Grief and Guilt: “I Can’t Believe I Did That” Edition

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Litsa


When we train physicians, nurses, and other hospital staff on providing good end-of-life care, we always start and end by reminding them of one thing: The care they provide and the interactions they have with families will stay with family members forever. This isn’t hyperbolic. In grief, many people will play back the circumstances immediately before, during, and after a death over and over again. They will revisit those moments and replay them, sometimes picking them apart. As such, grief and guilt (or at least grief and regret) can become deeply intertwined in those moments.

We have talked about grief and guilt or regret many times before. Today, we are specifically going to talk about some of the common regrets that come up around a death. To understand this chronic replay of events that can happen in grief, there are a couple of concepts you should know.

The Acute Stress Response

In the immediate time of crisis surrounding a death, our brains often flip into crisis-mode. That crisis mode is more formally known as an acute stress response. It is our brain’s evolutionary mechanism for helping us out in times of danger. We release stress hormones. We go into a fight, flight, or freeze response. This was incredibly useful when being threatened by predators… But, when the danger we feel is the deep emotional risk of losing a loved one and having to live without them, the acute stress response isn’t always so useful.

We aren’t going to get into the details of the acute stress response, because we have a whole article about it. We strongly recommend you read this post on The Role of the Acute Stress Response in Grief before you go any further. It digs into some of the common acute stress experiences like shutting down, derealization, depersonalization, arousal, avoidance, and dissociative amnesia.

Cognitive Appraisals in Grief and Guilt

A cognitive appraisal is our subjective interpretation of a given situation. In the 1960s, Richard Lazarus explained that cognitive appraisals impact the stress of a given situation. He said the stress a person experiences is subjective and correlates to their unique interpretation or “appraisal” of the event. We naturally appraise things like whether a situation is a threat or challenge (what Lazarus called a primary appraisal) and whether we have the resources or ability to cope (a secondary appraisal).

Let’s look at this in practice. Imagine that my coworker and I both are laid off from our jobs due to budget cuts. Our circumstances outside of work are largely the same. We both have some savings, family support, and strong skills in high-demand fields. We were both good employees. When learning about the layoff, she reflects on the situation and thinks:

Wow, this is awful. But I have savings, so I will be able to pay my bills for a couple of months. I have been through hard stuff before, so I can get through this. My work experience is strong. I just need to start looking for another job”.

I, on the other hand, think:

“Wow, this is awful. Without a paycheck, I’ll never be able to pay my bills. It’s a tough job market right now, I probably won’t get hired. I’ll never fully recover from this”.

In this situation, the same thing happened to each of us. But I am likely going to experience a more intense stress response because my appraisal of the layoff is that it is a greater threat and that I have fewer resources to cope with it. The objective reality of the situation is not what created the different intensities of stress. The way we appraised the situation did. These appraisals can have a significant impact on grief and guilt.

Counterfactual Thinking in Grief and Regret

We have an entire article that digs into hindsight bias and counterfactual thinking that I strongly suggest you read. But here’s the gist:

“Counterfactual thinking is thinking things like ‘what if” and “what might have been”.

It is the act of coming up with alternative outcomes that are counter to (or different than) the facts. Many times our counterfactual thinking follows an “if-then” pattern. Some examples:

“If I hadn’t slept late, I wouldn’t have missed the bus.”

“If I had gone to that party like I wanted, then I wouldn’t have aced my math test.”

When it comes to grief and guilt, these ‘if-then’ thoughts often come up around the things we did or didn’t do. We think that, if something had been different, the outcome would have been better. It is easy to imagine that the alternate reality would be the perfect outcome we wish for, instead of the reality we’re living. We look back and think things like:

“If I had gone on that business trip with my husband, I would have been with him to call 911 more quickly and he wouldn’t have died”.

The reality, of course, is that the alternate ending in this counterfactual reality might not have actually been a better outcome. I might have been on the trip and he still might have died.

So, how do these things come together to impact guilt or regret?

Let’s walk through some of the common situations people share with us. Even if none of these apply to you exactly, there is a good chance you may be able to extrapolate to your own thoughts of grief and regret or guilt.

Why didn’t I do CPR?

My Thoughts: In a circumstance where my loved one collapsed in front of me and I didn’t start CPR, my appraisal might be that I was not a responsive or capable person. I am fearful of what this means about me and my ability to care for others. I might blame myself, telling myself that—if I had started CPR—my loved one would have survived.

