Guilt in the Wake of a Parent's Death
By Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH
A reader writes: My mother died in her sleep and I feel like I’m starting to lose it. I just can't stop thinking about what happened. She was in her early 60s, had high blood pressure and was a smoker. She became very depressed after my father passed away five years ago. I'm sure my dad wanted me to take care of my mother after he died, but she just wouldn't go to the doctor.
She stopped taking her blood pressure medicine (which I didn’t know until about a year before she passed). We begged her to see the doctor, but she wouldn’t go and said she was fine. Two months before she died, she complained of a sharp chest pain but didn’t say anything until the next morning, and then she still refused to get it checked out.
I just felt like I could have done more, you know?! I just don't understand and my mind is going a mile a minute on what could have happened. They couldn’t give us an immediate answer on what happened, and they say the autopsy will take months before we know. I just can't believe she's gone!!! A similar thing happened with my father, when his sugar levels went so high but he didn't want to go to the hospital until he couldn’t even walk or see straight! The next day he died of a heart attack! Why did my parents not care about themselves anymore, when they always told me to watch out for myself? Somehow I just don't think I did enough to save her—or my father !!! It's driving me crazy !
My response: Have you ever noticed that it's only the good people who feel guilty about what they did or failed to do in circumstances such as this? The fact that you feel guilty that you didn’t do enough to save your parents speaks volumes about what sort of daughter you are, and what sort of woman you were raised to be.
As I often have said elsewhere, just because you feel guilty about something does not mean that you are, in fact, "guilty as charged." I think it's safe to say that, when someone dearly loved dies, every single one of us can find something to feel guilty about ~ but feelings aren't always rational, accurate, or justified, and they aren't necessarily right or wrong ~ they just are. We can't always help what we feel, and guilt is just one of many feelings that are normally experienced in grief.
This is one reason why I believe so strongly in the power of support groups, whether in person or online. When you are brave enough to share your story with others, and seek input from those who understand what is normal and common in grief (because they are in mourning, too), you feel safe to say what you feel guilty about, which enables you to get it off your chest and expose it to the light of day, where it can be examined more objectively. In addition, as you listen to all the responses you receive from others, you begin to realize that no one is judging you as harshly as you are judging yourself, which in turn enables you to evaluate your own behavior more objectively and more realistically.
Unfortunately, as you have discovered, guilt is a natural and common component of grief. As I wrote in an earlier article, guilt is a normal response to the perception that you’ve somehow failed in your duties and obligations or that you’ve done something wrong. It generates a boatload of feelings including doubt, shame, inadequacy, insecurity, failure, unworthiness, self judgment and blame, anxiety and fear of punishment.
When someone you love dies, it’s only human to go over every detail and tell yourself if only you’d done something differently, this never would’ve happened. Even if there is no basis for it, you may feel guilty for what you did or didn’t do, said or failed to say when your parent was alive.
We adult children often think that it is our responsibility to keep our parents healthy, to protect them from illness and save them from death – and we feel like failures when we discover that we cannot. We search for an explanation, and we beat ourselves up as we dwell on the what if’s and if only’s.
In his popular book, Understanding Your Grief, Alan Wolfelt writes,
The “if-onlys” are natural for you to explore, even if there is no logical way in which you are responsible for the death. What you’re really feeling, at bottom, is a lack of control over what happened. And accepting that we have little control over the lives of those we love is a difficult thing indeed.
You ask why your parents didn’t care enough about themselves to take better care of their own health, which of course reflects your own need to understand, as you search for answers you can live with. This, too, is a normal and very healthy response to loss. Death and dying are mysteries to be pondered, and there is no satisfactory explanation when loss occurs – but it’s important that we ask such questions anyway.
Death forces us to confront the spiritual questions we may have been avoiding or haven’t taken time to address – the questions that get at the very heart and meaning of life: Why this? Why me? Why now? Who am I now that this person has died? Where do I go from here? As grief educator and author Harold Ivan Smith points out in his book, Grievers Ask, “Grappling with the ‘why’ questions are the heart of the hard work of grief . . . Never be in a hurry to formulate or settle on an answer.” He goes on to suggest that a better question than Why me? might be instead, If me, what can I learn from this? “Some individuals will never find an acceptable answer to a ‘why’ question,” he writes, “but about 99.9 percent of the time you will find an acceptable answer to a ‘now what’ question.”
Here is one mother’s poignant description of how she moved through that very process:
For a long time I was obsessed with why Mitch had ended his life. I thought that I needed to discover the real cause of his hopelessness. I studied and analyzed what I believed to be his suicide note . . . Finally, I perceived that a death by suicide is a result of factors too numerous to count. I wanted to know why, but I didn't have to have an answer in order to go on living my own life. Even the most experienced and astute investigators are finally forced to make what at best is only an educated guess. It is important, however, to ask why. It is important to worry about why, because one finally exhausts possibility after possibility and ultimately one tires of the fruitless search. Then it is time to let it go and to start healing. ~ Iris Bolton in My Son...My Son: A Guide to Healing After a Suicide in the Family
By Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH: Marty is a Nationally certified grief counselor blogging at griefhealingblog.com; and a Moderator online at Grief Healing Discussion Groups at griefhealingdiscussiongroups.com
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