The Death of My Father: Lingering Guilt

January 11, 2003, I sat on my father’s bed chatting with him at the Mercer Island Care Center. At age 80, he was attempting to recover from a bout of pneumonia. At around 9:30 pm, I kissed him good-bye, got up from the bed and said I’d see him tomorrow. I can still see him lying in the bed, waving to me, both of us feeling assured that we would indeed be together tomorrow.

At 6:30 am the next day, I received a call from the nurse saying that he was having a hard time breathing and, since I had Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare, the medics would be calling me in a few minutes to confirm that they would intubate him. I hung up and minutes later the call came stating that he was otherwise okay and, with my permission, they would intubate him on the way to the hospital or when they arrived.

By the time I arrived at the hospital, I was shockingly informed that Dad’s heart had given out during the ambulance ride. A few minutes later, my siblings and I gathered in the emergency, sobbing as we touched and hugged the lifeless body of our father.

A day or two later, in the throes of my grief, as I reflected back on the events, I felt an emotion begin to well up inside of me: Guilt. Yes, I was guilty. Of what? Of not being there when my father took his last breath.

I was his first-born. His son. He trusted me. I was always there for him. There when he had a massive stroke at age 52. There when the NBA Seattle Sonics lost game after game in the 80s and 90s. There when my mother, his wife of 46 years took her last breath. And, here he was in an ambulance with strangers literally taking the last breath of his life, and where was I? Ten miles away.

Guilt spoke to me as it said, “What kind of son are you that would let his father die with strangers? He needed you to be there to be holding his hand, to be giving him words of comfort, telling him it was okay to go.

I knew guilt well. I’d even written a small book on it. Yet, here I was immersed in it. During the early days of grief, I often revisited the guilt scenario: Why didn’t I tell the Care Center staff that I would jump in my car and meet the medic folks and ride with my dad to the hospital? The answer came in the form of something called Hindsight Bias, which of course says, “It’s easy to look back and say what you should have done, knowing what you know now.” All I knew at that time was that they needed to help Dad and asking them to wait for me would have delayed the process.

Did this logical explanation suddenly free me from feeling guilty? Heck no. To this day, 13 years later, despite the logic, there are times when I still feel twinges of guilt. What has this taught me? That despite the facts, Guilt is still a feeling. And feelings often defy logic. One of the things that did help me was writing a letter to Dad, telling him how I would have given anything to have been there.

I still miss him.  And, I’m sure, after 13 years, he’s looking down at me as I type this saying, “Bobby, I know you did your best.”

Thanks, Dad. And, Happy Father’s Day.

Bob Baugher

More Articles Written by Bob

Bob Baugher, Ph.D., is a Psychology Instructor at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington where he teaches courses in Psychology and Death Education. As a trainer for LivingWorks he has trained more than 1,000 people in suicide intervention. He has given more than 600 workshops on grief and loss across the U.S. including England, South Africa, and Namibia. As a professional advisor to the South King County Chapter of The Compassionate Friends, Bob has been invited to speak at many of the TCF national conferences during the past 20 years. He earned a certificate in Thanatology from the Association for Death Education and Counseling and in the 1990s he was a clinician with University of Washington School of Nursing Parent Bereavement Project. Bob has written several articles and seven books on the bereavement process. Reach him at b_kbaugher@yahoo.com. Dr. Baugher appeared on the radio show "Healing the Grieving Heart" with Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley to discuss Coping with Anger and Guilt After a Loss.

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  • carol murra says:

