The Emotions of Grief: Loneliness & Guilt

By: Nancy Hancock
Monday, November 4, 2019


Public Information Evening

James Reid Funeral Home

Nancy Hancock

November 4, 2019

The death of a loved family member or friend brings a flood of feelings. You feel a deep sense of hurt which can seem physically painful at times. You may feel an aching void, as if a part of you were missing. And, in truth, a part of you is missing. You wonder if you will ever feel “normal” again. You may ask, “Will it always feel this empty?” or “Will I always be this lonely?”.

What are some of the feelings you have experienced after your loved one died?

  • shock and disbelief, at the beginning
  • sadness
  • anger
  • guilt
  • fear
  • loneliness
  • anxiety or panic
  • anguish
  • despair
  • bitterness

Your feelings may be all over the map. They seem all tangled up together, like this diagram of “A Tangled Ball of Emotions” (H. Norman Wright).




Your emotions may seem like being on a roller coaster, full of ups and downs, highs and lows, and unexpected twists and turns

All of these feelings are completely normal in the early stages of grief, and some will last a longer time than others. Sometimes just when you think you are “over” a particularly difficult emotion, an event or a memory will trigger the feeling again and you will feel the pain of your loss all over again.

What are some of the things which can trigger your strong emotions of grief again?
- a holiday
- a special event like a wedding or birth of a baby
- another loss: death, divorce, moving, job
- certain smells, music, foods
- a dream: have you had any dreams from which you wake up crying, or a comforting dream?

Although you may even feel physically ill from these intense feelings, grief is not an illness. It is a normal reaction to the death of someone we loved. It is not a psychiatric disorder, even though you may feel like you are “going crazy”. The emotional symptoms may lessen over time, however you will not “get over it”. You will get through it. Be patient and kind with yourself, the way you would be with a good friend who is going through grief.

Every person’s experience of grief will be unique to them. It is as unique as your relationship was to your person, and as the circumstances of the death was. What is universal though is that the experience of grief is the most difficult of experiences anyone will go through. The task of mourning your loss is also the most difficult thing you will ever have to work through.

Some of you have been coming to these evenings for a few years, and some are very new to their grief. The beauty of this group is in the valuable experience of those who are further along in the work of their grief. You are able to share from your own experience what you felt and what was helpful/not helpful to you. You also are living proof that we will survive what may seem like the never-ending pain-filled experience of grief.

What, for you, was the most difficult emotion you have felt in your time of grief?
- what were the triggers?
- how long did the acute feeling last? Did that feeling return again?
- what, if anything, helped during that time?

In my time in the bereavement support program, the emotions that people tell me are the most difficult, are loneliness and guilt. Let’s look at these emotions in more depth.


One widow said, “When the last member of my family had left to go home, and my friends stopped bringing their casseroles and visiting, I was left to face this alone. I felt so lonely.”
Do you identify with this? 
The Encyclopedia of Mental Health of 1998, defined loneliness as, “the subjective
psychological discomfort people experience when their network of social relationships is significantly deficient in either quality or quantity.” It is not only defined by the death of someone we loved. Loneliness is a feeling which is universal to the human condition, and one which is at epidemic proportions these days. People feel lonely for all sorts of reasons: the end of a romantic
relationship, a divorce, parents with a new empty nest, people moving to a new place, and many seniors all experience various levels of loneliness. When someone we cared about moves away, leaves us, or dies, we feel lonely.


What makes the experience of loneliness different when it follows the death of a loved one?
- we know that they are never coming back, and that no one can ever take their place in our hearts.

Studies are being done nowadays which prove that extended periods of loneliness are very detrimental to our mental and physical health. Human beings are made for connection with other people. Communities are beginning to recognize that seniors are at high risk for being isolated and lonely, leading to declining health and sometimes an earlier death than seniors who are not lonely. Programs are being developed, often in the senior’s own neighbourhood, to help
mitigate against the problem of loneliness. 

It’s not just widows and widowers who struggle with loneliness. Or seniors. How can the death of a parent, sibling, or close friend be the cause of intense feelings of loneliness?

  • loss of a shared history and memories
  • loss of “secret” jokes
  • loss of companionship through much of your lives
  • loss of mutual support

You may have 100 wonderful friends and family members, but if you long for that one person you no longer have, you are liable to feel lonely, even when surrounded by people who love you.
Loneliness after the death of a loved one is the price we pay for being human and for loving someone deeply.


Can you describe what loneliness has been like for you? How does it affect you? Were there physical symptoms? What for you is the most lonely time of the day or night? What do you do at these times? What has helped you get through the periods of loneliness that come with grief?

- staying up late to avoid going to an empty bed
- eating out or eating in front of the tv, to avoid the empty place at the table
- keeping busy
- wrapping yourself up in your loved one’s sweater or blanket, hugging their pillow
- drinking too much
- avoiding social events with couples
How has your loneliness changed over time?

While loneliness is a terrible feeling, don’t mistake loneliness for merely being alone. You can be alone and yet not be lonely. Our culture teaches us that being alone is to be avoided at all costs. If you are living alone after the death of your loved one, how can that actually be a positive thing for you?

- able to express your emotions freely and loudly, without reservation
- can be a time of self reflection about who you are without your loved one
- time for privacy and self-care
- able to increase your independence
- time to read about grief or spirituality
- time to pray, meditate or SLEEP

In the early stages of grief it is normal to impose a kind of social isolation for a few weeks or months. Did you experience this? In what ways did you isolate yourself?