The Likely Reality: The acute stress response often causes a person to freeze, leaving them feeling unable to act and sometimes depersonalized from a situation. This is a result of a normal biological response, directly resulting from the surge of stress hormones. It is not a personal failure or a sign that I am not a responsive or capable person. It is a sign that I had a normal stress response to witnessing a trauma. The other reality my appraisal misses is that, even if I had done CPR, I don’t know what the outcome would have been. My loved one still might have died, as 9 out of 10 people who have a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital do (says the American Heart Association).

Why did I run for help instead of calling 911?

My Thoughts: I can’t believe I had my phone in my pocket, and yet instead of thinking to pull it out and call 911, I ran to find someone else to help me. What is wrong with me? I am a terrible person that I didn’t try to help myself and just ran for someone else. How can I ever be trusted in an emergency again? If only I had called 911, she probably would have made it.

The Likely Reality: Though I said to myself ‘I didn’t help’, the reality is that I was trying to help by finding someone else. That acute stress kicked in and my brain was not working the way it normally would. My flight response kicked in. I feared I couldn’t fix the situation and ran for help. With hindsight bias, it is easy to look back and think the alternative thing to do was either easy or obvious. But, in the situation, I was doing the best I could with what I had at the time (including that brain full of stress hormones!). I did try to help my loved one, even though it was in a way that my calmer brain doesn’t agree with.

Why did I push agressive treatment for so long?

My Thoughts: I was so selfish. The doctor told us after the accident that there was no hope for a meaningful recovery. Why did I keep him on the machines for so long? I just prolonged his suffering. How could I have been such a terrible wife and decision-maker?

The Likely Reality: The acute stress response sometimes includes our instinct to “fight”. This was such a shock to me when it happened. It is normal that I fought back against what the doctor was saying. I wanted to fight for him if there was any hope. That wasn’t me being selfish or wanting him to suffer. Though he may not have made a decision to be on the machines for himself, he also would understand that I made a decision that was important for me. I needed to know we gave him a chance to recover. That is not being a terrible wife.

Why didn’t I go in to see his body at the hospital/funeral home?

My Thoughts: I am such a terrible sister. How could I not have gone in to see him? What does it say about me that I didn’t want to say goodbye to him? If I had gone in to say goodbye to his body, I wouldn’t be suffering this much now. My grief and regret would probably be lessened.

The Likely Reality: Crisis, stress, and sadness turn us inward. Our evolutionary drive for survival means that, when we are scared or suffering, we often become intensely self-protective. This does not make me uncaring or terrible. It means I was trying to protect myself so I could still be present for other family and just survive those impossible days. Right now, when I am still feeling this incredible pain, I want to think if I had don’t something differently I wouldn’t feel this immense grief. The reality is that grief is always immense. I don’t know what it would have meant had I done things differently. It might have brought up other, even more difficult, things. I might have been less present for other things. There is simply no way to know.


There are countless other examples and these are just a few. If you have had something that you have gone back to time and again, questioning your action or inaction, please share in the comments. And consider how the acute stress response, your own appraisal of the situation, and counterfactual thinking may contribute to feelings of grief and guilt.

Want to read more about grief and guilt or grief and regret? Check out these articles:

Let’s be grief friends.

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34 Comments on "Grief and Guilt: “I Can’t Believe I Did That” Edition"

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  1. Sandra Johnson  August 10, 2021 at 12:34 am Reply

    Reading this blog really helps. I feel guilty because I watched tv for escape during the year and a half my husband was so fatigued with pancreatic cancer. I spent time lying beside him and talking with him
    m, but he would need to fall asleep. Then I would watch tv which he was not a fan of. I wore headphones to not disturb him. Now I wish I hadn’t. He knew how much I loved him, though.

  2. Mini  July 21, 2021 at 8:45 am Reply

    I lost my mom on 16th June, last month.

    My mom was on ventilator for 23 days. It took her a month to get covid negative (10th May to 6th June when she was finally declared covid negative) after which she was shifted to a non-covid ICU. Just like anybody, I loved my mom to the moon and back, she was my best friend & confidant all through my life. I spoke to her for hours every day, 10 times a day (I am married for 11 years now). I never had friends who I could talk and share my feelings with because I had an incredible mother. She was/is my world, my everything and I never felt the need to confide myself anywhere except her arms. (I hope she is reading this…). She had the most beautiful 64 years – love, laughter, happiness, friends, family…she had everything. But one monster changed everything for us – the word is COVID.

