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.”]