Life After Death
A weary caregiver grapples with guilt over the loss of her loved one
By May 7, 2019 - last reviewed on June 2, 2019published
My mother died recently. I was with her throughout her last day but missed the signs that she was in trouble—signs that the average person might have noticed. Part of me believes that I willed her death, as I felt so resentful that she was always sick. I miss her and cannot get over the fact that had I been more attentive, I might have been able to save her life by calling the ambulance earlier. How do I deal with the guilt and sorrow that are now ripping me apart?
You deal with the guilt and sorrow by recognizing that human beings are complex creatures who typically find themselves in complicated situations, which means they often have mixed feelings about many things—including, perhaps especially, a parent's death. First, your account makes it exceedingly clear that your mother's health was fragile. She died a natural death, the result of however many ailments she was, by your own telling, suffering from. Who knows what hidden cellular event delivered one insult too many to an inexorably failing system?
Feelings of guilt are coloring your view of your mother's death and encouraging you to believe that you had a hand in it. Grief can do that. The strangeness that suddenly descends on a household when a central figure dies and the feelings of loss of the loved one can be so strong they prompt us to imagine ways we might have helped the person eke out another day of life, an hour more of breath, a minute more of presence.
The sense of loss can even foster the belief that we actually have such power; it shrouds us in the illusion that death might somehow be subject to our negotiation.
Most people are willing to help care for an ailing loved one, especially a parent who spent years mopping up our messes when we were children. This despite the fact that caregiving is widely recognized as a significant life stressor. The activity itself is typically demanding—physically, emotionally, socially, sometimes even financially. At the same time, it's usually a thankless job, not to mention an isolating one. It consumes time that would otherwise be spent attending to one's own needs.
Caregivers frequently face the challenge of choosing between competing priorities—their own and those of the sick one. The stress is not just unrelenting, it can exist for an extended period of time.
The result is that the death of a chronically ill parent is likely to give rise to a jumble of emotions—grief mixed with varying degrees of relief. However natural the sense of relief, many people are unprepared for it or think it is somehow "wrong," that it dishonors the loss. That, too, can intensify feelings of guilt.
Given the extended burden that family caregiving generally is, even the most compassionate helper is subject to feeling resentment and anger. It's pure psychological fallout from the sacrifice of so much time, so much energy, and so many personal needs while having so much responsibility and so few outlets for enjoyment.
Add to that the necessity of having to suspend control over your own life to be at the mercy of another's needs. Feeling relief at a difficult death, even welcoming the death—after all, it heralds the end of the caregiving burden—is entirely expectable. But that doesn't mean you willed it. Welcoming a snowfall doesn't mean you caused it.
You owe yourself understanding of the burden of caregiving and its role in generating the uncomfortable feelings you now have. And to correct for the thanklessness of the prolonged task you just completed, you also owe yourself some kindness. There is nothing you could have done to stop the inevitability of death.
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