    It was 10th May when she was detected with very mild symptoms of Covid and was hospitalized as her saturation was low. I cried my heart out over the phone, while I too was in high fever ( I didn’t got myself tested but mom and I fell ill in the same period and I was bed ridden for 2 weeks, may be I too was Covid Positive) but she consoled me and said, ‘Don’t worry my dear, nothing will happen to me. I will be fine.’ I told her that I didn’t wanted you to see a hospital and this scares me but she was very positive as always. Little did we knew, how this virus would destroy our world. In a month her condition worsened and she was put on a ventilator due to progressive hypoxia. It is impossible to put in words what me and my brother have gone through in that one month. Sleepless nights, horrifying days, calls after calls about how her condition is improving or deteriorating and what next we have to do. Each and every second of my life was filled with her thoughts and prayers to God to just show some miracle and save her. On 11th June I went to see her in the hospital. I saw her in the most heart-wrenching condition, with pipes in her mouth, a swollen body, sedated, paralyzed. In my life, not even in my worst nightmares had I imagined my beautiful mom in that condition. It was like hell. That moment was hell. I just stood far way from her and kept crying and crying and crying. I couldn’t gather the courage to go close to her, touch her and talk to her. I fell down on the floor when a chair was given to me and that’s all I remember apart from the fact that I had such a brutal reality in front of me and I am so weak and helpless as much as she is. I left. On 16th June, I came back when her tracheostomy was to be done. I was on my way with a strong determination that I will bring my mom out of this miserable state and we will fight for her despite all odds and what the doctors are saying. I told myself I am not going to be weak in front of her, I will talk to her, see her, touch her because she needs me. But….When I reached home, the tracheostomy was done and it was uneventful. However, an hour later she had a cardiac arrest and there, my world came to an end.

    Now she had the pipes out, she could have survived, but no. I missed that opportunity to talk to her, to be with her, to tell her how much I loved her, in her last moments. This thought, this guilt is killing me every second of my life. And I dont know what to do about this. I have always told her how much she means to me but I feel devastated when I think why and how I couldn’t find the courage to tell her in her last moments that I am there. That I was there, but I wasnt brave enough to see my most precious person in that condition. Does she know how much I love her or is she angry with me…. I don’t know…Ultimately I faced her funeral then why couldn’t I face her when she was alive on that ventilator.

    My pain at this moment is inexplicable. Each breath I am taking seems like a burden. I feel so small, so weak. She did so much for me, but I could not even stood up by her in her last moments. This is killing me everyday.

    • Jane  July 24, 2021 at 8:21 am Reply

      I am so sorry for your loss. Being a Mom, I can tell you your loving relationship that you continually had with your Mom is a GREAT comfort to her. She knows you love her. There is a point at witch words don’t mean a thing if they are not backed by previous action. Your Mom KNOWS. She knows you love her and she does not feel bad you didn’t speak to her at that one time. She knows it was hard for you. That’s what GREAT Moms understand. Remember the good and focus on the time you did have!

    • Diane  July 25, 2021 at 10:48 am Reply

      Your Mom knew. She always knew. That love transcends death. She would have wanted to spare you any of that pain. Be as forgiving with yourself as she would be.

  3. Marti  July 12, 2021 at 7:11 pm Reply

    My boyfriend died of a heart attack 3 months ago. He spent the night with me, then went to work, went home and died. I couldn’t reach him by phone or text, then fell asleep and assumed he had done the same. His cousin banged on my door at 6:30 am and said he never showed up to work Tues morning. He rushed over there,, broke in & found him, dead. I live with the thought that I should’ve gone over there the night before, and he mightve been saved by a 911 call. I am walking around in a maze of aginy & grief. I’ve never felt loved before, and with him, it was so wonderful. He cared about me, my health& last year saved my life at 11:30 pm when I couldn’t breathe well. He got me to the ER & I was having a heart attack, and now he is the one who’s suddenly gone.

    • Melissa Steidinger  July 19, 2021 at 4:18 pm Reply

      Marti
      Do not blame yourself. Right now you are in the fog of what I should have done.
      Knowing he loved you is all that matters and although you are devastated by his loss you will learn to accept it.
      On 7/25/2020, I was with my fiancé and we were going to pick his daughter since he had just obtained full custody of her. Well his crazy ex wife had other plans and shot him twice wounding him and he died an hour later at the hospital. I called 911 because I was in fear for my life and did what I had to do to survive. So do not fault yourself in any way. It is so hard without him.
      But it will take one step at a time.
      Good luck to you in your journey.
      Time does not heal it makes us learn new ways of living with the pain.

