What is a soul? It's like electricity - we don't really know what it is, but it's a force that can light a room.
Ray Charles

Guilt is a feeling that arises when we believe that we have violated some responsibility, higher principle, or belief.  Guilt carries with it a lowered self-esteem, heightened self-blame, and a feeling that we should do something to absolve ourselves of the wrong we committed.  While guilt can be well founded and realistic, in most cases involving the death of a child it is more of a reaction to feelings of helplessness and responsibility.  Parents begin to believe that they must have done, said, or felt something that contributed to their child’s death.  Parents compare their actions against some idealized standard and if they discover a discrepancy, the death becomes their fault.  Such statements as, “If I had only _______ my child would be alive today!” become part of their thinking when, in reality, there was nothing they could have done to change the course of events.

In their book Death and Dying, Life and Living, Charles Corr, Clyde Nabe, and Donna Corr identify six sources of guilt that parents may experience:

  1. Death causation guilt – This type of guilt is based on the parents’ belief that they either failed to protect or contributed to the death of their child.  For example, a parent might believe something like, “It’s my fault she died.  If I hadn’t asked her to go to the grocery store, she wouldn’t have been hit by that drunk driver.”

  2. Illness-related guilt – This guilt is based on the parents’ perceived deficiencies in their role as parents during the child’s illness or at the time of death.  For example, I have a current client whose adult son died unexpectedly after a long illness.  During our time together, she has repeatedly expressed guilt over not having watched a movie with him the evening before he died.  Even though she acknowledges that she was also ill during that time, she still feels she could have done more to be with him and do what he wanted.  Slowly that guilt is abating as she is realizing she had no way of knowing he was going to die that evening and remembering how much she did do for him over the course of his illness.

  3. Parental role guilt – This guilt is based on the notion that the parent(s) did not live up to their expectations or to society’s expectations of what it means to be a “good parent.”  Of all of the different types of guilt, I have found this one to be the hardest to put any arms around since it involves an ill-defined standard of behavior that can change over time.

  4. Moral guilt – This guilt is based on the belief that the child’s death was the punishment for a religious or moral wrong committed by either the child or the parent.  Obviously, this guilt can bring about the parents’ re-examination of their religious and moral beliefs.  For example, a mother may state, “God took my baby from me to punish me for the abortion I had when I was 18.”

  5. Survivor guilt – This guilt is based on the underlying assumptive world belief that children should outlive their parents.

  6. Grief guilt – This last source of guilt is based on the perception by parents that they did not act appropriately around the time of death.  They may feel they over reacted or under reacted emotionally, did not contact certain members of the family, did not have a funeral or memorial service, were not present when the child died, etc.
I would like to point out that the different types of guilt listed above are not mutually exclusive.  Often bereaved parents have more than one at the same time.   How does guilt arise?  In my experience, I have frequently seen the following chain of thinking occur:

  1. A death occurred and we were powerless to stop it.

  2. In order to get back some amount of control, we look back on the events and believe that if we had only done this or that, we could have controlled the situation and prevented the death.

  3. For whatever reason (usually because we cannot foretell the future and not because of some malicious intent), we failed to perform that magical act.

  4. We blame ourselves for not doing that act and thus feel guilty.
Notice that parents are using guilt as one way to try to make some sense out of what happened.  As I wrote when discussing the assumptive world, we humans will sacrifice our own self-worth and conclude we deserve punishment in order to maintain our belief that the world is a benevolent, just, and orderly place. How to deal with and eventually resolve these feelings of guilt are a couple of the purposes of mourning.  While resolving anger can require forgiving others, resolving guilt requires forgiving ourselves.  Sometimes forgiving ourselves can be harder than forgiving others, especially when we accuse ourselves of perceived wrongs.  If guilt becomes a debilitating condition, the bereaved parent(s) may find professional help very beneficial.