My son came home from school today upset. I reminded him of Heather's birthday, and he burst into tears. He felt terribly sad and guilty over an incident at school, and I was at loss for what to say.
At lunch, Aiden and his friends decided to play a game with a football. One boy threw the ball at another boy and bloodied his nose. Aiden was pretty scared of the blood, but he also felt responsible. He didn't go over the rules of the game before they started, and his friend was hurt. On one hand, his guilt is unnecessary. Accidents happen, and often they aren't as preventable as they seem in hindsight. On the other hand, I'm really proud of his sense of responsibility.
I talked to Aiden for a long time this afternoon, and suggested several things to make him feel better, but he was resistant. We worked on separating his fear of the rather large amount of blood (which is understandable, as I'm pretty sure he's never seen that much blood at one time) from his anger at his other friend (who shouldn't have thrown a ball at someone's face, and knew it) and his guilt. He understood and knew what to do with his fear and anger, but guilt is new to him. In the end, I had to let him work out his own feelings.
Guilt can be useful to changing behavior, to helping us learn from our mistakes, but it is also often misplaced. Like my son is learning, we need to assess our guilty feelings, determine how to proceed, and to create change within our lives. We can't, however, allow guilt to eat us, to prevent us from healthy change, and to keep us from letting go of negative emotions.