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  4. Michael  June 12, 2021 at 11:51 pm Reply

    My wife died on March 1 almost 2 months to the day after developing a rare autoimmune disease. Due to Covid I was not able to always be with her during her hospital stays thereforeI was not always able to be part of the conversation she has with her doctors. I was able to be there when they started allowing visitors. She spent about 5 days in a major teaching hospital and they sent her home sick. Even though it may not have made a difference I am distressed by the idea that I didn’t ask enough questions or demand better answers as to what was wrong. I know I couldn’t have changed the outcome but I have a lot of guilt that I didn’t advocate more for her,

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  5. Amanda  June 12, 2021 at 8:47 am Reply

    I know daeth has or is occuring o go bacl and forth between what happened to ne and what have i done, it makes me angry.

  6. Kim  April 29, 2021 at 7:21 am Reply

    My mom passed away 3-25. Im so sick. She went in to have surgery aerto bifemal bypass on 3-11. The surgery they said was a little difficult but went well. She stayed in icu for about a week. She was having stomach issues from when she woke up. I spoke to dr he said she looked good. They eventually put her in a regular hospital room. I spoke to her everyday and face-timed because of covid no visitors. Every time i called she sound better. She started to get a fever They said normal sometimes and gave Tylenol. My mom said they gave her antibiotic . She couldn’t hold down food. They gave her yogurt and she vomited it up. They ran test always never finding anything. Said vitals were good. On 3-24. I called her she didn’t answer. She called me back 15 min later. She told me they had her all over taking more test. She said she was out of bed standing and sitting Then she said she ate. They gave her yogurt and icecream. We spoke about 10 min. I told her rest ill call you later. That was the last I spoke to her. I called her at 8:30 no answer i figured maybe shes sleeping. She always calls me back. At 9:59 i got a call from the hospital that she coded. I am a mess. I was up all night i got to see her the next day. I knew inside she was gone. I asked what happened they said she aspirated on her vomit. Im so sick. They new she couldn’t hold down food. I have so much guilt i told her to go to this hospital. Maybe i should of got a second opinion. I had my worries but doctors and everyone was saying she going to be ok. I feel its my fault if she didn’t go to this hospital she would be here. She was 68. My best friend. If she didn’t have the surgery if i just stayed on the phone with her. If she was at a better hospital. Why was she left alone. I cry everyday. Its been a month now. I had the power to stop this surgery and maybe research better hospitals. I told her she was going to be fine she wasn’t going to die. I thought she was coming home soon. So did she. The guilt and pain i have.

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    • Tammi  May 14, 2021 at 12:29 am Reply

      Dear Kim
      I am sorry for the pain you feel. I can feel the love you have for your Mom. Please DO NOT blame yourself. This was NOT your fault. You shall see her again. I know this pain. My Mom ascended on October 20, 2020. The pain is real but thank God so is the love which can never be taken from us. I pray you find peace and will think of you in my prayers. Blessings.

      • Trish  June 8, 2021 at 11:40 am

        Tammi and Kim, my mom died October 25 last year during COVID but not of the virus. She was in assisted living and we had moved her out of her independent apt. into a shared apt. last Dec-Jan. That was the last time I was with her. She is in Ohio and I’m in Florida. COVID prevented me from traveling to see her and, because of her Alzheimer’s, FaceTime and even the phone became confusing and frustrating for her. I feel so guilty for not being there at all for her last year. My sister lives nearby but wasn’t allowed in, either. However. My worse problem is I don’t feel she’s really gone. She was drifting away for the past year or so, not herself and distant sometimes, and it feels to me like she’s still at the facility, alive – I just can’t get in to see her. Intellectually, I know she died. Emotionally, it doesn’t register. I’m so sorry for both of your losses. Sending hugs.

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  7. Becky  April 22, 2021 at 3:59 am Reply

    My husband died on 23/3/2021. We had sex, he had an asthma attack (sex was the only thing that triggered his asthma attacks so we very rarely had sex because it scared me, although sex didn’t always trigger an asthma attack), he went downstairs to take his mind off it. I heard him cough four times. After the last cough I looked at the clock and told myself I’d check on him in five minutes. Four minutes later I went downstairs and he was dead. The coroner has told me it was heart failure, and there are no signs the asthma attack played any role in his death. But I still blame myself, because what if the asthma attack triggered the heart failure? I was the one who wanted sex that night. I can’t let go of the fear that I killed my husband.

