down like all kinds of stuff that I want the people I love to know about or have when I’m gone. And doing this was really scary at first, but it ultimately helped me feel more peaceful and stop fearing my own death so much. I highly recommend listening to my episode with death doula, Alua Arthur, and also my episode with end of life planner, Amy Picard for more ideas about all that. Marcia, it’s totally normal to be afraid of death, especially when you’ve been through a lot of loss. But I really believe that the more we talk about it, and the more we can explore our fears, the more vibrant and peaceful lives we can live. Thank you so much for writing.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  06:10

I can’t wait for you to hear Friday’s episode with Stephanie Fuu, she wrote a new book called What My Bones Know, a memoir of healing from complex trauma, and I could not put it down. So make sure you’re subscribe to NEW DAY and whatever app you’re using right now, so that you never miss an episode.


NEW DAY is a Lemonada Media Original. The show was produced by Kryssy Pease and Erianna Jiles. Kat Yore is our engineer. Music is by Hannis Brown. New Day is produced in partnership with the well-being trust the Jed foundation and Education Development Center. Thanks for listening.

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