“Mom!” I didn’t answer immediately as the kids had all just got tucked in and I was trying to catch the opening dialogue of the newest episode of Alias. “Mom, come here please…” Alison called out.
“Coming!” I replied, heading in during a commercial. Bedtime was easy in our home, everyone knew the routine and the expectations, so I was curious what was going on.
“When am I going to be normal again? When are people going to understand me again?” Alison was asking questions she’d never asked before. My throat constricted, I didn’t know how to offer both hope and reality to my almost five-year old daughter. I hadn’t yet come to terms with it for myself, how would I articulate it for her? I needed to think on this one more. I tried as best I could to answer the unanswerable.
“Come sleep with me,” she requested. I considered it, but I was rattled and I didn’t want to build in a new expectation or ritual so I replied I couldn’t. Alison didn’t push, she said okay, gave me a big hug and went to sleep.
The next day she stopped breathing at pre-school and fell into a four-month coma before dying in my arms.
God damnit! Me and my rattled logic. What I wouldn’t give for the opportunity to lie in bed with Alison every night before she slept. How could I forgive myself for that incredibly poor parenting choice? How does anyone forgive themselves for a wide range of blunders and missteps once someone is gone and resolution isn’t an option? Relationships are messy and complex.
Regret and guilt are pretty common companions to grief.
But when the human you signed on to be responsible for, to keep safe, and literally alive, dies… its whole ‘nother ball game. Nothing is off limits. It feels safer to carry the burden of guilt than admit you couldn’t control this untenable outcome.
Parents dealing with the death of our children review our parenting with a fine-toothed comb. Did we go to work when we should’ve stayed home? Did we stay home when we should’ve modeled working hard? We can’t win the shell game of guilt we’re playing with ourselves.
Until we begin confronting our guilt and dissolving it, we hold ourselves back in a variety of ways. It’s easy to get stuck in the “could’ve”, “should’ve”, and “would’ve”’s, which prevents us from living in the “is” or looking forward to the “could be”.
Tools for Grappling
First and foremost, always treat yourself both compassionately and honestly.
Assess whether the guilt you carry is legitimate or unnecessary, then take appropriate steps to begin the process of resolving it.
o Legitimate: do something about it – write a letter, have a conversation, or use other tools to ask for forgiveness from child and ACCEPT IT – also recognize forgiveness may be an ongoing process
o Unnecessary: Ask yourself why you’ve held on? Is it creating a sense of security or control in some way? Consider forgiving yourself.
Feel and acknowledge: the feelings of guilt, pain etc.
Learn and accept: Life is a constant learning experience filled with trial and error. Accept there have been and will be mistakes, it’s what you do with them. Do you use them to grow and learn or stay stuck and paralyzed?
- Choose differently: If it’s helpful, actually write what you feel guilty about, what you’ve learned, and how you are going to change.
- Let go: Make some tangible action to memorialize letting go, whether it’s to say out loud, “I release…”, write it on paper and burn the paper, get in the ocean, a lake or other body of water (even a bath) with a clear intention of washing away what you’ve chosen to let go of, or create some other personal ceremony.
Was I ever able to forgive myself for not taking more time with Alison the last night she was awake? Yes. It took years and a lot of hard work. I practiced on many littler and easier things first, like forgiving myself for going “potty” (a.k.a. taking a break and checking email) for a half-hour.
With the big ones, it was more like peeling an onion. It came in layers. I’d go through the process and then do it again, going a little deeper.
About that final night…I flat out admitted I’d made a horrible mistake and that because of it, Alison and I had missed out on a special and needed time together. I begged for her forgiveness, which I felt she gave me with an exclamation of “Finally! You let it go. YAY.”
When it came down to it, Alison inspired me to forgive myself. Instead of carrying that heavy burden, I knew letting myself off the hook and living a happy life would honor her spirit and zest for life so much more.
For more detailed exercises to work through guilt check out this online course.