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By: Jane Milardo, LMFT

phil-and-marie-sheehandreamstime m 31247621The details of managing the life of an ill person can take every ounce of your energy, and every moment of your time. During that flurry of activity, you’re unable to think about your own emotional state.

But after your spouse dies, there is time to ponder feelings. For the first time in quite a while, you are finally able to stop and think about yourself. You begin to question yourself. Did I care for my spouse well enough? Was I attentive, or was I selfish? If only I had done things differently, would they still be alive? You may second-guess everything you did. Here are the stories of two widows, and the personal guilt they felt.

Cathy’s Story

I was married to Matthew for three years, although we had been together for a long time. I was 29 years younger than he, and when we married he was in remission for prostate cancer. Ours was a challenging marriage, with a good deal of conflict. It was difficult to handle when his prostate cancer returned. He was a strong man, but he couldn’t do the things he used to do anymore.

At times, I pushed him to do things that he may not have felt up to doing. For example, when he needed new sweats, I insisted he pick them out of a catalog himself. I wanted to keep him involved in things, but I think he interpreted it differently. I felt guilty about that later.

I was selfish sometimes. I did things for myself while he was ill. For example, I went out and bought myself clothes which I had no intention of wearing anytime soon. But at the same time, I didn’t try hard enough to fulfill his simple request when he was craving red snapper. Another time, I threw a hissy fit when his step-daughter ran up $500 worth of charges on our phone bill one month, instead of trying to come up with a solution together.

I didn’t always fight fair, and my comments really hurt him. I got angry at him once and said, “If you had balls you’d…” knowing that he had prostate cancer! I’ll never forget how his eyes teared up when I said this. I regret saying it, even to this day. I wish I had known more about fighting fair and blended family issues.

I worked full-time and then part-time, while attending undergraduate classes. He wanted me to get my undergraduate degree so I could pursue my dream, which required a master’s degree. I have such mixed feelings now….for living while he was dying.

Sometimes I felt like a young kitten with an older cat that didn’t want to chase strings or shadows anymore. Sometimes, I’ll admit that frustrated me. I appreciated the wisdom he had because of his age and experiences, but there was a flip side that made me angry sometimes. After he passed, I felt guilty for not knowing what I know now. If I did, my expectations and responses would have been different. It’s been fourteen years since he died, and I see things differently now.

Marie’s Story

My husband Phil and I were introduced by a mutual friend at a time when things were very difficult for both of us. I was a grieving widow and he was struggling with a divorce. We were married when he was 60 and I was 48. He brought eight children into the marriage to my two. The reality of it was that it turned out to be much easier than any of us anticipated. We successfully blended our families and it was amazing.

When his health deteriorated, I became his caregiver and continued in that role until his death in 2010.

We had many end of life discussions and were both on the same page with how it would be handled. His amazing will to live set me up to believe that he would beat the odds. His last hospitalization was triggered by a problem with his aortic valve. In one day he went from the ER to Critical Care and finally to Hospice. I immediately let the children know and they arrived as soon as they could get there. He was unresponsive when I came onto the hospice floor. Throughout the evening our children were arriving and by midnight, some of the grandchildren had joined us. Everyone bedded down on the floor and I slept in a cardiac chair in his room.

That night, when we were alone, he apologized to me for a business decision he made despite my opposition 17 years before. He had said this before, and I had put the matter to rest. So I responded sternly, “I put that to bed a long time ago, and you know I get angry when you bring it up!” He dropped the discussion and said that he was ready to go. I still thought that he was going to make it home, so I overlooked it. I didn’t realize that he was telling me that he was prepared for his death. He passed away the next day.

Before he actually passed, I was able to tell him that it was okay to let go, and that I knew I would see him again. However, after he passed, I started to find ways to punish myself for scolding him, and I regretted the fact that I didn’t give him permission to “let go” when he first spoke those words. Our children were very kind to me, and assured me that most people think they should have done something differently after the fact.

I know that he would not want me feeling guilty over anything. Throughout his illness he thanked me for the care I had given to him, and expressed his feelings for me. I carry that in my heart every day. I am one of the lucky ones. However, it doesn’t stop me from missing him.

Like Cathy and Marie, the loss of your spouse was a life-changing experience. It caused to you reevaluate many things that occurred in regard to that loss, and what you could have done differently. If your spouse had a long-term illness, it’s likely that caregiving became your whole life for a long time. In addition to coordinating their care, you may have monitored medication, acquired necessary medical equipment, handled their mail and bills, and done untold numbers of errands. It’s likely that you sat in the operating room waiting area, wringing your hands and reliving in your mind if you should have called 911 sooner, or whether you should have known this was going to happen.

The truth of the matter is, however, that you couldn’t have known when and how this would happen. It may have happened no matter what you did, and whether or not you were there at the right time. When someone is seriously ill, you do what you need to do and use your best judgment at any given moment, but no one ever said that your judgment must be perfect. Serious medical conditions are often beyond our control. You did the best you could with the knowledge that you had at the time. That’s what most of us do; the best we can. The only one suffering now is you. Try to gently forgive yourself and live your life.

If you have more specific questions about guilt, email them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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