Often when we talk about “feeling guilty” the feeling we are describing is not guilt but regret, writes Good Samaritan Sister Bernardina Sontrop.
BY Bernardina Sontrop SGS*
November is traditionally a time when we pause to remember our loved ones who have died. This remembering brings with it a variety of emotions such as sadness, sorrow, gratitude, nostalgia, peace, anger, regret and guilt. Of these emotions, guilt can be a dominant one. How often have we heard a person say “I feel so guilty…”?
Guilt is an emotion that can weigh heavily on us. Many people carry guilt, some for a long period of time, over things that have happened, but about which they can do nothing. I have been particularly aware of this in my work with families who have experienced the death of a young child. Living with guilt can prevent a person experiencing, appreciating and living life fully.
There are also families I know who have learnt to live with the mystery of the death. They still feel their loss deeply after many years, and keep the memory alive in various ways, gathering to remember and celebrate the life that was for a short time entrusted to their care.
Some families set up a foundation in support of a particular cause relating to the death of their loved one. Through this they have continued life’s journey living with their deep loss and regret, but channelling their energies into nurturing the life for others through a worthwhile cause.
However, increasingly in recent years, in a variety of conversations, I have found myself reflecting on the use of the word “guilt”. On hearing the phrase, “I feel so guilty…” I’ve wondered, “What is it that makes you feel guilty?”
If it was appropriate, I explored people’s feeling of guilt with them and there has been, on several occasions, an emerging awareness in the person that what they are talking about is regret. In the course of the conversation they realise that there is nothing they could have done to change what happened. What they are saying is that they wish things could have been different.
The grandmother grieving the accidental death of her granddaughter was able to move beyond her overwhelming feelings of guilt to a deep sense of regret when she realised she could do nothing about the child who escaped from her dad’s hold and ran behind her car as she was reversing.
The young man who felt guilty about his wife’s sudden death in an accident moved from guilt to deep sorrow knowing that his beloved would not be there to share life’s joys and sorrows on the years to come.
The daughter who had not visited her mother as often as she would have liked found her feelings of guilt dissipate when she realised she was struggling with regret and a deep sense of loss over the missed opportunities while her mother was alive.
There are times, of course, when we rightfully feel guilt; when we have intentionally done something wrong or something to cause another person harm or hurt. Hurtful words spoken in anger, hurt or frustration, cannot be taken back, but we can take some positive action to deal with our feelings of guilt and make up for the harm or hurt we have caused.
If I am caught speeding, I can pay the fine. If my words have been hurtful, I can offer a sincere apology and ask forgiveness. If I’ve damaged something that belongs to another person, I can repair or replace it. By making right the wrong we have done, we work through our guilt and take responsibility for our lives in a positive way.
While we can tend to use the words guilt and regret interchangeably, it is important not to confuse them. There are many things in life I am sure, for each of us, that we wish could have been different as we reflect on our own lives, or on life in the world around us. Often when we talk about “feeling guilty” the feeling we are describing is not guilt but regret.
When we find ourselves weighed down by a sense of guilt it is wise not to let that guilt take hold of us. Where in fact there was no intention of hurt or harm and there is nothing that can be done to change the situation, we need to stop and name our regrets, and pray for the grace to let go of guilt that can cripple us and stop us from living life fully.
* Good Samaritan Sister Bernardina Sontrop is currently a member of the leadership team of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. Prior to this she spent many years in education and parish community ministry.
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