Slices of Life: The real guilt of grief

We do good because we are propelled to do so, not because it is what we should do or because we want to experience the outcome. We do good because we are wired to do good.

Jill Pertler
Jill Pertler

If grief itself weren’t bad enough, she often is accompanied by another formidable beast. I’ve encountered him lately, and his name is guilt.

Before I go any further, please suppress your instinct to tell me I shouldn’t feel any guilt because I loved fully, madly and deeply and went above and beyond to do whatever I could to help my husband.

I did. I know that. In my heart I know that 100%. And he knows it, too. To his core. I believe that fully.

But hear me out: guilt is real. Survivor’s guilt, caretaker’s guilt — both real.

Because what if it’s true?


When you are the sole person responsible for a loved one who is hospitalized (Thanks again, COVID) you have to make decisions. Big decisions. Big, important medical decisions that you are, quite frankly, incapable and unqualified to make. And you aren’t given much time.

You don’t have two weeks to ponder a decision. It’s often made during a phone call or within less than a minute as a doctor lays out the scenario as best he or she can and leaves you with the end game.

I made decisions I never should have had to make. I encountered choices that never should have been thrust upon me.

But they were.

And, honestly, from the deepest recesses of my heart, I did my best.

I performed caregiving tasks I never thought possible. I learned medical procedures I never thought I’d ever need in my wheelhouse. I watched someone slowly grow weaker and weaker and there was, seemingly, nothing I could do.

But now I look back and wonder if there was something that I could have done or said.

Could I have asked more questions? Did I ask the right questions?


I advocated strong and hard — beyond my normal abilities, really, but could I have advocated more?

When I was finally allowed, I visited every day for hours on end. Was there more I should have been doing during that time? Why couldn’t I save him?

The guilt is real people.

I wrote a column a few weeks back about what to say to a person who is grieving. I left out one piece of advice: Don’t negate their feelings. Don’t tell them they should feel one way or another because they do feel that way and their feelings are real and deep and worth acknowledging.

Guilt is often one of those feelings.

We feel guilty for what we did or didn’t do — even if we have no idea what that might be.

We feel guilty for not saying something, or saying too much.

We feel guilty for not fully appreciating the beautiful life we had.


We feel guilty for conversations we might have had or could have had.

We feel guilty for being the one who survived.

We feel guilty for everything and nothing and so much more.

I’m not saying it’s right or correct to feel this way. Nothing about grief is right or correct.

It just is. And it is real. Please understand that. And please allow anyone you love who is grieving this grace.

Thanks in advance. I know you only want to help. And you are.

J ill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, published playwright, author and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Don’t miss a slice; follow the Slices of Life page on Facebook.

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