Blaming Myself for My Mother’s Death

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

How do I stop blaming myself for my mother’s death?  She was 85 and 18 hours away from heart valve replacement, doing well, ready for it.  She was told to walk some before surgery, and her last walk was fatal.  I think I could have stopped her from overdoing it, but I wasn’t there.  Other family was at the hospital with her, and I was to stay the last afternoon and evening with her.  I took some time to paint my toenails, and take care of a few other things before leaving for the hospital.  If I hadn’t done those minor things I could have been there and feel like the course of the day would have been different.  This is hard for me to get out of my head.


Dear Carrie,

Psychologists have a name for the kind of repetitive and self-accusatory thinking that you find “hard to get out of your head”—rumination.  This sort of obsessive, circular thinking, while punishing and even anguishing, makes a kind of sense if we understand it as an attempt to make sense of a seemingly random and unnecessary loss—even if we do so at our own expense.  And so what might we do to shake this pattern, and the sense of corrosive guilt to which it gives rise?  Here are a few alternative responses that other bereaved people have found helpful.

1.  The path of logic.  Though seemingly plausible, the persuasiveness of your ruminative self-accusation relies on a delicate series of unsubstantiated assumptions.  Did your mother indeed “overdo it,” or was she within the minimal levels of cardiac stress prescribed by the physicians?  Could you have detected it if she were not?  Were other family members grossly negligent, or were they attentive, just as you would have been, but sadly paid the price for their attention with their presence to her dying?  If you had not taken a bit of time for self care and instead have been held up in traffic or at the nursing station, would you have held yourself accountable in the same way?  Looked at closely, much of the tissue of which self-blame is made is insubstantial stuff indeed, and falls greatly short of what would be required to establish guilt in a fair court of law.

2.  The path of compassion.  If your sister or teenage child had been accompanying your mother on that final walk, or stayed home for a time taking care of themselves and daily tasks, would you be constantly attacking or accusing them of malfeasance as you are yourself?  Would you berate them or lament their negligence in their presence as you do with yourself?  That is highly unlikely.  If anything, you are likely to feel compassion and empathy for the hard position they were in.  Why then torture yourself with hurtful barbs that you would spare another person you love?

3.  The path of humility.  Though we sometimes would like to believe that we can control life’s negative outcomes, and spare those we love misfortune and even tragedy, life teaches us relentlessly that such control is elusive at best, and utterly illusory at worst.  However attentive and careful we are—even to the point of obsessiveness—many or most of the outcomes are beyond our limited control, and in the end death will come to all.  This truth asserts itself more and more forcibly as we (and our loved ones) reach venerable ages, as did your mother.  Viewed in this perspective, the lessons of loss teach us the folly of grandiosity, and acceptance of our simple human condition.  Coming to terms with this, and even embracing this truth, can allow us to ask, “What now is mine to do?  Where can I contribute, if I relinquish the grandiose illusion that I can protect my loved ones from all suffering?”  The answers, while more humble, can move us to make differences in the ways we can, and ultimately to accept that there are other outcomes that elude our inherently limited ability to predict and control the precious lives that our ours… for a time.

Dr. Neimeyer

10 thoughts on “Blaming Myself for My Mother’s Death”

  1. POL or “Path of Logic.” Wouldn’t it be great if we texted acronyms like this one to support another human being as they ruminate? A much healthier alternative to the go-to acronym for social desperation, LOL (“laugh out loud”).

  2. On the night my died;
    she was complaining of bad stomach pains
    difficulty passing her feces
    groaning (which she normally did but told me not to worry. On this night it was worse)
    I was going to call an ambulance which my mother agreed to. However, I suggested we call the doctor and I arranged an apppointment for the next morning.
    I told mum to press her medical alarm if the pain got worse
    early next morning she got out of bed at 2:00 which was normal for her.
    Mum called out that she had fallen down (which) happened regularly
    She then had a heart attack. Ambulance tried to resuscitate her and used drugs to assist
    In the hospital, the doctor said they were going to operate on her stomach but decided not because of the drugs used to assist the cpr still in her system
    Mum passed away soon after
    If only I followed my first impulse and called for an ambulance in the first place Mum may still be alive. I feel resposible and suffering immensely for my fatal decisions on that night.
    People say that I looked after my my Mum tremendously but that is no consolatation to me

    1. I feel your pain. Something very similar happened to me and my mother. The guilt is so hard to carry every day. May God help us to understand .

      1. Similar situation happen to me as well. My mom passed away from a Congestive heart Attack. I wishes i took her to the hospital the night she started with the complication of breathing. My heart hurts so much 🙁

        1. Vijay Niraj Verma

          Hi Veronica,
          Similar situation happened to me. My mother was constantly saying that she has difficulty in breathing, but we kept ignoring that it is some acidity issue. WE lost her.
          Now we can not do anything.