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    • Kath  April 27, 2021 at 4:58 pm Reply

      Hi Becky – it’s not your fault. I have a good friend whose partner had an aneurysm in the middle of them having sex. It wasn’t her fault either. Her wife would likely have had the aneurysm anyway. Your husband would likely have had the attack anyway. If not at that specific time, shortly thereafter. For another reason maybe. Or maybe he might just have had it for no discernible reason. It is not your fault. It just isn’t. I know you must feel as if it is. But I promise you – it wasn’t. I am so, so sorry for your loss. You will never get over your husband’s loss. But I do hope that you can start to believe it was not your fault. Life can be cruel and fickle. Sometimes things just happen. Your husband passing away is awful. But also, not your fault. I bet he was a wonderful man and I am so sorry he has passed away. I hope in time you can celebrate his life and carry him with you in a positive way and let go of any fears that you had any control over the time of his passing (which you did not.) All the best,

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  8. Lynda  April 7, 2021 at 8:49 pm Reply

    My only sibling, Keith, passed away 1 year ago, this month, specifically, April 28, 2020. He lived in another state than I do. As well, it was during the COVID-19 epidemic. Both of these facts made it impossible to go see him in the hospital his last few days. My brother was ill with Congestive Heart Failure for several years, so, it wasn’t uncommon for him to be in the hospital. For this exact reason, he was very private about how ill he was. He did this because he didn’t want me to worry, especially knowing I was not able to be there anyway. This time, however, he completely opened up to me about his last 6 weeks or so about how ill he was. In fact, I was the one who finally convinced him to call 911 or else he might have died at home & he lived alone. I feel he opened up to me as a way of letting me know his time was short bc I found out later from his pastor that 2 weeks before he passed, Keith had told him he was ready to go. And although he knew I genuinely cared, by my insistence on him calling 911, I did not take the opportunity to say goodbye…to tell him thank you for so many reasons, to let him know it was OK to go and that I loved him more than anything in the world. And I only had 1 opportunity to do that. It was his 1st of only 3 days in the hospital before he passed. Because he was not conscious starting on the 2nd day. And he knew I could have because we text that 1st day because he could no longer talk. My brother did the one thing that many are not able to do. He remained clean and sober for about 35 years. I never even told him how proud of him for that. We were very close and visited each other throughout the years. So, although we never talked about his sobriety specifically, we showed and shared with each other the happiness if it. So, I know there was nothing that needed closure, except saying goodbye…a more peaceful thing to have closure on than a lot if issues families have to reconcile. This fact also leaves me feeling that although we were there for each other, always, at that at the very last moment, I wasn’t there for him.

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  9. Penny  April 2, 2021 at 7:16 pm Reply

    I am in the middle of crazy guilt. I am glad I read this and will try to visit my Dad before he passes and my guilt will be worse. I was in charge of coordinating decisions on his care while in a covid locked down facility. I was convinced he needed hospice but had suspicion they were pushing me to this because he was harder to care for. Hospice gradually pulled him from all life sustaining meds and asthma treatments and he is being drugged with morphine and presently dying. So hard to not feel guilt. I let them do this. It can’t be reversed at this point, to much damage is done to his body. Dad doesn’t eat, drink, talk. 6 days ago he was using his walker and talking and smiling! They gradually gave morphine in place of his nebulizer treatments, then to help him get a good nights sleep. Dad has had asthma all his life, he has alway wheezed and the home he is in knows it . Hospice excuse was the treatment take too long, morphine is faster. His wheezing will kill him before morphine does. No lung specialist would prescribe morphine for asthma! He gets morphine 6 times a day and shows no distress or discomfort. He hardly moves! I put these people in charge of my Father. We were so close to getting him outside for a family gathering! I am angry and full of guilt. I want this family gathering and it is too late. I am one of 9 siblings, lots of grandchildren and great grandchildren. I was in charge and I can reverse my decisions!

