“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything—anger, guilt, or possessions—we cannot be free.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
One night after my nine-year-old son had just gone to bed, he asked me if I would lay with him, as he was scared. I was getting ready for a busy week and was tired, so I replied, “No, you’re fine. Go to sleep.”
When he died the following afternoon after being hit by a car, I remembered what he’d asked me. The guilt that followed me from that day on was overwhelming.
Guilt is an emotion that we have all experienced. It can come in many forms, from simply cheating on a diet or from making a dreadful choice that affects our lives forever.
The guilt I felt after my son died burdened me for several years. Every anniversary, I would go over and over what I hadn’t done during those last few days before his death.
I would remember every conversation, every request. The guilt beat me up, it made me replay my mistakes, and it wasted enormous amounts of my energy, re-enacting how I could have done something differently. It made me feel bad even when I didn’t feel bad!
I think one of the reasons it was so hard to give up and let go of my guilt was because I felt the need to punish myself after his death for all the things I hadn’t done in his life.
I would pretend that if I had made different choices, I could have changed that day.
People would remind me of all the things I had done for my son and the wonderful life and love he was given, but it wasn’t enough for me. I constantly questioned why I hadn’t done more.
After a few years, I realized that guilt was consuming me and in order for me to move on, I needed to find a way to let go and forgive myself.
I was weighed down because I was living a life consumed by the past. Guilt did not allow me to be fully present with my family, or to see all the good that I had in my life then and now.
I had to face that I was never going to change the past, but I could change the way I remembered my precious time with my son. Once I did, I could free myself from being the victim of my story.
Guilt was a pointless burden on top of my grief. I needed to accept the decisions that I had made and let go.
With guidance from a reiki practitioner, I learned how to become still, empty my mind of my negative thoughts, and finally give myself permission to stop carrying this burden.
Here are some of the ways I learned to let go of my guilt and forgive myself. If you’re also clinging to guilt and living in the past, these may help you, too.
In our busy world it can be difficult to find time for stillness, and sometimes it’s easier to avoid it, since it can bring up painful emotions. But it’s only in facing the emotions that we can work through them and let them go.
Through practicing meditation and yoga, I found that breathing deeply and slowly helped me release the stress in my body and mind.
It allowed me observe, accept, and release my guilt, and it also helped me focus and create new, positive beliefs and thoughts.
Over time, stillness can help us learn to identify the beliefs and thoughts that lead to guilt so we can let them go to feel lighter and less attached to stories about the past.
Not long after our son died, I began to write in a journal. It really helped me to express my feelings and understand why I felt how I did.
Start by writing down your overwhelming thoughts and feelings. Allow yourself to express everything. Be still and take time to read it back.
Now ask yourself some questions, like: Do I need to hold onto to these thoughts and feelings anymore? How would changing these thoughts or feelings make a difference in my life? How is guilt holding me back?
Answer honestly and begin to see where you can change the thoughts and beliefs you have about your situation.
Then start writing down some new goals, affirmations, and thoughts you can have instead, and make time each day to practice them. Our journals can help us release, learn, and keep track of our progress and our goals for the future.
Sitting in a calm, quiet place, visualize the person you feel guilty about and ask them for forgiveness. Now, see them forgiving you, see yourself and the other person covered in light, and see yourself no longer burdened by your guilt.
For a long time I didn’t believe I deserved forgiveness, and you may feel the same.
Forgiveness means letting go and releasing the heaviness and the old story we have told ourselves. Forgiveness allows us see the truth and release the past.
It’s hard to forgive yourself and accept that you deserve it, but holding onto your guilt only creates pain. Seek help from a trained practitioner if you feel you cannot do it on your own.
Time and practice will always be your healer, so be patient and never give up.
Realize that no one is perfect—and also that our guilt often has more to do with ourselves than those who we feel we have harmed. Guilt is often a self-created reminder of all the things we wish we had done differently for ourselves.
In realizing that it’s in large part about us, it’s a lot easier to let it go.
I no longer allow guilt to have power in my life, and in doing so, I can experience the fullness of life and the precious time I have with everyone I love. No matter what you feel guilty about, you deserve that too.