The Fine Line Between Grief and Guilt

The Fine Line Between Grief and Guilt

It’s been a year . . . 365 days . . . a whole bunch of hours and thousands of minutes, since my mom died. In some ways, it’s gotten easier, moments in which the intensity of loss dissipates, like a drop of black ink in a bowl of water. But in other ways, it’s gotten harder. When I revisit the last few months of her life, I question the many decisions I made on her behalf, and the “what-if” scenarios play out in my mind. I don’t know why I do this, why I create such angst —  why I torment myself with what might have been.  

Six months ago, I wrote about how, as my family prepared for the memorial service, I felt nothing. I was numb — all I wanted to do was take care of business, do the things a daughter should do, and tend to my father. Without meaning to, I put my own grief on hold. My heart broke so slowly it almost didn’t happen. But then it did . . . 

I had a plant of my mom’s. It was ugly. One piece of it was a wispy fern and the other a more hearty-leafed thing. I liked the pot, so I kept it, planning to use it for something pretty. But the ugly plant of my mom’s was healthy, so I just left it alone. I did nothing to it – maybe a bit of water now and then. It thrived. Ugly as ever, it just kept living. Then one day, my dogs made a play-thing out of it. I found my mother’s plant ripped apart – the wispy fern shredded, the hearty leaves scattered across the grass. I stared at it for a moment or two, and my eyes filled with tears. The tears ran down my cheeks like streams of melting snow. The sob that came out of me scared the birds away, and my heart broke apart. I frantically gathered what was left of the plant and tried to find one root that could be salvaged. I yelled at my sweet dogs who had torn up the plant because I had left it where they could. It was all my fault. My fault the plant was dead. My fault my mother was gone.

I still feel guilt, although I know that’s the wrong emotion. I was a good daughter. My mom told me countless times how lucky she was to have me. But I cannot escape my misgivings, doubts, regrets. I could have done more, done better . . . been better.

Every night, before I fall asleep, I wish for a dream. In this dream my mother will appear and tell me I was worthy of the faith she had in me, that I never let her down, that she still feels blessed that I was her daughter.

My grief and guilt have blended, like two primary colors mixed on painter’s palette. They’ve become a new color, and it’s difficult to tell them apart.

12 thoughts on “The Fine Line Between Grief and Guilt”

  • Julie,
    I recently had to tell a friend what I’m telling you now and it’s based on my own experiences from over 20 years ago when my Dad passed away.

    There are no scripts or how-to manuals to follow when that time comes to make the decisions you had to make. Because of this, any decisions you made were the right decisions at the time you made them. I think your Mom will back me up on this.

    She loved you and knows that you loved her. And we love you too.

  • JM, a very wise cousin of mine made me promise that when my critically ill dad passed, I would not feel guilty, for anything! At the time, I thought, I am doing so very much for him, I won’t. But, so many times since I want to fall into my guilt. Only that promise keeps me from that edge. I wish someone had made you promise that.

  • Julie,
    Grief becomes tangled up with guilt because in hindsight we have the luxury of second guessing ourselves, but at the time we do the best we can with the information and circumstances that stare us in the face and demand immediate attention and action.

    I know that you more than rose to the occasion, and that every night when you’re wishing for that dream, your mom is softly kissing your forehead, holding you until you fall asleep and whispering to you that you were the best daughter ever. And I know that someday your dream will come true.

    • Nicely said, Mary Jo. It’s true. We’ll always have regrets, no matter how much we do. In some ways, it’s a bit of magical thinking: “If only I had done this or that, I could have held back the night forever.” But we are only human and have lives to live and imperfect understanding. I often warned myself as my mother approached her last days, “No matter how many times you visit her, it will never seem enough.” When she was gone, I had to ask, “If her life was not perfect; why should her passing have been perfect?”

  • When we love our mothers, we always wish we could have done more for them in their last days….or even in years before that. But mostly we did the best we could…and they knew that. Blessings.

  • I lost my mother in July of last year and found your post touching. Weren’t we
    blessed to have experienced such love for and from our mothers! Their loss is so very painful. The love will never leave us.

    • Thank you Ellen – I hope readers will find comfort in the expression of my grief and realize that when loss happens, and it will, they are not alone in the journey.

  • My mother died three years ago and I wish the grief would be gone by now, but it hasn’t. I am reading your posts with tears running down my face because Now I know I m not alone. Thank you for sharing your grief.

  • Beautifully written, Julie, and enjoyed the very personal and thoughtful comments on your essay.
    Dying is NEVER a good look, my 83 year old very feisty neighbor, also named Julie, in Wellington told me when my father was dying. We have to forgive ourselves and trust that we did the best we could have done given the immediate circumstances, no matter how we feel in hindsight. It is never enough when we over analyse and let ourselves be gripped with guilt or regret. I pray that both my parents are resting in peace in their lovely gravesites in Northern Ireland and feel grateful for all they had done and sacrificed raising me. Some day I shall join them in the same graveyard and can only hope that my children pray for the same. Keep well! Are you planning to go to the conference in SF in February next year? Big hugs from NZ… Susan

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