Guilt is the common cold of the bereaved. I haven’t found one person (including myself) who doesn’t reach for myriad ¬– often baseless ¬¬– things to feel guilty about after a loved one dies. I was plagued by the certainty that death had come for the wrong one. It should have been me, Mel was the better person. Like so many survivors I kept berating myself for the times I’d been short-tempered with him, secretly resentful of the demands on me. “I caused Mel’s cancer,” I told his oncologist. “You must be very powerful,” he said. But even his well-meant sarcasm failed to release me.

I’m hardly unique. The field is overcrowded with those of us who insist we failed the person we loved. I spoke with Martha, a Baptist minister whose faith wasn’t enough to enable her to forgive herself. She had given her bed–ridden husband a bell he could ring when he needed her. She’s haunted now by the times she told him, “Stop ringing every minute, I have other things to do.” She lovingly cared for him for years, but it’s the times anger got the better of her that she keeps reliving.

Sometimes memory is imbedded in a tragic event. Janet said she and her husband usually did the week’s grocery shopping together. But one Saturday when they were expecting guests for dinner, she told him to shop without her, she had too much preparation to do. Hours later he still hadn’t returned, when the police callled. A truck driver had shot through the red light and rammed her husband’s car head-on. When she got to the hospital he was already on life support. Afterward she was submerged in a litany of “if only” she had gone with him, “if only” she hadn’t invited guests, “if only” and so on– and on. Everyone reminded her she wasn’t responsible for the accident, but she clung to guilt as if she needed it. Perhaps she did.

Often we find adroit ways to punish ourselves. Guilt is often termed the “crippler,” and in Bob’s case that was literally true. A former athlete, he began suffering crippling spasms after his partner died. The doctor couldn’t find a medical cause for the sudden onset, but told him, “You seem to have developed the same symptoms Marvin had.” Bob was actually relieved about the diagnosis. “What right did I have to be healthy if I hadn’t kept Marvin alive?”

These are only a few of the many people I interviewed who went the guilt route. But why do we do this to ourselves?
“Guilt is a way of remaining connected to the one who died.” That stunning answer was told to me by a Cancer Care bereavement counselor.
He added,: “As long as you think you could have done things differently there won’t be closure. You have the illusion you could have controlled fate.”

When I began to believe this– and to finally accept it – I was able to resume my life. Janet, the woman whose husband died in the car crash, went through the same struggle. After months of talking to friends who revealed how they had been able to get past similar feelings, Janet finally accepted the fact that even if she’d been in the car she couldn’t have saved her husband. “The reality is that I probably would have been killed, too. Then our children would have lost both parents.”

Ironically, letting go of guilt may feel like another loss. But it can free us to move on.
[Adapted from “Turning Toward Tomorrow.”]


When I left the editor job I’d had for 18 years, my departure was voluntary. I no longer found any pleasure in the work and I knew it was more than time to move on. Fortunately, finances were not an anxiety since my husband made a good salary. All positive, right?

So why did retirement bring a daily case of the blues – dark blue, at best? Why did I feel for months as if there was no solid ground beneath my feet? I had a pervasive sense of loss similar to grief.
I was hardly unique. Many retirees find themselves floundering when their days are no longer defined by a job. Felice, an Ohio school counselor, voluntarily retired after 43 years. Then she discovered that more than work was missing from her life. “I had lost schedule, purpose, and a sense of community,” she says. That trio of losses doesn’t match the idealized images of having time for ourselves to lie in the sun, go on a cruise, be with the grandchildren. Yet the grandkids are busy with their own lives and cruises eventually dock. So many of us ponder, what’s next?
That next step depends on accepting what kind of person you are. “I’m not good at doing nothing,” Felice admits. After months of soul–searching, she found her way back to a school setting – but in a very different format. Every morning she’s a volunteer aide in a preschool center. But these mornings aren’t enough for this energetic woman. Afternoons and even many evenings she’s a volunteer for numerous academic organizations. “My kids tell me I’ve flunked retirement,” she laughs..

My brother-in=law, Norman, was the editor of an esteemed science publication. When he was forced to take retirement he realized he wouldn’t be happy unless he was doing something purposeful. He began teaching English to groups of immigrants, led workshops about anger management in prisons, and became instrumental in setting up an organization to foster Jewish-Muslim cooperation in his home town of Columbus.

This doesn’t mean that retirement should be all work and no play. Even workaholic Felice has enrolled in exercise and yoga classes. You might also develop new skills. Norman joined a glass-making group and created exquisite glass objects that his family and friends were delighted to have as gifts. He also discovered he had the talent – and patience – to do intricate crewel embroidery. The Noah’s Ark tapestry he made for the newest baby is now a family heirloom. I, myself, while starting a new career as a freelance writer, made time to bring a longtime dream to life: learning to play the piano. (I hadn’t even known why the keys were two colors!)

Whatever path we decide to venture on, Felice advises asking yourself how that project would help you move forward. Settling for time-killer activities just makes us feel worse. “And don’t lock yourself into any long-term commitment,” she warns.

We could all take heart from the words of author Anne Tyler: “Sometimes you get to what you thought was the end and find it’s a whole new beginning.”