    I had a fight with my dad the last time i saw him and it was about my brother who was not doing what my dad wanted as we were cleaning out the house to sell it as my dad was in a care center and my dad was afraid of my brother and i said dad he is not doing anything you wanted to be done and i told him i could not go over there under these conditions my brother said i could have one thing in particular and then said he changed his mind and was going to sell it to a friend,i told him i would buy it as it had alot of memories of me and my dad cooking on it do you believe it was a grill and i was so mad at him i said keep the grill and sell it but dont expect me to come over and help clean out the house,i told my dad all this and he just wanted for everyone to get along but how do u get along with a jerk of a brother who would rather sell the grill to a pratical stranger then his sister,my dad asked me if u love and respect me u will go over and make up with your brother but i said dad he should be doing that to me i did not do anything wrong then he allowed my nephew to come over and take everything out of the kitchen pots, pans,silver you name it he took it and my mom and i cooked alot together and use to say now carol i want u to have this to remember me by,and then my nephew moved so that was that and my brother allowed that so i told my dad all this and he still wanted me to go over and make amends with my brother and i said dad i am not 5 anymore dick has hurt me so bad he should be saying he is sorry to me and i said dad i am sorry but he has hurt me to much to do that.and then i did not talk with him for 3 t0 4 days as i was so angry that he wanted me to make amends,i called him as i was going on a short vacation only 2 nites and told him i loved him and we would talk about it more when i got back on monday,so here i am up north thinking my dad is ok and 6 hours after i talked to him he fell and had to revive him and rushed him to the hospital and was in the hospital for 2 days with cardiac arrest but was still with it at times and could talk and no one including my brother never called me to tell me he was rushed to the hospital i would of come right home but i had no idea he was in a hospital and i feel so guilty cuz he was probley wondering why i never called him or came home to c him but i did not know nice family i have they are all idiots and monday i get a call that my dad is dead and in some ways i feel i killed him as he was so upset with me how do i move on its been 2 years and i have so much guilt i am going crazy and 8 months after that my mom passed on in her sleep and 2 monthes later my favorite aunt died i feel like dying if only i had one minute to tell my dad that no one called me to tell me you were in the hospital that i would of come right home to be with him i love you daddy and i am so sorry and my family sucks and they were like vultures and i only wanted one thing the grill my dad and i cooked on all the time thats it how do i move on

    • Bob Baugher says:

      Dear Carol,
      What a story you have shared! It is clear that you are hurting in so many ways. The fact that you are feeling guilty tells me that you still love your father very much. And, I presume, that wherever he is looking down on you, that he loves you too. The story that you have shared is filled with anger, confusion, sadness, and of course guilt. While you cannot control the actions of your other family members, there are things that you can do for yourself. And, I’m sure with the love your father has for you that he would want you to find ways to feel better. You will never know what contributed to your father’s death. Like you said, if you had known your father’s condition, you would have come in an instant. Would your arrival at his bedside prolonged his life? You will never know. Would it have made his passing more comfortable? Perhaps. You have been carrying a huge weight of guilt. Here are my suggestions:
      1. Write your father a letter. Yes, a letter. In it apologize for not being there. Explain why. Tell him what you would have done had you been there. Tell him how guilty you’ve felt these past two years. Ask him to forgive you. Tell him how difficult life has been since he’s been gone. Tell him what has happened with the family. Tell him how much you miss him every day. However, Carol, tell your father the good things that have happened in your life since his death. Tell him your accomplishments, your joys, and what you are still grateful for despite the guilt you’ve been carrying.
      2. Next, write a reply to your letter. That is, what would your father say about each of the items in your letter. What would he say to you about all the guilt you’ve been carrying? What words of comfort would he give you? What would he say about the joys and accomplishments of your life?
      3. After you’ve written these letters you may want to read them into a voice recorder or video tape it or read it to an understanding friend who will not judge you. Re-read this letter once or twice a month. Be sure and read it on your father’s birthday and on the day he died, as well.
      4. As you continue to move on with life, when you begin to feel the guilt come up again, say to yourself, “Would Daddy want me to continue to beat myself up? Would he?” Are you crying now as you read this? Your tears are telling you that the love your father has always had for you–even today–is important. See his face, hear his voice telling you that you it’s okay to feel guilty, but to gradually begin to let it ease withing you.
      5. Another thing to ask yourself concerning the guilt is: “What would it take to begin to forgive myself?”
      Carol, as I type this I am sitting at a hotel in Singapore on vacation, but I wanted to reach out to you because I could tell you are hurting so much. Your job right now is to write that letter and your father’s reply, okay? Okay. : )
      My best to you,
      Dr. Bob Baugher
      p.s. You can visit my website at: http://www.bobbaugher@wordpress.com

  • Kai says:

