Running Helped Me Cope With Intense Grief

I like to run.


Around the tracks in a park nearby.

And when I am in grief?

I also run another type of lap. No, not laps in the swimming pool.

Laps of guilt.

Yup. We are going THERE today.

Are you in? Let’s do this!

You may have heard the concept of “waves of grief”.

Those sometimes noxious, gut-wrenching, knock-you off-your-feet, moments of deep sadness-perhaps yearning, anguish, despair-whatever your experience may be- that seem to come out of nowhere.

These waves can include guilt.

Yes, guilt too comes in waves, and you can surf these, ride these.

But run them? No. That’s where running laps come in.

Oh yes, working through guilt is hard work!

Introducing another way guilt manifests itself….

Through my experience as a Grief and Loss Coach as well as my own experience with grief, I find it can help to see guilt as more analogous to running laps around a track.

Hence Laps of Guilt

In this article I will introduce what laps of guilt are, their role (yes, their function) in the grieving journey, and provide you with 6  strategies to navigate these laps of guilt that often accompany grief in hopes to alleviate the burden of guilt in your grieving journey.

Because……….. the pain that comes with loss is bad enough.

What are laps of guilt?

 I use this term as an analogy to relate to and describe the exhausting mental cycle of ruminating guilty thoughts and associated emotions (laps) that many run through (think through) during their grieving journey (often at night and when alone)

Although laps of guilt occur throughout life for a variety of reasons but in this article, I will be referring to the guilt one experiences during their grief.

Notice I do not say the “guilt that one might experience during their grief”. I have never worked with anyone nor experienced grief without guilt inviting itself into the journey.

 Let me give you an example.

A while back, in the early part of my grief related to the passing of my dad and recently my cat of 18 years, I would find myself running many laps of guilt – sometimes I “ran” for what seemed like 2 hours. Metaphorically, maybe 12-13 laps around a 400-meter track; experiencing the guilty thoughts 12-13 times over. I had a good variety too. It was a good workout.

12-13 Laps of guilty thoughts included the following (yes-some variety!):

My Dad….

 I was not there for my dad’s last breath…I could have been…. instead, I chose not to. I’m so sorry Dad.

What about that time I lost my temper with my dad during his Alzheimer’s…all those times….

If only I had noticed his symptoms earlier….

I wish I had been more patient and listened to his stories….

 My cat….

 If only I had noticed my cat’s blindness sooner…

Was I a horrible person to keep my cat alive for so long? Did she needlessly suffer?

I feel so bad about all those times I did not give her attention when she wanted….

How could I have taken her to get euthanized…. I tricked her into her own death….

If only….

 400 meters lap done.

 Again Fanie. Another lap.

 I was not there for my dad’s last breath…I could have been…. instead, I chose not to. I’m so sorry Dad.

What about that time I lost my temper with my dad during his Alzheimer’s…all those times….

If only I had noticed his symptoms earlier….

I am so sorry. I feel so much guilt….


 If only I had noticed my cat’s blindness sooner…

Was I a horrible person to keep my cat alive for so long? Did she needlessly suffer?

I feel so bad about all those times I did not give her attention when she wanted… How could I have taken her to get euthanized…. I tricked her into her own death….

 If only….

 Eventually I GOT tired.

Eventually, I GET tired.

How many more rounds of 400 meters does it take?

To make this all go away….to end these thoughts….no…to stop missing my loved ones…to stop…feeling the pain….…. to….


Well, it took quite a few.

But when you finish running those laps throughout the day, the month, the year, your life, you finally get exhausted.

And There WILL come a time when you can no longer do these laps anymore. At least not the way you used to.

A time when you ask yourself, “how many more laps of guilt do I have to run before I realize that….”:

  •  They would have left anyways.
  • There was nothing I could have done.
  • There is nothing I can do that will bring them back.
  • That I am still here and that….I won’t survive like this.
  • That I can let go of my guilt…that its ok to do so.

A time and place where you see that “oh, so this is Grief.”

And a time when you see that you have a choice. A time where you will feel ready to make a choice. Not the one you may have hoped for. But a choice is still there.

A time where maybe you say “Shhhh…” to guilt. “I don’t have to listen to you anymore.” or “You can go now please” “Your job is done”.

That time however does not come passively.

There are strategies to help you work through the guilt associated with grief and loss.

And here they are!

6 Approaches to Supporting you through your Laps of Guilt in Grief

 Guilt is one of the most common emotions I come across in grief and loss coaching. Although it may be inevitable that you will experience some form of guilt in your grief, there are ways to help soothe, relieve, and minimize the burden of guilt you may feel in your journey. This is essential to make space for healing.

