Question: My Mother died two years ago and I'm still wrestling with guilt--and grief. The guilt is what I need help with. The grief is lifting a bit. Here is my problem: There were things such as visiting, phoning, taking her places that I didn't do as frequently as she would have liked, because I just didn't feel like it at the time. I did doctor appointments and all other important things—as well as a great number of frivolous things. Just not as many as I could have done. When she became too old to live by herself I moved her into our guest house where she happily lived for six years. The last two years she needed 24/7 nursing care, which I hired and managed but she paid for. She lived to be 100. Those last years were especially painful, stressful,and exhausting. I know she expected me to visit her every day, yet some days I just didn't feel like it. Now, I so regret being so selfish. Sometimes I became impatient with her—her mind was failing and it irked me at times, knowing full well she couldn't help it. Every one thinks I'm the poster child for parent care. What they don't know is that I often resented the work and wasn't always happy—just dutiful about it. My Mother's dying words to me were, "Do you love me?" So I wasn't very good at hiding my emotions. I did always try to make all special days, birthdays, Christmas, etc. lovely celebrations with home cooked feasts and lots of gaily wrapped presents. I was careful to never forget to acknowledge one of her 'big' days. And I always looked after her health, doctor appointments, dental appointments. She didn't drive so when she lived with us, I drove her when she needed to go somewhere. I'm an only child, so I was enormously important to her. We also had many, many delightful, giggling visits together. I'm in my mid-70's. She was the closest I ever came to having a 'best friend. I miss her dearly.
Dr. Amy: I feel certain that every caregiver walking the face of this good green earth has felt, at one time or another, that she could have done more. Many of us have painful feelings of guilt over something we did or did not do. For this reason, I think caregiving is hugely challenging. Along with feelings of love, joy and giving back can come anger, frustration, and resentment—on top of an often physically exhausting load. Your feelings are—all of them—entirely normal. And clearly you were a fabulous caregiver to your mother. At the same time, you are human and do not do everything perfectly all of the time. Just think of the Olympic athletes we watch on television. Skiers, figure skaters, speed skaters: even these highly trained people fall down. Caregivers generally receive no such intensive training. We have no Olympic coach to help us be the best we can possibly be. We do the best we can, often juggling family, work, and volunteer responsibilities. Some times we hit it a home run, sometimes we get to first base, sometimes we strike out. The important thing is that you took excellent care of your mother for a good many years. Not for an inning, not for a game, and not for a season—but year after year until she died.
I encourage you to celebrate the relationship you had. Be grateful for the many good times you shared. Be proud of the care you gave. Be thankful for the opportunity. And find a way to let go of your guilt. Here are a few ways to deal with feelings that I have found effective:
Keep a journal: write down everything. Express all of your guilt and remorse. Take the time to do this quietly and read back to yourself what you write. Eventually, start to ask yourself whether you still need to hold on to these feelings. Ask what holding on to them is doing for you. How is it holding you back?
Write your mother a letter: if writing in a journal is not for you, consider writing your mother a long letter in which you express all of your feelings—including your love for her. Write and re-write this letter until it perfectly expresses everything you feel. You might end it by asking for her forgiveness. And then burn the letter in a special ceremony.
Meditate: I've recently started to explore mediation and I am really wowed by the power it has to quiet my mind and bring me peace and a sense of wellbeing. There are plenty of books, CDs and videos on meditation. And there are likely classes in your area, if you prefer to learn that way.
If you find yourself unable to let go of your guilt after a while, I encourage you to seek counselling from a qualified practitioner.
I send you peace.
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