We, as parents, believe we are responsible for our children’s well-being. If something happens to them…an accident, an illness, a drug related problem or more…we feel guilty and that it is our fault this death has happened. We feel helpless. We should have been able to prevent it. We should have taken better care of our child. We should have been able to save our child. These are thoughts that run through our heads.
One mother in my last book had to deal with the death of her child when she sent him to a therapy camp for drug users and he died there when he became ill and no one believed him. Living with how he died is still the greatest challenge of her life. She believes she sent him to his death. Her guilt feelings have tortured her for many years. “I am his mother,” she said. “Intellectually, I know I’m not responsible for his death, but meshing my intellect with my heart is very difficult. I will probably struggle with this for the rest of my life.” She tried to help the son she loved so much, yet the end results were only disaster and continual guilt she lives with to this day. She realizes that if she let it, the guilt could consume her. Instead, she knows her intentions were good and she must try to live her life for the other members of her family. This mother understands that feeling less guilty won’t take away the anger, pain or sadness, but that it is worth the effort to take a realistic look at forgiving yourself.
GUILT WITH OR WITHOUT FOUNDATION
Parents often feel they are being punished for something they have done if their child dies, even if they have done nothing wrong. When we get angry at our child or aren’t speaking to them because they did something wrong in our eyes, we feel tremendous guilt if that child dies before we can reconcile with them. This becomes a form of self-torture.
When we outlive our child we have survivor’s guilt. A parent may ask, Why am I alive and my child died? We were in the same car crash. My child had so much potential, so much to live for. According to author Catherine Sanders, only with constant reality checks, by constantly comparing our fallible perceptions of reality against the way life really is, can we finally release ourselves from this tenacious source of guilt. And we can’t do it alone. We need the help of others who understand and can be more objective than we are. To rid ourselves of guilt we must accept the fact that we are human. We get mad at our kids and we love our kids. No relationship is perfect and we are not saints.
If parents work long hours and can’t spend a lot of time with the kids, guilt enters the picture if a child dies, and they feel they have been punished for working too much and not paying enough attention to the child. For some, this type of guilt can be instrumental in more creative time being spent with the remaining children. For others, nothing changes and the guilt remains.
When grieving, we may be acting strangely or differently, leading to guilty feelings that we are not normal. For example, crying for seemingly no reason or getting out of town when others think you should be at home mourning, are perfectly normal reactions for someone who is grief stricken. Do what is right for you, not what you think others expect you to do and don’t feel guilty about it.
GUILT RESULTING IN RELIEF
If you have a child with a long-term illness or disability, when death occurs, you may feel you have already done your mourning before the death happened. If the child was in severe pain, then death may come as a relief. This relief may be mingled with guilt over the fact that you are glad to be relieved of the burden. Or there may be guilt over the fact you are glad they are no longer in pain or suffering, or guilt that you are still alive and they are gone.
We, as parents, are not perfect, even though society may expect us to be. Guilt seems to develop naturally in grief. It takes courage to admit you are not perfect and telling it like it is seems to be the best way to deal with this. Share your guilt feelings with supportive, caring people, a grief group and if necessary, professional counseling. Don’t let it fester and become destructive to you and others. Let the love you feel for your child shine through any guilt feelings.