*Notice I did not say “get rid of guilt” or “never run a lap of guilt again”. Guilt, although a miserable feeling, is often part of the grieving journey and is often multifactorial and very complex, sometimes mixed with trauma.

Whichever of the following strategies work for you will depend on your own unique situation.

1. Validate and acknowledge your feelings of guilt: Ok. You feel a lot of guilt. It’s messy. It sucks. Please-make it go away!

Although miserable, it is a common and normal experience in grief and loss. You don’t need to judge your guilt, and yourself, on top of everything else you are going through.

So, you are running laps of guilt. This is where you are. In your journey. At this time. Here and now.

Warranted or not.


2. “Run” them out: Sometimes guilt needs to run its track (course): Yes, as mentioned, you will likely be running some laps of guilt in your grieving journey. This is essentially “feel your feelings”. You may go in and out in terms of intensity and frequency. Sometimes it will be a 100-meter sprint. Other times 20 laps of a slow…400-meter track. It may never fully “end” but eventually, the laps will get shorter, and maybe you will just need to run 1 lap or even a few steps…Maybe you won’t run any laps for a while and then need to run a few years later.

All of it is ok. Run them out.

But when doing so, it helps to:

Set boundaries with your guilt:

  • Schedule your runs (bracket the guilt time) allowing for a specific amount of time
  • Limit the number and distance of the laps i.e. Run 3 laps of guilt, allowing yourself  to rethink the same thought and set a limit i.e only 3 times

Use strategic distracting:

  • You can’t stay in pain, processing, and reflection all the time. If you have already run a few laps of guilt, look up and around and see if you can divert your attention to something else. Take a break from it and you can return to it later.

*Repressing your guilt is not going to do anything for you.

Run it. Think it Feel it. Share it. Soothe it.

3. Understand YOUR GUILT as part of your Grief and Healing: No, you do to want to invite guilt every time it knocks on your door, but understanding and exploring what is going on for you during your laps of guilt can help you work through it.

To help prompt some self-awareness, some examples of what may be contributing to your guilt may include:

  • Trying to place blame in order to make sense of your loss.
  •  It may give you a sense of control.
  • It can be easier to feel guilty than helpless.
  • It can divert from the anguish and yearning related to your loss

Once you understand your guilt better, you may see how it protects you from the pain of the loss-possibly why we hang onto it.

4. Process the Guilt: Running laps of guilt can help alleviate the guilt in the long term -it is in a way, a form of processing. But when those laps turn to endless 400-meter sprints, day in day out, we need to dig in. We then get into ruminating and there is a fine line between processing and ruminating.

This can include:

  •          Talking it out with a close friend or family member about your feelings of guilt. Sometimes it can help to have someone jog alongside you, so you are not running laps all alone.
  • Getting professional help which can help you shift and reframe the way you might be experiencing things and offer a safe place to express your thoughts and emotions.
  • Writing the thoughts of guilt out in a journal or recording them so you can play them back to yourself and/or read them back to yourself, so they have a space to go, and you can then reflect and look at them through a more objective lens at another time.
  • Connect with the loved one who has passed or moved on and share your guilt and what you would like to say, have done. This can be done through letter writing exercises, sharing with someone you feel safe around.

5. Challenge the guilty thoughts: Challenging your thoughts is imperative as your thinking and perspective leads to the distressful feelings of guilt…the endless laps. By challenging the thought, you put a pause in the lap you are running – you interrupt it-, and the more you start believing and thinking in a different way, the more likely you are to start running shorter, less intense laps of guilt because you can now recognize different path.

*Watch out for the difference of ‘I feel guilty” versus ‘I am guilty” (emotional reasoning-a common cognitive distortion)

There are a variety of ways to do this and using cognitive behavioural strategies can help.

a. The “If only” to “Even If”: This strategy challenges your thoughts but deserves a category on its own. as it takes something so complicated and deep, and with the power of just a change in one word, can change it all.

2 Examples:

From:If only we had taken them to a different hospital…. they would not have died.

To: Even if we had taken them to a different hospital…they would have died”

 From: If only I had treated them better…they would not have left me for the other person.

 To: Even if I treated them better…. they may have left me for that other person anyways.

b. Separate the Event versus the Story

There is usually an even, often a fact and then, there are the wonderful plethora of stories we tell ourselves. And guilt loves a good story.

When feeling guilty about something, interrupt the thought leading to the guilt by asking yourself, “Is this true or is this my interpretation of the event?”

For example, let’s feed off one of the guilty thoughts I disclosed earlier on regarding not being there for my Father’s final moments.

The EVENT (the objective facts) is: He died in Hopsice. I was not there in when he died.

