By: Rev. Glen Horst
Poignant and powerful memories often come unbidden at the end of life. As you try to come to terms with the fact that your life is ending, you naturally begin to recall where you have been, what you have done, and with whom you have shared life’s experiences. Your memories may not all be happy or satisfying. Some may be of events, relationships, actions, or words that make you uncomfortable. The feelings embedded in these memories can be difficult to shake. Your mind may keep returning to them over and over. You come to realize that you need to deal with the guilt or regrets surrounding these experiences. They have become "stuck places" in your life story that are difficult to accept.
What are guilt and regret?
Guilt is a normal part of human life. Feelings of guilt may arise from something you did or something you failed to do. If you break a civil or religious law, betray a trust, or ignore a duty, others may judge you guilty of wrongdoing. No matter what you think about what happened, you are guilty in the eyes of others. They expect you to make amends.
Guilt also refers to feelings of regret or sadness from actions or words of which you are not proud. These feelings may be triggered by accusations from others, but they can also arise from within you, as self-accusation. The guilt and regret occur when you realize that you have violated your own principles or harmed people who matter to you.
Standing guilty in the eyes of others or feeling guilt or regret in your own eyes can be a source of suffering at the end of life. Serious illness reminds people of how much they matter to each other. When you are facing death, what is most important to you are your family and friends. If any of the relationships with people important to you are strained or broken, you may feel a deep desire for resolution and healing while there is still time.
Guilt may produce tension or breakdown in any or all of the following relationships:
- With yourself: You have a sense that you have not been true to who you thought you were or to who you would like to be.
- With others: Something you have said or done, or your failure to act or speak when you needed to, has damaged relationships.
- With your Creator: You feel unacceptable to your Creator because you believe you have failed to be the person you were created to be.
Guilt at the end of life may be new or old. Either one is a signal that a relationship needs to be repaired. To do this you may need to talk about difficulties, forgive or be forgiven, and develop new ways of relating.
Guilt and regret arising from illness
A life-limiting illness brings stresses that may lead to misunderstandings, irritation, or hurt. You and your family are dealing with a lot. This can create tension which in turn may create guilt. Some of the possible sources of tension and guilt:
- changing roles and responsibilities;
- disruption of schedules and plans;
- loss of independence and the need for support and care;
- feelings of envy or anger toward healthy family members;
- conflict with caregivers over treatment and care, or anything else.
If your illness seems to be straining relationships with people you love, you need to have an open and respectful conversation. When things are not going well, it can ease tension and relieve guilt to talk about how you are coping with what is happening. It can also help you understand each other. A good place to start is to talk about your regrets from your part in relationship difficulties. Talking about any of the following could be helpful:
- recent experiences with each other that have been hurtful, irritating, or upsetting;
- difficult feelings related to the illness, especially fear, sadness, and anger;
- how the illness is affecting your self-image and self-confidence;
- changes in your daily roles and responsibilities;
- love for one another and concern for each other’s well-being;
- willingness and ability of family and friends to care for you.
You may need to talk about your family’s capacity to give care. If more caregiving resources are needed, talk with the health care team about options. You may also need to talk about any hesitations or embarrassments you have with receiving care from your family and friends.
People are more likely to join a conversation that starts with an apology than one that begins with blaming and throwing guilt. The focus is on hearing and understanding each other, reaffirming your love for each other, and finding solutions that work for you and others.
Open conversations about conflicts and stresses can free you and others to make a fresh start in your relationships. However, such a conversation may not be easy. You may need to invite someone you trust to guide the conversation, to help you hear each other and explore new ways of coping. If you have no one who might help with such a conversation, ask your health care team for suggestions.
Healing estranged relationships
Guilt and anger often comes from the past – from burnt bridges, failures in reliability, quarrels or misdeeds, or emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Sometimes relationships stumble on unhappily for years, and other times they fracture completely.
The approach of death and the end of relationships can trigger an urgent desire to deal with unfinished business. You may find yourself hoping for healing and reconciliation, and feel you will not have peace without them. This is not an impossible dream if you are willing to face your guilt and regret, or anger and resentment.
Guilt and regret from estranged relationships
If you are feeling guilt about a strained or broken relationship, you can take the first step to begin the healing:
- Find an opportunity to talk with the person you have hurt or wronged.
- Share your sense of failure. You might simply say that you know you haven't always been the best partner, parent, child, or friend; or you may take responsibility for specific actions or words you believe damaged the relationship. This is not a time to defend or excuse yourself, nor to blame or accuse anyone else. It is a time to accept your part in the trouble.
- Talk about your feelings related to your failures, which may include regret, sorrow or something else.
- Express your love and appreciation for the person and ask for forgiveness.
- Ask the person if he or she wants to respond in any way to what you have said. Your words may open the door to forgiveness, signs of affection, or a request that you also forgive.
- Prepare yourself for the possibility that the person may not be willing to let go of anger and forgive. You can only take responsibility for your part.
If a conversation like this is not possible, look for other ways to convey your regret and apology. Whatever the response, you have taken responsibility for your side of the relationship. That in itself is often freeing and healing.
