In December of 2016, my brothers and I made the decision to change my Dad’s status to Do Not Resuscitate. He was in the ICU, he had gone into cardiac arrest twice, both times for over twenty minutes. The doctors had told us that he had endocarditis, a bacterial infection that had deteriorated his cardiac valve to the point where it was leaking and because he had gone untreated for too long, it was inoperable. They told us in no uncertain terms that his condition was hopeless, and that should he survive there was only a twenty percent chance he would not be in a vegetative state. They insisted we change his status to DNR. Despite all that, I still feel the guilt in my grief. I still have not forgiven myself for letting him die.
It’s more than that though, I also feel the guilt for changing after his death. I am not the person he knew, maybe not the person he expected me to be. My values and my ideologies have gradually shifted away from his and what I grew up with. I frequently wonder if he was alive, would we clash? I am proud of my growth as a person, but I hate thinking that part of that change can be attributed to his loss, to my resulting independence. I don’t want there to be a silver lining in his death at all.
And I get that healing is non-linear, and my personal development is part of that healing, while my guilt is a normal phase experienced by the bereaved. Even as I have fluctuated in facing the other stages of anger, denial, depression, acceptance, and bargaining, the guilt in my grief has stayed with me. It has been with me since I went to bed the night he died, vividly remembering his guileless eyes as I left him in the hospital the previous evening after the doctor ordered him to stay the night.
Even as I have fluctuated in facing the other stages of anger, denial, depression, acceptance, and bargaining, the guilt in my grief has stayed with me.
He had been asked by the nurse what he wanted to drink with his meal and he asked me what I wanted, thinking I was going to stay with him. I told him Sprite but soon informed him that I needed to leave because it was getting late and I was tired and there wasn’t much to do just hanging out at the hospital. He seemed okay with that and told me that he loved me and that he would see me tomorrow when my brother and I came back and told me to thank my brother for driving him to the emergency room. I’m glad the last thing I said to him was that I love him. But I have never gotten over the feeling that he had wanted me to stay, and that I should have.
This isn’t unusual. Guilt in grief often sinks in as we recall events surrounding the death of those we lost and we envision how things might have gone differently. My Dad had been severely ill in the month before he died. He vomited for the first time in twenty years and blacked out, and couldn’t stand up without feeling dizzy. He was coughing up phlegm that we later found out was due to pneumonia filling his entire right lung.
I was living alone with him and we were both up until dawn waiting to see if I should drive him to the hospital. He insisted he didn’t need to go, and while it’s easy for me to attribute this to his stubborn nature, part of me worries he simply didn’t want to go because he knew I had severe driving anxiety and the hospital we would go to was further away than I was used to driving. I worry that he was acting out of concern for me and that it cost him his life, as his illness had been left to fester for too long as a result. When I expressed this concern to my brother later, he, perhaps in a moment of absentminded insensitivity, simply responded that maybe that should motivate me to try to get over my driving anxiety. As if to confirm that yes, it was my fault. This is known as causation guilt when people feel guilty that they are responsible for the death because of something they did or didn’t do.
I also feel guilt for the way our relationship had changed in the year prior to his death. I had finished an abroad internship and it was my first time traveling to another country and it sparked the change that led me to who I am today. Before I had gone, I ached at the idea of leaving him since it was my first time living without him. He had been proud of me for landing the internship but was wary of my traveling because he feared for my safety. When I came back, I found myself distancing from him and wanting to move out and find my own place. Sometimes, in my lowest points of self-loathing, I think that him dying was the universe’s way of punishing me for leaving him and trying to strike out on my own. This is referred to as moral guilt when the bereaved party believes that the death of their loved one is a punishment for a previous act.
I’ve got multiple types of guilt in my grief that I’m dealing with, all tangled up in each other and the other feelings related to loss. But I know that it’s a normal part of grieving, and I know that identifying my feelings is one step to addressing the problem. I’m hoping by exploring and discussing these feelings, I can start on the path towards relieving myself of that particular burden, even as I know the grief will never go away because I will never stop loving him.
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