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    • Allison  April 21, 2021 at 1:00 am Reply

      My heart goes out to you Penny. My mom passed away earlier this year and I was her caretaker for the last few months of her life. It is such a stressful position to be in. Nothing can prepare you for it. You try to make the best decisions that you can at the time. But it’s natural to second guess yourself. And when things don’t work out the way you hope, it is easy to blame yourself. But it is not your fault. You did the best you could with the information that you had at the time. Maya Angelou once wrote: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” If your dad is still alive and you now feel that a different course of action would be better, then explore a different course of action. Hospice is a hard concept to understand. Because it is not about treatment. It is not about the person getting better. It is about the person dying and helping them make that transition as painlessly and peacefully as possible. My mom had COPD and it was excruciating to watch her struggle to breathe. I didn’t just want to dull her pain; I wanted to help her breathe better! But there comes a time when the lungs just won’t work properly anymore and no amount of medication can help. At that point, the focus is not on the breathing so much as it is on the pain. I was reluctant to give my mom Morphine. The hospice staff criticized me for that and told me I was cruel. I didn’t care what they said. But when my mom started asking for it, that’s when I knew it wasn’t just hospice pushing it on us. My mom needed it and wanted it. Being doped up on morphine is definitely no way to live. But neither is wheezing or gasping for air. The comment you made about your dad being so full of life one day and a few days later not being able to eat or drink or talk really resonated with me. It is a shock to see someone’s condition change so rapidly. That could have been caused by the morphine. Or it could have simply been that he began the process of actively dying. When my mom started to go, she went very quickly. One day she was alert and talkative and active (insisting that we clean out the cabinets and give things away to goodwill) and the next day she was practically comatose. And there was no change in her dose of Morphine. She simply had what people in the the hospice field call a “final burst of energy.” And after that, her body just gave out. Three days later she was gone. The week before she died, her oxygen levels were the highest they had been in months (97!). But the day before she died, her oxygen level dropped down to 35! Nothing changed. It was just her time. I don’t know if your dad’s condition changed because of the morphine or because he was beginning the process of actively dying, but either way it is a shock and it’s heartbreaking to watch. I know how painful it is to realize that it is too late for some of the things that you hoped for. It’s normal to feel that, but don’t let yourself focus on the lost time for too long. It will just cause you to spiral down even more. Try to focus on the time that you DID have, the good decisions that you made for him, and the quality of life that allowed him to enjoy up to that point. When my mom passed, I felt a circle of warmth surround me. It was like she was giving me one final hug before she left. In that moment, I could feel her spirit. She no longer felt like she was in pain and anxious and in fear. All those emotions left her the moment she died. And all that was left was peace and love. When our loved ones pass, they don’t want us to remember the bad times; they don’t want us to feel guilt and pain; they just want us to remember the good times and be filled with peace and love. Regardless of the outcome, I hope that you are able to let go of your guilt and find that peace, acceptance, and love.

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    • Lynda Reyes  August 16, 2021 at 10:20 am Reply

      I posted a comment on April 7, 2021 @ 8:49AM regarding the loss of my only sibling, Keith. I do not see any responses to my post. I have looked thru almost all of the comments & I have seen 1 or more responses to each of them. Is there a specific reason why I had no responses? It makes me feel that maybe there is no other way to see my regrets than I currently do.

      • Isabelle Siegel  August 17, 2021 at 8:42 am

        Hi Lynda, I’m sorry to hear that this upset you. I did notice that five people “liked” your comment, which makes me think many people are experiencing the same regrets and just might not now how to respond to them (in your scenario or in theirs!). You are not alone. That said, please know that the lack of responses does NOT mean you are “right” to feel guilty/regretful (Although it is okay that you do!). It sound as though you were a wonderful sister to Keith and, despite never explicitly saying it, I’m hopeful he knew how proud of him you were. Please feel free to reach out again!

  10. Dawn M Stangle  April 2, 2021 at 5:20 am Reply

    My husband died just the other day after a devastating illness. He deteriorated quickly and I did nothing, getting short with him and frustrated. He was having chest pain and vomiting (he was on chemo). I thought the chest pain was from his constipation and straining to move his bowels. This is all my fault. I should have taken him to the ER sooner. This is so crushing I can’t breathe and feel so alone. We moved and I have no family close by. I was a terrible wife.

