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Carol's Columns

GUILT: The Bereaved Parent's Unwelcome Visitor

In my twenty-five years of trauma counseling, I can't remember ever counseling a bereaved parent who didn't, at one stage or another, experience guilt. No matter the age or cause of their child's death, the "could haves, should haves and wish I would haves" seemed to creep in....

Our most important role as a parent is to protect our child. We feel we have failed in this most fundamental of all roles when our child dies. Our nurturing instinct turns against us in the form of guilt. There must have been something we could have done. None of us want to believe that we are that impotent as parents. I have even had clients with grown children who have not lived in their home in years make comments like, "I should have told him he was drinking too much;" or "I should have encouraged her to go more regularly to the doctors;" or "he always drove fast and I never said anything. I should have."

When my daughter Kristen was pulled out to sea by a wave and drowned, her father John and his wife drove for several hours to the beach cabin where we had been staying. They hoped beyond hope that by the time they'd arrive, the Coast Guard would have found her and the nightmare would end. When I answered the door, the look on my face told them the worst. Nearly, the first words from John were, "Carol, I hope to God, you're not feeling guilty." I was in such shock; I had no idea what he meant. However, it wasn't long before the shock wore off and the guilt crept in. Kristen was his flesh and blood as much as mine. If I hadn't heard those words I would have felt doubly guilty. Whenever I'd begin to spiral into guilt, I would remember his words. They became the greatest gift he could have given me.

In its extreme, guilt can grab hold and never let go creating despondency that side tracks the grief process. In fact, we may feel so guilty that we believe we deserve whatever pain we have. Our goal in guilt is to learn to forgive ourselves. This is extremely difficult if we believe we were such bad parents that we deserve the pain. Accidents happen. They especially happen to active vital children no matter what age.

It is extremely important to address guilt when the death is by suicide. When someone chooses to kill himself, we know his pain was intense and his hope so diminished. How could we not have known? Surely we could have done something to stop them? How could we have been a good parent and not prevented this? We must remind ourselves that if we could have prevented it, we would have. This is much easier said than done. If our guilt persists, we may need professional counseling by a therapist experienced with grief issues.