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.

Carrie

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

6 comments on “Blaming Myself for My Mother’s Death

  1. 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

  2. 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

  3. 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💔

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