Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Understanding Guilt While Grieving...

This is another topic that will get more time in future posts.Guilt in many different forms can affect our grieving process.  There is the type where we think we didn't do enough for the person at many stages in life, that a relationship was left on bad terms, that a person didn't say what they wanted to say to a person, that one didn't help the person enough somehow to prevent them from dying among other things. There are too many ways to list here.

When I was a girl of about 10 or 11 years old, I was extremely and painfully shy. It was also an age where, to some extent, I was becoming more physically aware of myself- like some girls who had developed early and seemed to be more popular, etc. (Now I am glad I didn't develop early. I couldn't have coped well with the type of attention I might have received if I did.) There was a very kind male custodian in the grammar school I was attending  who was very kind to me.  He would give me cupcakes, apples, and little gifts of kindness after school. (Nowadays, people should be more cautious of this type of behavior) and was just being genuinely kind. He would talk a little bit about his family and ask about my brothers and so forth. At the time, he was one of the few people I thought was being kind to me and treated me nice.  I would help out after school by holding the doors as a "safety patrol" in a bright orange vest provided by the school. And I also would help the teacher by arranging artwork and other student projects in a glass showcase after school. (Little did I realize the teacher was probably trying to give me a positive role with the showcase jobs and the safety patrol job. I liked them because I didn't have to talk too much.). All this would give the custodian many opportunities to just say a few kind words to me and encourage me. I liked it a lot.

One day, I was having a difficult time opening up the sliding door of the showcase. The custodian came over to assist me and opened the case with a bit of effort. He was in maybe his fifties. The next day I went into school and he wasn't there. The school had called my father in to come talk to me.  My dad and my teacher told me that the custodian had died from a heart attack. I guess they felt that I would have perhaps felt I would have felt guilty because of the extra "effort" he put into opening the showcase for me that perhaps I thought had caused it. This pre-emptive action the school took probably did prevent my thoughts going in that direction.  And to this day, I am thankful for the kindness of that man who did put in a little extra to making the day brighter for a young shy girl because he had a very good heart!

Guilt, I beleive, hits us, in some cases, because we feel so powerless over the death of a loved one.  It's a manifestation of the powerlessness and a way we are trying to come to terms with it.  The sister of a friend of mine, who was killed in a sudden and violent way,  expressed to me that she felt so guilty about the terms she had left her relationship with her brother on during the last time he visited her. Her brother was a very kind person, but enjoyed a very bohemian lifestyle which didn't always make him one to follow through on domestic chores.  He stayed at his sister's place because he lived way out of state. She was extremely distraught over the fact that she had asked him to do the dishes (a big pile from him mainly) before she left for work.  When she came back, the dishes weren't done even though he had promised.  They had an argument over it and he left without the usual "good-byes" and "I Love Yous". Just about a week later she had heard about his death, which happened in a violent, sudden way and making national news at the time. 

A few months later, she expressed to me how much she just wished she said nothing about the dishes, and that they just would've parted on positive terms.  The argument she had with him was one most siblings would probably have had normally and then it would've blown over not having been a big deal the next time she saw him.  Instead, when you throw in the new circumstance that he's dead and never going to see him again, it makes it the last time she saw him and that it didn't end positively without chance for reconciliation in person.  This was it- there would be no in-person contact again. This is what was really hitting her. She didn't get the chance to tell him she loved him, although she told him just about every other time and he knew she loved him. She did seem a bit relieved when I told her that I would've probably had the same argument with my brothers and that it's normal. She did nothing wrong. The good thing about time and/or talking with someone who is not feeling the intense emotions at the moment is that it can help the person who is grieving to see things in a better perspective. Or at least it helps plant the seed to see it in a more realistic light. It takes and requires that time that should be given to it.

I felt guilty in deciding to remove life support from my dad even though he was hooked up to thirteen IVs and several machines in the ICU with most vital organs going into failure. I felt like I was murdering him- guilt, guilt, guilt.  The last time I saw him before his emergency admission to the hospital, he was throwing a tantrum in a restaurant and threw his cane in the air and it hit the floor. He was swinging it too. I was trying to help him to the bathroom and he was stubborn, proud and didn't want any help, especially mine. He had some dementia and always was proud and Mr.Independent. I felt angry and upset and didn't feel like I could be patient with him to visit him a next day while I was visiting  several states away from where I live. If  he had lived, I probably still would have felt I did the right thing in not going to see him the next day because I also didn't want to keep having negative interactions with him, but because of the circumstances and getting home just a couple of days before the call that made me go all the way back to see him before he might die, I ended up feeling awful about the last voluntary time he saw me. I am still dealing with it now because it was only a few short months ago. Even though in the ICU I told him I loved him, I still feel bad because I didn't go see him again before that.

With time, I know I will be at peace with it.  It will take the time and bearing going through the process. I was generally powerless over his medical condition in making the decision to pull life support and probably did the right thing.  I just have to process it all.

People feel guilty for not visiting in the hospital the day a person dies, even though they visited every other day before!  I have heard it my life through. In much of my reading, I've come across people stating that they are waiting so they can die without their loved ones present so as not to put them through the pain of experiencing it. Also, it may take a lot of energy to put on a brave front for their loved ones who are visiting, even if they are not very responsive!  They can finally face dying themselves and have that peace to be able to face it. In a sense, they may be self-concious about doing it in front of everyone.  Dying is a very personal and individual experience for the person going through it. They may not wish to die in front of a group of people, even though they love those people no less. I will touch upon this in the future, but wanted to include it to help people maybe think of that aspect in a new perspective.

I hope this is helpful to you in some way. I wish you peace and comfort in your journey.
Mary Ellen

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  1. Wow....these are really good posts! I appreciate your very compassionate and 'real' sharing. So many things are very close to home...especially right now as my mother-in-law has Alzheimer's and my wonderful father who I have a very close relationship with, is very close to going home to be with the Lord... Thank you! I'm following for sure and will make sure you are on my blog list so others can be uplifted as well...Bless you!

  2. Thank you. I have lots of personal and professional experience. I've been there through a lot of different things. Thank you. Your comment makes me feel real good. If there is anything you want me to post on, I'll try to do the best I can with it! Just let me know.

    Coincidentally, my mother-in-law has Alzheimers now (mid-stages) and my father just passed away this past May. Life just happens, doesn't it.
    I will keep you and your family in my prayers. Bless You for all you do! And Thanks too.

    Mary Ellen