  3. I am 18 years old. I lost my mother when I was only ten years old. I’m writing this on January 20th, her anniversary is on January 22nd. My mom had had stomach pains for days and refused to see the doctor, but before anyone could call 911 or insist on taking her to the hospital at all, she passed away while napping. In Puerto Rico (I was born and raised there, now I live in Florida), the medical system is so bad that they measured my scoliosis wrong for years and doctors couldn’t see I had Asperger’s, to the point I almost died from side effects from an AD/HD medication I never needed. They took 10 months to get the autopsy back for my mom, which was a hemorrhagic pancreatitis. I always believed from the moment I realized she was really gone, that I am partly to blame because I was too young (10) to understand the concept of being sick 100%. It haunts me 2 days till 8 years later. I see a psychologist about it, and my anxiety disorders, and a psychiatrist who supervises my meds. They both help in a way that if I never went to either one in the first place, I’d be doing much worse. On bereavement, I’m still broken about my mother dying and I shut most people out on important days such as her birthday, her death anniversary, Mother’s Day, etc, and I’ve only barely made progress on my own, and only some at the psychologist, because I don’t really touch much on mom at all, really. I understand I was only ten, but looking back, I would’ve insisted she gone to the hospital or just drive her there and be there for her. It’s not healthy to blame myself about this situation and I know it, but it’s hard to get that part out of my head while still grieving

  4. This what also happened to my mother she was also complaining about stomach ache and that when she’s passing feces it will be a small thing and she feels bloated I called an ambulance the following morning which was Friday 22 may and we waited until I suggested we take her to the GP my sister took her but my mom wanted me to go with her because she knows my sister is so negligent and I left behind with the kids and her highblood was on 240/130 she couldnt breath properly the GP gave her pills for thr chest pains and injection and transfered her to the hospital and she died before she could enter the building while they were looking for a wheelchair or stretcher to carry her I feel horrible and have a heartache as I wasn’t there and did not pray for her💔

  5. I feel guilty FOR calling an ambulance. My mum had heart failure which is treatable but due to covid policies they just put her on palliative care. She had less than 48 hours of oxygen therapy but they stopped it because the hospital claimed my mum found the facemask claustrophobic and could not tolerate it so they just stopped treating her. She died alone the day after they stopped her treatment because we were not allowed in to see her due to covid.

    I keep thinking that if I had waited just a few hours to speak with the GP first then he could have done something for her at home. When we spoke to the GP after my mum had died he was shocked she had died – he said heart failure is not a death sentence and although not curable is very treatable, so I have to live with the fact that I sent her to the hospital and the guilt is unbearable.

  6. Hi..please help me to overcome the blame of my moms death, I lost my August 2020,she had a heart complications(angina) and also arthritis,me and my sisters we took her to see her doctor,they did some test and they found her blood level was low,the doctor reduced some medicine,and gave also pain killer for arthritis….she used to have a lot of pain on her left side almost everyday.I stayed with her in my house for five days, the sixth day she started complaining stomach ache,the doctor advised me the medicine to buy,the same day at night the heart pain started,we gave her the paracetamol, the pain was too much,I gave the arthritis pain killer because we didn’t give that same day,after taking the arthritis pain killer the pain was still too much,after 10 minutes she said its like those painkillers has given her the stomach ache,again after 5munites she just turned on her light side and she died, i called her doctor and after explaining to him he said it was heart attack,I feel guilt and regrets why I gave her those painkillers, maybe she could be a live today…

  7. Hello Dr.,
    My Mom had breast cancer at 61yrs old 11 years ago. They caught it very early. She had the one breast removed. She did her treatments while in Florida where she lived. My family moved back North in 2016. I got my Mom an oncologist here and she continued her 6 -12 month checkup every year. The last appointment was Jan 2020. Then Covid hit and my grandmother was getting dementia. My Mom and I were caring for her. When my Grandmother passed in July 2021 I don’t know how I got lost with helping my Mom. She is very independent. I had financial problems and we have 1 car. My Mom every now and then would tell me we need to go see the oncologist. I kept saying yes, let’s go and she would say please call for me. She has trouble hearing. For some reason it would get put off, or forgotten by me to follow up and call for her. We’ve gone to her primary Doctor recently and everything was good. Last week she had a seizure and they told me she is dying that breast cancer spread to her lung and brain. I blame me for this and feel this could’ve been prevented if we saw the oncologist. I don’t where my head has been. The most important person to me and I failed her as a son. People are telling me it’s not my fault. But they don’t know the conversations I had with my mother and how urgently she wanted to go see the oncologist. If I wasn’t in the financial mess, we would’ve had 2 cars, and she could’ve went on her own. I used up the car with 2 jobs. I can’t shake the pain on what I’ve caused her and robbing her of her time that she won’t see her grandchildren grow. And the things she wanted to do only at 73. I can’t believe how forgetful and distracted I was not to make a simple call. I ruined her life and I’ll never be able to get over this.

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