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    • Lucy  April 19, 2021 at 11:20 am Reply

      My heart goes out to you with an empathic understanding. I too experienced the loss of dear loved one whom I cared for through an illness. I have received some helpful guidance through the article found on what’s your grief.com Guilt and Grief: Coping with the Shoulda, Woulda, Couldas
      When you are ready, which I realize will take some time, you might find help with this article. I actually revisited it today, since first finding it a year ago. Yes, it is very much a journey…

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    • Allison  April 21, 2021 at 1:20 am Reply

      Dawn, I am so sorry for your loss. And I’m sorry that you are blaming yourself. This is NOT your fault. You were not his doctor or his nurse. You could not be expected to understand the significance of his symptoms. You were a loving and devoted wife and you did best that you could with the information that you had at that time. Getting short and frustrated is normal in these kinds of situations. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t love him or that you were a bad wife. And your actions in his final days do not define your whole relationship. Remember that your relationship was, and is, much bigger than just that final chapter of his life.

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      • Trish  June 8, 2021 at 11:53 am

        Thank you, Allison. Your response to Dawn helped me as well. I feel so badly about being short and frustrated with Paul when he wouldn’t/couldn’t eat or would spill his drinks. I know he was, too, though. I sometimes feel I didn’t try hard enough to understand or think things through as I’ve had four years to do now. I have felt guilty of starving him or not being creative enough to get him to eat or drink enough. He faded away so fast, it just all happened so fast. 😔

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    • Julie McArtney  May 20, 2021 at 4:38 am Reply

      You weren’t a terrible wife. You did your best.
      My partner passed 3 months ago from cancer.
      The stress and tiredness for the carer is huge! We can’t get it right all the time, we’re not nurses. Sending you love and light xxx

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    • Jane  July 24, 2021 at 8:52 am Reply

      You are not a terrible wife, you are human. They wouldn’t make erasers if we were perfect! But, my dear, you did not make a mistake. It just feels like it. The passing of a loved one is horrible, I too have lost my spouse. My children live an hour away and my huge extended family live in another State. Find a church and a grief group when your ready. My prayers are with you. I was nowhere near my husband when he passed…so what did I reason?….it must have been what I fed him, the spices I used in his morning oatmeal. Grief is distressing. I think death is so hard to comprehend that we try to make it make sense. Hence the I did or didn’t do something, or if this than that.

  11. Linda  March 31, 2021 at 4:58 pm Reply

    My mom passed away on 8/8/2019 I was not able to see her , my family give me the news after 4 days ,I can’t get over I feel filthy guilty sad that that I never got to talk to her or see her again I think in her all the time I get too sad

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  12. Catherine  March 31, 2021 at 3:50 pm Reply

    My Daddy died of Covid one year ago, April 14th. He was alone in another state. I couldn’t be with him in the hospital so I didn’t fly from my state to his. I couldn’t have seen him in the hospital before he was on the ventilator. I couldn’t have seen him once he was. We agreed not to do CPR so as to not infect other people. Did I do the right thing? Protecting others over him? When he died, I couldn’t have been there. Still.
    I had him cremeted per his request and mixed his ashes with my mother’s. I never saw him again, not in the hospital, not in death.
    I had to have an online funeral service. I sold his house. Did I do the right thing? Is there a right thing?
    My what if and should haves dont stop.
    I have so many physical problems.
    I can’t seem to move on. I’m frozen.

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    • Jane  July 30, 2021 at 11:17 pm Reply

      Dear Catherine,

      Your Dad would not want you to feel this way. He would be so proud of how you were able to handle so many of the details even though you were not allowed to see him. He would not want you to have risked yourself or others. You did exactly the right thing, you handled all the details and now, take time to remember the happy moments. Rest in that you’ve made the right decisions. Your Dad would want you to remember the happy times and that he loves you. Take time to grieve and be happy and make him proud. You are doing great.

  13. JP  March 26, 2021 at 12:39 am Reply

    I regret not being with my husband when they unplugged the machine. I don’t think anything would have changed had I been there. Or maybe I think I would have been a more loving wife. He had been declared dead when I signed him up to be an organ donor so he remained on life support. But, then he wasn’t a good candidate for donation so, I gave approval to remove life support. And I wasn’t there…To me, he had been gone since the initial death pronouncement. It was a very difficult time.

