‘Moment-of-Death Guilt’ and Other Issues Haunt Widow

Question from Lang: My husband passed away on in May from leukemia. I cried every day for more than 2 months. I have 2 children, 15 and 13. They are OK, but I don’t think I am ok. I was the only one who took care of him during his year of sickness. When he was gone, I was not there to say good-bye. He died alone in the hospital because of heart failure. I miss him daily, hourly. We never talked about death before, so now I am lost. I don’t know what to do without him. There’s no one to talk to, no one to hug when I am sick. I go to work and try to forget everthing but I cannot. The co-workers talk about their husbands. I cry silently on my desk. I cook and eat dinner myself (the children are always with the computer/their friends). I don’t want to sadden them, so I leave them alone to talk with their friends. Currently, I am not sad but I am not happy either. I sleep about 5 hours a day. I feel like something in me is blocking myself from thinking about the past. Is there anything wrong with me?

Dr. Bob Baugher, grief specialist, responds: Dear Lang: I just read your letter. Your last sentence reads, “Is there anything wrong with me?” My short answer to you is: “No.”

Several years ago, in conducting my research for my doctorate, I interviewed more than 100 widowed people, some of whom were young like you and took care of their spouse during an illness. Before I address each of your issues, let me say that what you are experiencing, thinking, feeling, and doing (and not doing) all sounds “normal” to me for what you are going through. I put “normal” in quotes because you are in what widowed people call a “new normal.”

You say that you don’t think you are ok. Compared to your life before your husband’s illness and death, that’s true: you are not ok. I don’t have to tell you that you have been involuntarily thrust into a whole new world that is confusing, upsetting and at times, frightening.

You said that you were not there to say, “good-bye.” This has a name: “Moment-of-death guilt.” You were there so much during his illness and as his condition worsened. Despite the fact that the two of you did not speak of death, I am guessing that at some level, he knew that each time you left, it could have been your last “good-bye.” No, you were not with him at the final moment and that fact brings you pain. But there were likely many, many silent good-byes during his last year.

For a year, you life was dedicated to being the only one who took care of your dear husband. You got up each day and showed your love and caring in ways you never dreamed of when you were first married. Then one day you got up and he was gone. There was no one to care for in the same way. Suddenly, that caring part of your life — difficult as it may have been at times — was over. Another of a multitude of losses for you.

You don’t mention it in your letter, but I presume that there are people who have told you that it is “time to move on,” that you “must be strong for your children” and so on. While these people are well-meaning, they are not you. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Go to your computer and Google “grief support” and the name of your city. As difficult as it might be to walk into a room and share your story with others who’ve had similar experiences, I am here to tell you, Lang, that doing this can help in so many ways. Please consider doing this, if not for yourself, for your children. You can also get some information from these groups on how to help your kids as well.
  2. Find some booklets on grief. There are good ones on grief in general and on widowhood in particular. It will help you gain additional insight into this “new normal.”
  3. Find one caring person you can talk to. This person must be nonjudgmental and will permit you to feel whatever it is you are feeling. You may already have someone in your life like this or you may want to find a counselor. You can contact the hospital and ask them for suggestions.

Lang, as impossible as it may seem, you will make it. The very fact that you took the time to write to Open to Hope tells me that you are reaching out to get yourself the help you need. I know the days are hard. But continue reaching out. I’ve never met your husband, but I’m sure that’s exactly what he would be wanting you to do.

Peace,

Bob Baugher

The Open to Hope Community

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  • Barbara Hightshue says:

    This morning it has been 6 months since my husband died after 2 nights in hospice. Hospice employees lied to me about the time of death, and I, too, missed being with him.
    I have guilt feelings about many of the same things I have read others say. My husband’s squamous cell carcinoma left him with a large hole in his face, he elected to have the nose removed. Finally 30 very strong radiation treatments, but the cancer “escaped” the area, yet the doc chose to finish the 30. My husband was very weak, no longer took nourishment. Sat. his raspy breathing woke me – I know now it was terminal restlessness. Calling for help, I allowed hospice to take him to their place. The ER men gave him Versed. Sunday AM I told the hospice doc that I wanted to take my husband home, but he said my husband might have another “stroke”. My husband was resting, sleeping, not eating or drinking.
    And I went home that night! His extremities were cold, I wanted to cover him with more, but he said “it doesn’t bother me”. I went home with our dog, because I like sleeping in my bed. Ugh! He died the next morning. Or during the night?
    I feel sorry for my husband because of all he went through. He wanted to live. I know it does not make sense to feel sorry for him now. Or all the times I missed being loving, taking his presence for granted. Getting angry, being short tempered.
    My son, who loves me, is concerned about me, a physician as was my husband, thinks I am beating up on myself, plunging and turning a knife because it feels so good. He reminds me that I did the same when my younger brother died years ago now. But it really does *not!* feel good. I wish I could make things right, tell my husband how I miss him.
    My mother died before I was seven, my older brother had just turned 12, and my younger one just a year and a half. I have read that could have something to do with my behavior. I have been on antidepressants for 25 years, have a tendency for melancholy, talking with a psychologist now. Some days are better when I keep busy. Most days I’m glad when it’s bedtime. It is so hard to think of my husband. And I remember seeing him lying there on the bed, dead, the cancer now dying, too.
    I guess I’ll just have to hang in here. I used to tell people that time heals.