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The Guilt I’m Experiencing While Grieving the Loss of My Husband

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Nobody warned me about the guilt.

I have experienced grief and loss before, and am aware of its nuances and complexities. But I wasn’t prepared for the debilitating guilt that courses through me on a regular basis as I grieve the loss of my husband. I am inundated with regret and an impotent yearning to have a “do over” so I can get it right. All I’ve ever wanted was to do right by my husband, and I can’t help but to feel like I failed him in his last moments, and continue to fail him as I learn to navigate life without him.

Five years ago, my husband was diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer). There is no cure for liver cancer, so for four years, he underwent various treatments to keep the cancer at bay and extend his life as much as possible. The side effects of the treatments impacted his health, and prevented him from being able to continue to work. However, between treatments he often felt “fine,” and seemed as strong and vital as I have always known him to be. On an average day, there were very few outward signs of the cancer that was lingering within, and people often declared how “good” he looked. It was sometimes easy to forget that new tumors were continuing to appear even as the treated tumors were shrinking, and that this insidious disease would inevitably take his life. In my eyes, my husband was still fit and vibrant and, despite his small frame, was as strong as a bull, mentally as well as physically. Despite the oncologist’s life expectancy predictions and everything I had researched and read, I continued to naively entertain visions of our lives together in the decades to come.

In the Fall of last year, we were given the news that the cancer had metastasized into his lungs, and that there were no more treatment options available. My husband had less than a year of life remaining. The prognosis shocked me. My husband said that he didn’t feel like he was dying, and he certainly didn’t look it. He had lost weight, was more fatigued than usual, and he had buzzed his hair short because small patches of hair had fallen out, but he was still living his life as he always had, and assisting me whenever I needed help because of my own disability.

My husband was determined to stay at home for as long as possible, and that’s exactly what he did. I was determined to honor his wishes and care for him as best as I was able, and that’s exactly what I did. But I was unprepared for his rapid decline, and because of my disability, I was unable to provide the care I so desperately wanted to. When it became apparent that he needed more extensive care, he agreed to be transferred to hospice. I was relieved that he could receive the safety and care that I was unable to provide him. The transport team came to pick him up, and I packed up a bag and headed to the hospice to meet up with them. Once I was satisfied that he was settled and sleeping in his quiet and cozy room, I went home for much needed rest.

The next day, I returned and spent several hours with him. He slept the whole time, so I sat and talked to him, played music, and reminisced about our years together. I spoke with the doctor, who said my husband was in his “last weeks,” and described what they look for in a patient’s final moments before they pass so that I understood what to expect. I returned home that day with the words “last weeks” reverberating through my mind, determined to be there for him every day for as long as necessary.

Just after I had crawled into bed that night, I received a phone call from the night nurse saying that my husband’s breathing had changed, and that I should come now. “Wait, that can’t be,” I thought to myself, “The doctor said ‘weeks’!” I leapt out of bed, rang my caregiver, and called for a wheelchair accessible taxi. My caregiver helped dress me, and we anxiously waited 25 minutes for the taxi to arrive. When we arrived at the hospice, a nurse greeted us, escorted us into the elevator, and pressed the button for the second floor. Then he turned to me and said “I’m so sorry. Your husband passed away 10 minutes ago.”

I was stunned. As pain lanced my heart, and tears flooded my eyes, a tsunami of guilt slammed into me. I had failed him! I wasn’t there for him in his last moments, and he died alone. I was a selfish person, and a terrible wife! Why didn’t I stay with him that day instead of going home? Why did I wait for a taxi? I am ambulatory, so why didn’t I just leave my wheelchair behind, and have my caregiver drive me? As the quiet words of the head nurse washed over me, I pummeled myself with hateful names and sharp accusations, replaying my poor choices and their alternatives over and over in my mind.

Two and a half months have passed, and though I am now learning to cope with it, every time I think of that day, I shed hot and bitter tears of guilt. And that is not the only reason I feel shameful. Over the last few months, I have encountered several new circumstances that have only reinforced the feelings of guilt that seem to ride in the wake of the grief that permeates my life.

About a month after my husband’s passing, I received a group life insurance payout from his employment. It is a comparatively small amount as far as life insurance goes, but it is more money than I have ever possessed. Aside from paying for cremation and memorial costs and a few gifts to loved ones, the funds sit untouched in a savings account. There were some things my husband had wanted to do before he died, but we were unable to afford it. The irony of now being able to afford it fills my heart with sorrow, and I cannot bring myself to use those funds without my husband to share it with. Every time I consider using that money for anything, I remember why I received it in the first place, and guilt prevents me from going ahead with my plans.

A little time has passed since the memorial, and I am trying to live my life without my partner, but the days feel longer and lonelier. I have been trying to busy myself with various activities to occupy my mind and fill the many hours I spend alone. Sometimes I’ll go for hours without thinking about my husband, and when I realize it, I feel a pang of guilt. And if I’ve been enjoying myself, the pang becomes sharper and more intense. It makes me question my love for my husband and my sorrow for his passing. I feel cold and callous for “moving on.”

Recently, I have been struggling with thoughts of what my future entails. When I married my husband, I assumed I would share the rest of my life with him. I had visions of growing old together, secure in the knowledge that my special person would be by my side throughout my life. I wonder if I will ever make another connection as special as the one I had with him, and I fear I will spend the rest of my life alone. Each time these unbidden thoughts come to mind, shame washes through me, and I am disgusted with myself. I just lost my husband! I have absolutely no romantic desires, and zero interest in dating for a very long time, so why would I be thinking of such things? It makes me feel like I’m subconsciously wanting to replace my husband with someone new, and this fills me with self-loathing.

At first, I was unable to talk about it with anyone, fearing they would see how selfish I am, and confirming that I was dishonoring the memory of my husband. But when I finally found the courage to share these thoughts and feelings with loved ones, I was surprised and relieved by the support and validation I received. I discovered that I’m not alone in this, that my experiences and thoughts and emotions are quite common. Perhaps even…dare I say it?…normal.

This knowledge has not put an end to the moments of guilt that I still frequently experience, but it is easing the ugly self-talk I’ve been flogging myself with over the last few months. After talking to a number of people about my husband’s last moments, I’ve learned that not being with him at the moment he died is far from unusual. I have heard so many stories about people who “just stepped out for a minute” to go to the bathroom or take a walk, only to return and find their loved one had passed while they were gone. It was once suggested to me that, perhaps, the guilt I feel is actually a testament to how deeply I loved my husband. After all, if I did not love him, I would not feel so terrible about letting him go. These kind and gentle words gave me a fresh perspective, and helped me feel much better about myself as a wife, friend, and human being.

I am beginning to forgive myself. I am beginning to see that I am not selfish or callous or cold. I am grieving the loss of someone immensely special to me, and it is a complex and intricately nuanced process. There is no “right” way to grieve, no step-by-step guide, no chart or timeline by which I can gauge my healing process. I don’t know how long it will take, or whether I will ever stop feeling these pangs of guilt. But I’m recognizing that the healthiest way to move through this is to remember that I’m not alone in feeling the way I feel, to allow myself to experience whatever comes up, and to try to be gentle with myself along the way.

Getty image by ljubaphoto

Originally published: June 13, 2022
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