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  14. Coco Lopata  March 25, 2021 at 7:52 pm Reply

    My husband was a Deacon in the Catholic Church, always at St. John’s in Severna Park MD and was a deacon for a good 20 years and he got dementia and it continued until I had to put him in a near by nursing home. He was be at
    Beautiful husband and deacon and he loved doing most anything for the church and we did. He got worse at the nursing home and seem to know anyone but me.
    Father had a beautiful funeral and funeral at the church. I felt fine and greeted each person. Then I came back to our condo and it hit me like lightning. I crying now. He died 7 Nov 2018 and am doing ok in some areas and bad in others. I started out helping with With a program at church and now just about every time of meeting is canceled.
    The big thing for me is my health is going down and I still get ahold of my eating. I am trying to stay in ministry as much as I can. I have many friends at church , thank you Lord and Mother Mary and my good friend St Padre Pio. (Something beautiful happened ). I came home after the funeral and mail was here. In the mail was a small package from St Pio and inside was a small blanket from Padre Pio. I grabbed that blanket and put it over eyes and sobbed. I was so happy
    St Pio remembered me. He is with me all the time and God and St Pio. I sleep with blanket and keep it close.
    Must quit. Thank you. I sent your article to our children. They have their own families and are ok. God bless you and your ministry. Coco Lopata.

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    • Margarete  April 8, 2021 at 5:56 am Reply

      Padre Pio is my friend too and I will pray for your peace and comfort. Life is so hard. Pray, Hope and Don’t worry. 🙏

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  15. Maggie  March 25, 2021 at 6:11 pm Reply

    My son, Michael, Forever 23, passed in a car accident just after midnight on July 5, 2020. My “if/then” scenarios have no excuse in the crisis response, since I was not in crisis when I made the decisions I did that day. But my “if/then” scenarios are certainly of the “what might have been” ilk. They include: if my husband and I hadn’t spent the 4th of July evening with another couple at their home, then Michael would have come straight home after ending his shift at his new job and would still be alive. If I hadn’t gotten into a terrible argument the night before with my brother, then I would have been paying more attention to Michael before he left for work that day and maybe I would not have let him drive the convertible. If I hadn’t let Michael drive my cute, fun convertible, then he wouldn’t have been speeding with a friend on a hot summer night on dark country roads, and would still be alive. If it hadn’t been COVID, then Michael wouldn’t have been living with me and my husband in the countryside…and thus out driving on dark, unknown country roads, ending in a car crash. If I had been a better mother, then I would have protected my child from harm. The last one is the underlying sentiment of all of them: I failed to protect my child from harm. I failed to consider that he might speed in the dark. I failed to foresee the future. I understand that this accident was beyond my control and, deeper than that, that Michael’s soul’s plan of when, where and how to drop his physical body was beyond my control. I know intellectually that I cannot see into the future. Emotionally, however, I fall into if/then scenarios that are clearly held below the surface of intellectual understanding, as I am shaking and crying as I write this comment, guilt-ridden for not foreseeing this tragedy, angry at myself for all the “what ifs” that I could have done but did not. Would Michael still be alive if I had?

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    • JMG  March 30, 2021 at 9:37 pm Reply

      Each “if only” is a sign of how much love you have for your lost loved one. Drop the “if onlys” and focus on the love that motivates your thoughts about him. The love between you is still there. When the “if only’s” start to hurt again, see if you can remember they’re there to point you back to the love.

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  16. Trish  March 25, 2021 at 5:48 pm Reply

    I have been angry at myself and kind of ashamed that, the morning that Paul died at home next to me on the couch, I didn’t close his eyes. Maybe this sounds weird or not very important or whatever: it hurts and I’ve regretted it for over four years. He had been falling asleep with his eyes open more and more often until that last morning. I will never forget his cloudy, unseeing eyes and that they stayed that way until the funeral home came for him. I’m so sad I didn’t help him that one last time and I can’t seem to get over it. :<

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    • Hannah  March 30, 2021 at 1:58 pm Reply

      I understand your pain. It’s terrible and others may see it as irrational, but things like this really gnaw at you. I couldn’t bring myself to put my partners promise ring on her finger at the funeral parlour, the undertaker had to do it for me. I regret it so, so much and it still plays on my mind after three years.

      We can’t put ourselves through more pain than we are already facing. We know we loved them unconditionally and would do anything for them. Our minds just weren’t working how they would normally, it’s panic and this horrible overwhelming feeling that take over everything, so we couldn’t do the things we wish we had. I’m sure Paul wouldn’t think twice about you not closing his eyes, just as I’m sure my Ellie forgives me for not putting her ring on her finger. It’s forgiving ourselves that’s the hard part. But we must try to, and try to make peace with what really happened. We deserve peace.

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