    These situations are tough. My dad passed 9 years ago, I was 19. He was a very kind person, but serious alcohol addict and alcohol changed him to a Mr Hyde. He had got an infection which he waited to get treated. He was giving small signs something was unusual but nobody really took him seriously, including me. A friend saw him and said he needs to go to the hospital but I couldn’t even tell the difference if he was very ill or very drunk/hungover. He went to the hospital where because when he entered was stated he was addicted to alcohol also wasn’t taken seriously from the staff, they put him on saline iv and didn’t check him thoroughly. He degraded quickly over the next few days and suddenly the dr went from saying he’ll be out tomorrow to your father’s not going to make it, severe heart infection. I treated the whole thing lightly and didnt even spend as much time at the hospital because i thought everything was fine and suddenly he was there in front of me taking his last breath. I felt I should have known better and pushed for the Drs to take his condition more seriously as I should have also. I felt I should have reached out harder to him about the alcohol, it has been difficult to confront him and he avoided the topic often after awhile I gave up but I shouldn’t have. The issue has plagued me for 9 years and I can’t seem to ever let it go because it’s entirely changed me and a constant reminder of the type of mindset I don’t ever want to be again, apathetic. I don’t let it bring me way down cuz I know that him being depressed led to this alcohol and I know he wouldn’t want me depressed as he has been. But I feel all this guilt of what I could have done to enrich his life and bring happiness to him before he died so that I’d know he died with some happiness not with so much sadness and struggle. That part bothers me the most .

    • Bob Baugher says:

      Dear Kai,
      You are right: These situations are tough. From what you write, your father’s alcohol use led you to do what you had done so many times before—not take his situation seriously. Then in your letter, you say “should have” or “could have” five times, which of course is Guilt.

      So, let’s look at the big picture:
      Despite all the previous times that you correctly did not take him seriously in the past, THIS time you should have. What kind of daughter are you not to predict the future? Isn’t our mind amazing? We do something correctly so many times in the past and then the one time we are wrong we beat ourselves up—for years. Despite your guilt, you state that you learned a valuable lesson: “I don’t ever want to be again, apathetic.” Good for you! I am also glad to hear you say, “I don’t let it bring me way down cuz I know he wouldn’t want me depressed as he had been.” You also say that your dad was a very kind person. So, here is my suggestion:
      Sit down and write him a letter. Tell him you are sorry. Tell him that you still feel some guilt. Tell him what you have learned from his death. Ask him if he can forgive you. Remind him of the many ways that he enriched your life. Then tell him of the many ways that you enriched his. Write out stories of the good memories you have of him and you.
      And, finally, Kai, write what your dad would say about all the guilt you’ve been carrying if he were to come back to see you for ten seconds. He would look into the eyes of his sweet daughter and say what?

      Dads are precious and you lost yours much too young. As you know, I lost my dad when he was 80, but I would loved to have had him a little longer. So, Kai, sit down and write the letter.
      I wish you and your family the best.
      Regards,
      Bob Baugher

      • Kai says:

        Thank you Bob for taking the time to respond.,

        I appreciate all of the things you said and your suggestions. I have started trying to write this letter and it’s pretty difficult and I feel lots of blockage and welling of emotion with each question. I will finish it though, thank you. I am almost certain that my father wouldn’t hold me accountable for any of the events which led to his death or unhappiness, but more me holding myself accountable and I’m quite afraid to let it go because my worst fear is this to happen again to another family member or someone I really care about because for some reason or another most of the close people or family members in my life are struggling deeply with depression or addictions and I feel like I need to hold onto that as a reminder what will happen if I don’t stay active and try to help or reach out to them on a near constant basis. Also, in your story above you wrote about the guilt of not being there when your father passed. When my father was in the hospital they said he was going to die any minute, any hour, so I stayed next to his bed for 2 weeks in the hospital and didn’t even dare to sleep for fear of losing any last moment with him or not being present if he passed, to the point where I was forced to leave for 4-5 hours because I was starting to hallucinate from the lack of sleep. I was there however when he did take his final breath. I feel that the situation did traumatize me if I were to look back, I wish it didn’t happen that way, drawn out, and it was all so very painful to take in and to watch. But as you said, if I had chose to leave and let him be there without me, I would have felt terribly guilty, but despite the fact i was there, I still feel guilty, just about other things.

        I do often wish he was in my life longer, but this also causes me to feel spiteful towards many people I meet who don’t appreciate, take care of, or poorly treat their parents.

        Thank you Bob.