Guilt is one of those emotions people don’t talk much about, maybe because shame is so often a part of it. Yet when someone we love dies, most of us feel guilty about something or perhaps many things. “If only I had….” “Why didn’t I?” “I should have insisted.” “It should have been me.”

All of  are all expressions of guilt. Guilt is sometimes justified but oftentimes it is not logical but we feel it just the same and it feels very real. Horace Bushnell says, “Guilt is the very nerve of sorrow.”

Sometimes when we feel guilty, we punish ourselves. We either over-indulge or refuse to allow ourselves to feel pleasure. We often shut out the people who care for us most. We may lose ourselves in busyness so that we are too tired to think or to feel. The thought of being alone with our thoughts may immobilize us. The more we refuse to talk about our guilt, real or imagined, the stronger its hold over us becomes.

When my son died, I felt tremendous guilt. Shawn was 14 when he was struck by a car. I agonized for years over why I had let him go that evening. My son’s bestfriend was spending the night and after initially deciding to stay home, they reconsidered and decided to join a couple of friends in a game of tennis.

I had this strange feeling and for some reason I was wishing they weren’t going but I ignored that feeling and let them go. My son always hugged me and that night I hugged them both and then Shawn’s friend said, “I left my jacket downstairs.” Shawn quickly offered to go get it. When he came up, he hugged me again and they walked out the door.

When the doorbell rang a few hours later, I assumed it was the boys playing a joke on me. It wasn’t the boys. It was the coroner. I thought it must be some sick joke but it wasn’t. Shawn was dead. I had let my son down. I hadn’t listened to that feeling. I wasn’t there when he needed me. I hadn’t kept him safe.

Worst of all I was still here. I was a horrible mother. I was consumed with guilt. How could I ever forgive myself?

Some people would say there is nothing to forgive yourself for. You didn’t know what was going to happen. But that isn’t the point. When we blame ourselves for events that happen, part of healing includes forgiveness. We have to start where we are. Someday we may be able to say with some conviction that it wasn’t our fault, but until then there is work we need to do.

That work includes being honest with ourselves about our feelings and finding a safe place to talk about them. It may be a trusted friend, a pastor, or a support group or a grief counselor. It needs to be someone who will listen and not tell us why we shouldn’t feel that way. As we talk about it, we begin to get it outside of ourselves and we can begin to be more objective about it. This does not happen quickly for most of us but given enough time it will.

Guilt gets in the way of our good memories, of happy times we shared. It robs us of even that pleasure. That is one more reason to learn how to let it go. The bottom line is we didn’t have a choice about our loved one’s death. But we do have a choice about blaming ourselves or not. I knew what choice my son would have me make and in time I made it.

Deb Kosmer 2011

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Deb Kosmer

Deb Kosmer

Deb has worked at Affinity Visiting Nurses Hospice for ten years, the first two as a hospice social worker and the last eight as Bereavement Support Coordinator supporting families before and after the death of their loved ones. She provides supportive counseling, developed and facilitates a variety of grief support groups, including a well-attended group for men only as well as other educational events. Deb received her Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from UW-Oshkosh and her Master’s degree in Social Work from UW Milwaukee. She received her certification in Thanatology through ADEC. Her writing has appeared in New Leaf Magazine, We Need Not Walk Alone, Living with Loss, Grief Digest, numerous hospice publications and EAP publications. Some of her poetry on death and dying will be included in a college textbook for social workers in end of life soon. New Leaf has also used some of her poetry for a line of sympathy and anniversary of death cards. On a personal level, Deb's 14-year-old son died after being struck by a car. Her 31-year-old sister had died in a car accident eight months earlier, and her 56-year-old father died from a heart attack exactly three years before. These three unexpected deaths within three years started Deb on a journey she never wanted to be on and she learned first-hand the importance of having the help and support of others. In the years since, she has experienced other losses, the most recent being the unexpected death of her 44-year-old step-daughter who died from complications three months after routine surgery. Deb's passions are writing, reading, education, nature, and family. She is currently working on a book of her grief poetry. She recently moved with her husband to Waypost Camp, Hatley WI. Her husband accepted a job there as Property Manager and his position allows them to live on-site with acres of woods and a lake. She anticipates the quiet beauty to be a strong catalyst for writing.

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