Guilt and a Mother’s Passing

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

I didn’t want to post this because I don’t want my loved ones to know the guilt I feel about my mother’s passing. But before my mom passed last year I avoided her calls as my sister said she was drinking a lot. We lived in different states. And she was drunk a lot when I talked to her. It was hard seeing her this way. We had a difficult relationship to start with. She was a teenager when she had me. Anyway I have so much guilt and regret for doing this and not seeing why now. Turns out she had a painful cancer. No wonder she drank! I was able to say I’m sorry but she really didn’t know why. And I broke down to her. She wanted to be as close to me as I did her, but we let the world get in the way and now I can’t ever get that back. I just am having a hard time forgiving myself. And feeling I wasted so much precious time with her. How do I get over this and will I ever get over this?

Amy

Dear Amy,

Your final questions are a good place to start, because I suspect that the question of whether you can move beyond this difficult and guilty place in which you feel stuck will have a great deal to do with how you attempt to do so.  In other words, time alone is not likely to heal the relational wounds in your relationship with your mother, which you seem to have suffered long before her death.  And sadly, death itself does not resolve the hard feelings that accumulate across a lifetime; it just makes their resolution something we have to pursue more consciously.  Let me suggest a few ideas about how you might do so.

First, it helps to recognize that your guilt persists because your relationship with your mother persists, even beyond her dying.  While this is a problem, it also suggests a solution, as you can seek resolution through working to make amends to her, just as you would have in life.  You might start by talking about your feelings with her, perhaps through an AfterTalk letter, expressing some of what needs to he said about how the relationship was hard for you, and also about how you wish you had been able to respond to its challenges better.  You might also have questions to ask her that still require answers.  Then wait a day or two, re-read the letter as if through her eyes, and access her inner voice that you carry inside you to write a response as you expect or hope she would.  Focusing lovingly on the mother who was striving to reach out to you, however imperfectly, may help you find this voice.  What would she say to this daughter who also responded imperfectly to her overtures?

Second, consider how you might seek to grow closer to her over time, rather than only more distant.  How might you invite further positive “inner conversations” with her, whether through AfterTalk exchanges, or in the privacy of your own thoughts?  What sorts of memories of her of a healing kind might you access and share with others?  How might you take her with you into the world, perhaps by visiting places special to you both, that help restore a connection?  How might you live in a way that that would make her mother’s heart proud of the daughter she bore, and who has a chance to live a life with less pain and struggle than her own?  All of these things are based on the idea that even though a person dies, a relationship doesn’t die–it just changes how it is expressed.  And great healing can come with living it well.

Finally, bear in mind that psychotherapy evolved, in large part, to help us sort out complicated relationships with our parents, even though the history of our troubled bonds might now be remote, or the parent might no longer be living.  This implies that you might readily find professional assistance in coming to better terms with a complicated life with your mother, both before and after her death.  Time alone won’t transform your connection with her, but working on your own or with others, you certainly can do so.

—Dr. Neimeyer

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