You might also express your love and send healing energy toward someone in the form of a prayer or meditation. The Buddhist tradition has a meditation that people of all faiths find very powerful for cultivating kindness, generosity and compassion. This is a loving-kindness meditation, in which you hold the person in your mind’s eye or heart and surround that person with your love. You wish them well with silent or whispered words such as this:
May you be happy.
May you be free from pain and suffering.
May you experience love and joy.
Then you trust that the mysterious, loving spirit that moves between people will do its subtle, graceful work, and reconnect the two of you across the barriers between you.
Anger and resentment from estranged relationships
If you are carrying anger from a strained or broken relationship, you can begin healing by accepting certain truths:
- Disappointments and difficulties are often part of relationships because people and relationships are not perfect.
- The past cannot be changed, but the future is still open;
- Ongoing accusation, unrelenting anger, feelings of being offended or victimized, and longing for revenge or payback affect you as much as the other person. They can keep your life story from ending well.
These are not easy truths to face and accept. Anger is a normal reaction to being deeply hurt, wronged, or offended – so is the tendency to nurse the anger and to allow it to overshadow everything else in a relationship. However, your anger can become a ball and chain that keeps you from enjoying your life and relationships.
Forgiveness is easiest to offer when the person who has hurt or wronged you takes the initiative in making things right. However, you do not need to wait. The process of forgiveness begins within you, with these steps:
- You make a decision that you have carried your hurt or anger long enough and you want to be free of its burden.
- You accept that you too are imperfect and have the capacity to hurt and wrong others.
- You step down from your internal pedestal on which you stand in judgment of the other person.
- You begin to let go of your demand that the other person pay in some way for what has happened.
This may be all you can do if the other person is no longer living or cannot be contacted. If that is not the case, you may want to try to contact the person to talk about letting go of past hurts. The other person also may want to express guilt, regret, or ask for forgiveness. Whether that happens or not you have done your part in trying to heal the relationship.
The loving-kindness meditation is especially helpful for letting go of feelings of resentment and dislike, even toward people who have already died. It works best if you begin by offering love and kindness toward yourself by inwardly saying words like this:
May I be at peace.
May I be free from anger.
May my heart be open.
May I be filled with compassion.
May I be healed.
May I be a source of healing for others.
This can be followed by consciously letting go of anger and resentment toward someone who has harmed you and offering forgiveness in your heart. You can do this with the words suggested in the previous section:
May you be happy.
May you be free from pain and suffering.
May you experience love and joy.
It is important to realize that forgiveness does not mean forgetting or pretending there are no consequences to wrongful actions. Those who carelessly hurt or callously wrong others need to be accountable. Forgiveness does not mean relieving people of responsibility for their misdeeds. You cannot forget actions that are hateful, deeply hurtful, or unjust. They become part of your life story and leave tender spots or scars. However, you do not need to keep dwelling on those tender spots or reopening those wounds. Forgiveness is a way of freeing yourself and making space for healing to occur. Forgiveness and remembering belong together. Remembering is a way of learning from your experience and avoiding further harm to yourself or others.
The healing that comes from forgiveness takes time. Sometimes at the end of life, there is only enough time to start the process. Yet even that can transform what remains of your life.
You may find that forgiving yourself is harder than forgiving others. Your mistakes, failures, missed opportunities, or unfulfilled dreams may loom large when you reflect on your life. You may have difficulty getting past the feeling that you have hurt or let down people who matter to you. Self-judgment can become an obstacle to affirming your life and opening yourself to others. It causes spiritual and emotional distress.
Forgiving yourself begins with looking at yourself with compassion as you review your life story and recall the mistakes you have made. Remind yourself that throughout your life you tried to do the best you could with what you knew and had to work with. Take into account your good intentions, the traumas and challenges you met, and the suffering you endured.
You are only human; you are not perfect. Focus on your resiliency and on what you have learned from your difficult experiences.
Forgiving yourself is not about excusing wrongs you have done nor defending yourself from someone who feels wronged by you. It is about giving up the tendency to beat yourself up or to label yourself a bad person.
Confession is often part of forgiving yourself. Healing begins as you confess your sorrow over your failures to be the person you wanted to be. What you confess may be a secret you carry from long ago, or something that affects your life now. Sometimes it is easiest to talk about your feelings of guilt with someone outside your usual circle. This may be a counsellor, palliative care volunteer, or a spiritual leader. Choose someone who you trust will accept you no matter what you talk about.
You may want to make your confession in a setting or in a ritual where you can be confident of your Creator’s forgiveness and acceptance. This confidence may be strengthened by symbolic actions, which may include these:
- Write a brief description of your misdeed and your feelings about it, tear it up, and burn or bury the scraps.
- Receive anointing.
- Have hands laid on you in blessing.
- Receive formal words of pardon from a spiritual leader.
You may also make a commitment to change behaviour that damages your sense of yourself.
Forgiving yourself for hurting another person may be the first step in reconciling with that person. These may begin by sharing your regret about the past and your hope that your relationship might change for the better in the time you have left.
It is never too late to try healing a relationship that has been marred by conflict, neglect, or bitterness. Your story can end well if your relationships end well. Guilt and regret are symptoms of a need to attend to your relationships: with yourself, with other people, and perhaps with your Creator. Forgiveness and reconciliation are the medicines needed for healing. In the presence of such healing, stories end well.
Content reviewed June 2012