Guilt & Shame
“If the death has occurred suddenly, as in a car accident, the child will think, ‘If I had kept my mom on the phone a little longer that day’, or ‘If I hadn’t gotten in that argument, she wouldn’t have gotten in the car at that moment.’” (Counselor)
Guilt and shame are common reactions among grieving children—and grieving adults as well. These feelings can make it difficult to cope with a death. School professionals who understand why these reactions occur can take steps to create a safe environment for students to express their thoughts and feelings. These are important first steps to help children adjust to their loss. This module explains how to raise these issues with children and normalize their questions, thoughts, and feelings about the death.
Children sometimes believe they are responsible for bad things that happen to people around them. They feel guilty because they assume their thoughts, feelings, and actions are influencing larger events.
Children may believe a conflict, moment of anger, or negative thought had the real consequence of bringing about someone’s death. This is even more likely when a relationship was ambivalent or conflicted—with an absent or abusive parent, for example. After a death, such thoughts are common even for adolescents.
Children may also get the impression it is wrong to ask questions about a death. They see the discomfort it causes adults. They may observe feelings of unease, especially when a death involves stigma—for example, a death related to drug overdose, criminal behavior, suicide, or a disease which could have been prevented. Children may feel shame about their own curiosity, “naughty” behaviors they think contributed in some way to the death, or something “bad” done by the person who died.
It is helpful to discuss guilt and shame explicitly with grieving children. Ask about their thoughts, feelings, or questions. Describe the kinds of reactions related to guilt and shame others often have. Offer reassurance. Consider referrals to counseling for students who continue to be troubled by guilt and shame over time.