After a loss, you may wonder if you did enough for your loved one, if you were nice enough, if you spent enough time with them. In their book I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye, Brook Noel and Pamela D. Blair call this the “ ‘If Only’ game,” a mind game grievers play to control what feels out of control. No amount of beating ourselves up over events will change them. COVID-19 adds a new dynamic to this guilt game as pubic health emergency protocols prevent us from visiting the sick, saying our goodbyes, and grieving in community. Feelings of guilt may be more intense because we cannot be with our loved one’s bedside to offer a last bit of love to them as they pass.
Guilt is an unproductive emotion that disrupts your grief process and obstructs healing. You could not have controlled anything or changed an outcome by visiting more, sacrificing more, or being nicer. Death is natural and it comes in accordance with divine timing. Even medical professionals can only delay death, not stop it. You are a competent human being, but controlling when and how death arrives is beyond your skill set. Let guilt go. Concentrate on the wonderful memories you have of your loved one and focus your energy on healing yourself.
If you feel guilty because your last interaction with your loved one was unkind, untangle yourself from the knot into which you twisted yourself. You must forgive yourself or your guilt will consume you. My mother and I fought a few days before she had her surgery. In anger, I said some unkind things about her at home as she was undergoing surgery. The next morning we received the first middle-of-the-night phone call alerting us that there was a problem. I cannot describe the guilt I felt. After she died, I spoke with three neighbors, all mothers. I expressed my distress that I never got to apologize for our fight or atone for my unkindness. Mothers, they said, always know that their children love them even when they hate them. Families, spouses, children, and true friends know that you love each other even when you hate each other. Hate is not the opposite of love; the opposite of love is indifference.
COVID-19 removes our chance to even be in close proximity with our loved ones as they pass, which can introduce more guilt and makes the ” ‘If Only’ game” more harrowing. Staying at home when someone you love is suffering is painful. Knowing that you can’t take away someone’s prognosis or pain is one thing, but knowing that you can’t be there with them to show your love and support during their suffering is something altogether different.
Intellectually, the reason you have to stay away makes perfect sense: you don’t want to risk exposure and infect yourself or other (potentially vulnerable) people you live with or encounter in passing.
Emotionally, you may feel you have abandoned family and/or friends during their time of need. Under normal circumstances, there may be feelings of “what more could I have done to help?” but now, knowing that your loved one may have been alone in their final moments may bring a sense of helplessness.
Medical professionals will most likely ban you from face-to-face contact. In a way, your choice of action is made: you are physically unable to be with your loved one because of health emergency protocols. No one will fault you for not being there. If you are lucky, you may get to have a virtual visit with your loved one thanks to medical staff who assist with video chats between family members and patient. However, this may not stop emotions of guilt from taking their toll.
There is absolutely nothing you could have done differently to help or to be of service to your loved one at this time.
Repeat this to yourself as often as possible and remind yourself that what feels like inaction may have saved your life or the life of someone around you.
Consider these thoughts on how to release guilt:
- Share your feelings with your loved one in a letter. Write down everything that you feel guilty or angry about. Explain why you feel this way. Noel and Blair suggest writing a response from the perspective of your loved one. This activity can remind you of aspects in your relationship that offer comfort. I did this activity for myself. My mother’s reply was the same response she had whenever I told her as a teen that I hated her. “You’ll get over it,” she said. She was right again. During self-isolation, a letter (or series of letters) may help you process the experience of pandemic mourning. You can keep the letter or have it placed in your loved one’s casket.
- Reflect on the nature of control and death. Get a journal or find a quiet place for meditation and investigate your feelings of guilt. Why do you believe that “if only” you had done something more things would have turned out differently? In pandemic grieving: What do you feel deprived of by not being allowed to be with your loved one during their last moments? What makes you feel out of control about your loss? What lessons might your guilt be gifting you and how can you apply those lessons to your post-loss life?
- If you find that you can’t let go of the guilt, visit a grief counselor or therapist. The guilt you feel will prevent you from beginning to grieve. If your grief is delayed, your healing will be delayed as well. The destructiveness of guilt cannot be overstated and if guilt is getting the better of you, address it with professional reinforcements as soon as possible. With the advent of telemedicine in recent years, you can take advantage of counseling services over the phone or via video conferencing while social distancing, self-isolating, and being quarantined. Check with you insurance company and/or employee health programs offered through your work.
Life during COVID-19 is uncharted and we don’t yet know the emotional toll distance will have on our grief or our feelings of guilt yet. Be especially kind to yourself right now. The choices available are awful. You are doing the best you can given the extraordinary circumstances in which we live right now.