Guilt: When You Blame Yourself.
This is all my fault. Or… is it?
It’s something we’ve all experienced, whether we’ve lost someone or not. Something like saying an unnecessarily rude comment, disappointing someone you care about, or ignoring a text may seem harmless at first, but leave you feeling horrible after.
While it is difficult at the time, guilt that’s not related to a loss usually ends after a few days. This ending typically comes after you try to fix the situation, apologize to the person, or simply just move forward with your life. A month later, you usually don’t even remember why you felt guilty in the first place.
It’s not like that with loss-related guilt.
The same things can cause it: Saying a rude comment, disappointing someone you care about, or ignoring a text. Except, unlike the other kind of guilt, this type stays. You can’t fix the situation. You can’t forget about it. Finally, and most of all, you can’t apologize to the person, because they’re gone.
Guilt started flooding my brain after my dad died. In the first few months after he left, the same thought passed through my mind daily: You could’ve prevented this.
Instead of saying, I’m in high school, Dad was sick for months, and there was nothing I could’ve done, I believed it. I thought that I could have prevented his death, and that it was my fault.
Before Dad died, he had been sick for months. I never thought of him as sick, though. In my head, it was like he had a cold that just never went away, even though what he had was so much worse than a cold. Despite the fact that he’d been sick, his passing was still sudden. He died on the day he was supposed to get out of the hospital, just when things were getting better.
To cope with the shock of it all, I kept on trying to find an explanation. The reason why he had gone. There has to be a reason, right? How could he die if there was no reason? I tried to piece together why everything had happened the way it did, and tried desperately to find the event that had caused him to leave, if that even existed. Instead of finding my answer, I found something else: guilt.
Just days after his death, little thoughts began shoving their way into my mind, and refused to leave:
He called me last week, and I didn’t answer. If I answered, he might be alive right now. This was the main one.
I barely saw him. I chose school and friends over Dad - my own father. How could I? If I had seen him more, he would still be alive. This hurt a lot.
I texted Dad the day he died, and didn’t say “I love you” at the end. He will never know that I loved him, and if I had said it, he wouldn’t have died. To this day, I have no idea if he read that text. I never asked anyone, and I don’t want to know. I hope he didn’t.
It sounds wild, right? That I seriously believed all of those things? To you, it’s probably obvious that one missed call didn’t kill him. Seeing him rarely before he died didn’t mean that he thought I didn’t care. Not saying “I love you” didn’t make him think I didn’t love him.
That’s the thing, though. It wasn’t obvious to me.
Rationally, I knew that what I was believing was slightly ridiculous. I mean, one forgotten “I love you” doesn’t cause someone’s death.
Not rationally, though… I thought it was all my fault. That my thoughts were true, and I could’ve prevented Dad’s death if I had called him back, seen him more, and said “I love you” at the end of that text.
In general, I’m usually able to tell when I’m thinking rationally and not rationally. Whenever I start overwhelming myself, I can say, No, you’re overthinking this. Your mind is tricking you.
I was unable to do that with guilt.
Instead of realizing instantly that there was no way I caused my dad’s death, and that even if I had answered that call, seen him more, and said “I love you,” he would still be gone today, I started believing the part of my mind that said it was all my fault.
That’s the way guilt works. Rational thinking is thrown out, and in pops conspiracy theories. Even though part of you knows that what you’re thinking isn’t true, you still believe it.
One of the best ways I’ve found to explain guilt is by using an Emma Chamberlain video. Emma did a video in 2018 called “YOUTUBER CONSPIRACY THEORIES.” Instead of doing realistic conspiracy theories, though, she came up with a bunch of wild ones that are obviously far from the truth.
The first time watching the video, I was pretty sure that she wasn’t being serious, but I wasn’t completely convinced. I remember thinking, wow, there’s no way she actually believes this, but then thinking right after that, well… she might…?
That’s how guilt is. Logically, like how I knew Emma’s video wasn’t serious, I knew that I had no reason to feel guilty, but there was still a little part of me that thought it might be true, and with guilt, that little part was what took charge of my mind.
When I started blaming myself for Dad’s death, I felt like I didn’t deserve to miss him. You can’t be upset. It’s your fault you feel this way. If you had seen him more, he wouldn’t have died.
It was horrible. Coping with a death while feeling like you’re directly responsible for it is absolutely terrible.
I started imagining situations in my head where things had happened differently. Where I had called him back, seen him more, and texted “I love you” that last time. I imagined that he didn’t die, that things ended up being okay, and that he was alive right now.
As my guilt got worse, I started feeling anger. I had learned early on that anger towards your loved one is normal, but this anger wasn’t directed at my dad: It was directed at me.
I was furious at myself. I mean, Dad had been sick for months and I still hadn’t realized that he might not be okay? Like I mentioned before, it hadn’t been obvious that he would die, but looking back, there was a chance all along that he would. I just didn’t see it. Part of me feels like, if I had known, things would be better. I could’ve seen him more and had the chance to say goodbye. If I had known, I never would’ve missed his call, I would’ve seen him all the time, and I would’ve said “I love you” at the end of that text.
I carried this guilt and anger with me for a long time without telling anyone. Whenever I got close to talking about it I would stop myself. The only thing that scared me as much as thinking that I could’ve stopped Dad’s death was having others agree with me, and think that it was my fault.
I have to be honest - I still struggle with this guilt sometimes. There are still nights I lay and bed and think, What would’ve happened if I did answer the phone that day? Would he still be alive now? Unlike in the past, though, I’m usually able to remind myself that no, it’s not my fault, and I can’t blame myself.
Guilt became a lot easier to cope with when I started talking about it with people. Even though the rational side of me knew all along that Dad’s death was not my fault, hearing someone else tell me that it wasn’t helped a lot.
Time helped as well. Like I said before, I think I was trying to find an explanation for Dad’s death at first. Trying to find something that I could hold onto and say, that moment, that was where things went wrong. In reality, it was months before, when he first got sick, where things went wrong. I just didn’t realize it at the time. Him getting sick was not my fault to begin with, and it was not my fault that he died. As time has passed, I’ve been able to understand this better, and know that I shouldn’t blame myself.
If you’re feeling guilty, please know this: None of this is your fault. Really, none of it. Also, it doesn’t matter what you may have said or done - your loved one still knew that you cared about them.
Guilt has been one of the hardest parts of grief for me, and because of that, it’s something that I’ve avoided talking about. Especially because I still have such a hard time with it.
I still have moments where I blame myself. Whenever I start feeling that way, though, I remind myself that I didn’t cause any of this, Dad knew that I cared even though I was busy, and he knew I loved him.
Something I’m still working on is forgiving myself. I was just starting high school when Dad died. The concept of death and grief was foreign to me, so I shouldn’t be mad at myself for not realizing that he might die. Even if I had known that something might happen to him, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that things would be better now. I’d probably still feel guilt, just caused by different things.
It’s been difficult, but I’m working through it. Even though I haven’t really gotten “over” my guilt, if you’re having a hard time, I can tell you this with confidence: It gets better. Even though I still struggle sometimes, it’s a lot easier to deal with now than it was at first. I’m usually able to talk myself down and convince myself that it’s not my fault, which is something I couldn’t even imagine myself doing when I first felt guilty.
As always, if you’re struggling with guilt (or just grief in general), seeking professional help can be useful as well. If you’re not sure where to start, you can always talk to your school guidance counselor or any other trusted adult you know.
None of this is your fault.
Written by Natalie Adams, the creator of Teenage Grief Sucks.