- screening phone calls, not answering the door
- declining social invitations
- avoiding social gatherings and special events
- feeling of “not fitting in”
- not on social media

How long did you isolate yourself in these ways?

While some degree of self-isolation is normal and self-protective, isolation which
continues for a very long time can become unhealthy and lead to clinical depression. It is important to pay attention to how much you are isolating yourself from others and whether it is becoming an unhealthy way of coping with loneliness, and in fact, increasing your loneliness.


The loneliness of grief is not easily solved. You can never completely fill the void your person has left when they died. It takes time and effort to learn to live without them. Most of all, it requires acceptance, to accept what simply is and cannot be changed. Time to learn how to BE without this person in your life, and to recognize their presence with you in a different way.

What are some ways you might feel your person’s presence with you in a non-physical way?

- in the memories you shared with them
- looking at photographs
- listening to their favourite music
- sitting on the bench you sat on together in the park—plant a tree there!
- sensing them as “guardian angel”
- feeling their presence in the form of butterflies or birds


Some time ago I was speaking with a woman who had been totally devoted to her husband. He had died of a long, difficult illness and as she recounted her story, I marvelled as she told of going to the hospital each day, taking care of many of his nursing needs, feeding him, dressing him, changing his bedding, and liaising with doctors. Many of you have done the same. She did all of that and kept their home in order as well. After many months of keeping this
regimen up, her own health was failing. She had to see her doctor one morning. It was the only day that she could not be at the hospital with her husband. It was also the morning he died. Try as she might to rationalize it, she could not get over the feeling that she had let him down and somehow caused his death. She felt a lasting guilt.

Guilt is another universal emotion in grief. It is felt by intimate partners as well as other family or good friends. What are some of the reasons you have felt guilt after your person died?

  • regret over the last time we saw them: what we said or didn’t say
  • enjoying a special event while loved one was ill
  • enjoying a new relationship, before or after the death
  • we aren’t “crying enough”
  • we weren’t there when our person died
  • we didn’t see symptoms of the illness earlier
  • the guilt is complicated if the death was by suicide
  • coulda; woulda; shouldas

Paul Tournier, the theologian, once said, “There is no grave beside which a flood of guilt does not assail the mind.”
Whether or not there is any truth to the validity of the reason for guilt, guilt is a real emotion. It can be quite crippling and torment the mourner for a long time. If any relief is to be found, one must acknowledge and accept that one is feeling guilty. To deny that we feel that we have failed only makes the guilt feel worse.
Guilt, true guilt, is based upon fact. Is your guilt legitimate or false guilt? Were there things you could have done, or done differently? Would they have changed the end result, ie, the death? Did you do the best you knew to do at the time, given the circumstances?

These are tough questions, and it might be helpful to discuss your guilt with a trusted friend, clergy person, or grief counsellor. Sometimes an objective perspective is what is needed to help allay your feelings of guilt. Perhaps talking over the details of the illness with the medical professional who was involved might help. The professional can explain the medical evidence and process, perhaps giving reassurance that there was nothing further that could be done to
prevent your loved one’s death.

There may be more difficult reasons for your guilt. Perhaps you shared some angry words with your person the last time you saw them or expressed your frustration and impatience with them. Did any of you have a reason such as this for your guilt? How have you coped with this?

We need to be as gentle and forgiving of ourselves as we would with a close friend who was struggling with guilt, whether it is legitimate or false. Sometimes, when we can’t forgive ourselves, we need to do something concrete to express our regret and receive the forgiveness we need.

Suggestions: some will feel right to you to try, others may not.

  • write out your feelings of guilt and the reasons why: either in a journal or in the form of a letter to your person. Ask for their forgiveness. Sometimes this will be all that is needed.
  • perform a ritual that will be meaningful to you: burn the letter or bury it to symbolize that you have received forgiveness and must now lay the guilt to rest
  • visit the graveside or sit in front of the urn or a photo of the deceased: express your heartfelt sorrow and reason for your remorse, apologize, and receive their forgiveness.
  • sit opposite an empty chair and express your feelings of guilt as if your loved one was in front of you. Ask for their forgiveness, thanking them for it.
  • Saying, “will you forgive me” acknowledges that there were things I regret doing or not doing, and that you seek reconciliation. Ask your person to release you from the guilt you are feeling.
  • Telling another person of the action you have completed will make it seem more tangibleto you. Hearing the other person affirm your action and reassure you of the forgiveness will help you to let it go.

Who else do you need to experience forgiveness from?
- God
- Yourself

How have you sought to receive the forgiveness you need from God, if you are a religious person?
-speak to clergy; prayer; meditation; visualize God’s embrace

How might you forgive yourself for real or perceived failures when your person died?

- realize and accept your shortcomings as a human being
- love yourself: all of your strengths and weaknesses
- tell your guilt to “take a hike” out loud, every time the guilty thought appears
- tell yourself that you did the best you could with what you knew
- ask a friend to remind you of these things
- remember that to fail is to be human
- forgive yourself and keep moving on


The emotions of grief are very powerful. You can get stuck in them, or you can resolve to wallow for awhile, then to live out the rest of your life in ways that honour your loved one:

  • express love freely and often
  • seek reconciliation in your relationships and receive forgiveness
  • cultivate close relationships
  • be kind to yourself and others

The day will come when you begin to feel happiness again. Remember that it is ok to laugh and to have some fun! Those times are a gift.

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