MY STORY/STORIES around this event (I have created a few….): What kind of daughter am I? He was so scared of dying, how could I not have been there to support him? It’s the least I could have done. He must have been terrified. What were his last thoughts of me? That I let him die alone?

Do you see that difference?

Look-I’ve done a lot of work on this. Many laps.

I tried – and now choose – to stick to the event and explore more positive stories/alternatives (stories CAN be good). A story that honours my Dad but one that I can live with.

You can either stick to the event and leave things there OR try on a new story.

My new story/stories: I was by my Dad’s side or so much of his journey and I know he recognized that. I was there for him when it really mattered. OR. My Dad was so disconnected from his illness that he likely did not process things with his last thought of “I cannot believe Fanie is not here for this”.

 6. Give yourself permission to LET GO of your guilt:

 This can be terrifying for may and definitely uncomfortable because as mentioned, I believe guilt plays a role, a function, in your grief. Often more than one.

If the guilt isn’t there…if you let go, if there is nothing to blame, nothing to make sense of your loss….there may then be nothing staring back at you but your loss.

Suddenly there may be nothing to hold on to.

If the role of the guilt is to shield you from the reality and enormity of the loss, then letting go of the guilt can expose the raw pain…and allow space for vulnerability and helplessness.

But these need to be released, expressed and experienced, as part of your grieving journey and in order to allow space for healing

It is also a big step forward towards acceptance. Acceptance that no matter what you did or didn’t do, this is the outcome. Today. This is where things are at.

Letting go can include forgiving yourself and treating yourself with compassion.

I’ll leave you with 2 questions in this one:

a. Is any more guilt going to change the situation?

b.  Will your guilt bring your loved one back?

 Then maybe, just maybe, its time to let it go.

 Giving yourself permission to let go can be a healthy part of your laps of guilt. Try it out- include it in your lap. See how you feel. You always latch back on to guilt if you need to.

 Going Forward

I hope that by using the 6 approaches above you can one day walk a journey of hope and meaning than run endless laps of guilt – that your laps of guilt might be a part of your journey, but they don’t define it or rule it😊

You can of course use a different analogy than laps around a park and although this article refers to the guilt in and around one’s grieving journey (to any loss, not limited to death of a person or pet) these approaches can also be applied to  guilt in any context.

As for my laps of guilt?

My laps of guilt I have run that are associated with my dad’s journey with Alzheimer’s, his passing, and the recent death of my cat, have subsided.

A little further along in my grieving journey now, and I still run a lap of guilt or 2, especially if I am emotionally activated by some event, but they are infrequent and usually at the start of the lap or midway, I am able to slow down, stop, and get off the track.

The guilt no longer consumes me.

I think I ran the laps the guilt in my grief needed me to run.At least in this journey.

Sure, I may still run 1-2 laps here and there. But I recognize this, have used the 6 strategies above and am able now to walk out of the circular lap. The cycle…. what I once thought was a never-ending track.

That’s because I ran (sometimes still do run) its course. I lean into it. I understand it’s role, process it, challenge it, and gave myself permission to let go.

Of my guilt

Of my dad. Of my cat.

But never the love, memories nor the relationships

You can’t race against grief. You can’t outrun grief. You can try, but it will catch up with you.

 It will wait for you. And you’ll always lose.

 Grief is not your competitor. It’s here to help you heal and integrate life, loss and love and find meaning in a world, now changed and so different.

 A world that you are still a part of.


Warm thoughts

Bonus track!

I would like to leave you today with a poem, which I will also post separately that I thought would be appropriate for this article.

Its’ called “Laps of Guilt: Is there anything I could have done?”

Kind of like a ‘secret track” on a music album!

By the way…do they still have those or is that just from the 90’s?

Laps of Guilt: Is there anything I could have done?

You will try to believe that this never happened.

The answer is no.

You’ll turn to helplessness.

The answer is no.

You will turn to yearning.

The answer is no.


The answer is no.

You’ll turn to bargaining.

The answer is still no.

You’ll get angry.

The answer is no.

You will feel defeated.

The answer is no.

You will slow down. You may fall. You will stop….perhaps mid lap

On lap #16.

You might look up.

And see an opening.

Either way, its there.

Maybe its a vision.

Maybe its somatic.

Maybe you hear it, or see it…or just….feel its presence.

It’s acceptance.  It’s also HOPE.

You sit there for a bit.In a pause. 

Then you start your laps again.

But you cannot “unsee” what you  just experienced now  

And now there is a lightness to the run

Not every  time.

But maybe next time, you only ran 14 laps

 And this is grief.


-Fanie Zis