Another stage of grief: Letting go of guilt

The two-year anniversary of my husband’s suicide came and went this month. As I may have mentioned, he was never depressed in the 45 years we were together, but after several battles with “fatal” cancer, his lungs were so damaged that even if we did finally manage to remove the cancer from his body, he’d never be able to breathe normally again—or do any of the things that he loved to do. So he decided to end it all, and the day I heard the single shot and a thump as he hit the floor in his carpeted office was the day that changed my life forever. 

As I raced down the hall and saw my beloved husband, the man I was still completely in love with, lying in the entrance to his office, the emotions exploded and raced through me, from the astonishment at how careful he was to make sure he landed face down, so I wouldn’t have to see that face I loved mutilated by the bullet, to the tears and exclamations (“Oh God, oh God, oh God . . . ”), to the realization that there were two suicide notes carefully laid out on his office workspace, each inserted into a clear plastic holder. One for me, which I have since framed and memorized, ending with “I will love you forever,” and one for “the authorities” which explained why he did what he did and to “Please treat my wife kindly. She does not know this is coming, and will probably be in shock.”

I cried more in the first six months after that day than I had in the whole of my life. I will be his wife until the day I die; I am learning to live without his wonderful and uplifting presence, and I am happy to say that I do hear from him. Which is why I’m writing this article. 

Most of the crying was from the knowledge of how much I loved him, and still love him, how special he was, and how perfect we were together. Little reminders would set me off. 

But something else started to creep into my thoughts. Guilt. There were times in our marriage where I could have done some things better. On one hand, I am happy to say that I “got over myself” in our latter years, and was truly the kind of wife and friend he needed, especially as he battled his cancers. That was comforting. But it took me a long time to move past the baggage of my life before him. I regretted that. 

Over these last two years, while the crying finally started to diminish, the guilt remained as strong as it had been when it first started to enter my consciousness. But something wonderful happened recently as I tuned into the Philip channel in my head. 

He just started thanking me for all the things he loved about me and that I did for him. 

I did something similar while he was alive; I took a bunch of 3×5 cards and wrote down all the things I loved about him. It ended up filling about 25 cards, which I then taped together and hung on a tall bookcase frame in his office. When he was alive, he wasn’t habitually complimentary; instead, while he did give me some well-deserved “atta girls,” he was more determined to help me improve and learn, which is actually one of the reasons I married him. 

So this list from him was new, and he went on and on. I should have written it all down when I first got up that morning; but it’s in my head and heart and I plan to do so soon. 

What he was trying to tell me, though, was that all those characteristics and every kindness I gave him was recognized and appreciated, and, further, completely outweighed the things I regretted. 

While they were weighing on me, they were not weighing on him at all. He knew how hard I had tried and that meant more to him than how long it took me to get it right. 

I think the issue here is that, once we do lose someone we love deeply, there are no more days left to “make it right.” What is done is done. The tally is the tally. So we grieve, for every moment and every day we could have done better. 

But deep love overwhelms it all, like a wave washing up on the shore and wiping out any footprints or castles in the sand; all is washed clean. All is forgiven. 

We do not need to be burdened by the grief caused by regret. We did our best, we never gave up, and that is all that matters to our loved one.

And so it is all that needs to matter to us. 

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