“Why are you crying?” I asked my son. He wasn’t actually crying so much as sniffling, but the expression on his face was enough to justify the question. He just shook his head, so I sat down on the steps, pulled him into my lap, and snuggled him close. You can still do that when they’re four years old.
“You’ve seemed sad this morning, buddy,” I said gently. “Can you tell me what’s wrong?”
“I miss Rebecca. She was the best big sister ever.”
I hugged him close, as if he were a life preserver, and at that moment he might well have been. “She was, Joshua. I miss her too, so, so—” I couldn’t speak for a moment. The tears were running ceaselessly down my face, spattering both our shirts. He looked into my eyes and his own tears stopped as he searched my face with a kind of tender curiosity.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Joshua. I’m so, so sorry. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. There was nothing we could do. We did everything we could. We loved her, and made her life as wonderful as possible. That’s what we did. Right?”
He nodded, still looking at me intently.
“Oh, buddy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
If Joshua had asked why I was saying sorry, I would have told him I wasn’t apologizing because I felt guilty, but rather because I was sorry in the sense of sorrowful. Sorry he had to experience the death of his older sister, who died on her sixth birthday of aggressive brain cancer. Who had been gone just about 51 weeks on the day we had that conversation. Sorry she had been terminally ill, sorry the world is as harsh and unfair as it is, sorry his best friend in the world is dead.
But not sorry out of responsibility or guilt. At least, that’s what I would have said, but I’d have been violating one of my basic tenets of parenting. Because I would have been lying to him.
As the parent of a dead child, I experience survivor’s guilt. I know the term is generally defined to apply to people like those who survived the 9/11 attacks, tortured by the knowledge that they lived while others died. Those who make it out of plane crashes, or war zones. The friends and family of suicide victims, including the parents of children who take their own lives.
Father and daughter
I can assure you it also affects the parents of children who died of what we bitterly label natural causes. My daughter Rebecca had glioblastoma multiforme, something her genetics preordained and no medicine could hope to cure. Her last MRI, taken five days before she died, showed so many emerging tumors that the doctors didn’t bother to count them. There was, as I said to Joshua, nothing anyone could do to save her.
It doesn’t matter. I still ask myself what I should have done differently, as if there were some winning strategy I was too stupid or blind or arrogant to see. I tell myself that we all did everything possible, but I feel a profound sense of failure. This is the guilt surviving parents bear. Why did she die, and we live? How can we live with ourselves, knowing we failed to save her? For that matter, having failed at our most basic duty, what right do we have to call ourselves parents at all?
Parents are supposed to protect their children, even at the cost of their own lives. I remember the nights I lay in bed next to her sleeping form, my forehead lightly pressed against hers, silently begging any god or demon who might hear me to draw the cancer out of her head and into mine, to name its price if my life was not enough, the pressure of my desperation pounding in my temples.
Did I not pray hard enough, or fervently enough, or offer enough of a sacrifice? Did I not pay attention at the right moment, and overlook the treatment that would have saved her?
You may shake your head, assuring me I did all I could and then some, gently insisting I should be proud of what my wife, Kat, and I did, and how we made her short life the best it could be. Many, many people have done all that and more. I’ve listened to them, and told them I hear them and agree with them. There’s even some truth to my words. But only some.
Kat has it even worse. With her advanced medical degrees, she feels like she should have found a cure. She knows intellectually how ludicrous that sounds, the idea that in ten months she should have found a cure for an incurable disease, but in her heart she carries the guilt. I can tell her she did everything she could and then some, that she should be proud of what she did and how hard she searched for treatment and how she made Rebecca’s short life the best it could be. I do tell her that, and I believe every word.
But she does not.
It was one year to the day after Rebecca’s death, the day that would have been her seventh birthday.The prayers were finished, the memories shared, and Kat and I sat in front of the newly-unveiled grave marker looking at all the stones people had set atop it in remembrance.
I had reached out to move one of the stones off the word “loved” when my fingers brushed the sparkling silver-blue granite of marker itself. Suddenly I was sobbing, blind to everything around me except Kat’s hand on my back as I hunched over, my hand pressed against the gravestone of my daughter.
“I’m sorry, Little Spark,” I sobbed to her gravestone. “I’m so sorry.”
“Why are you sorry?” said Kat gently. “You have nothing to apologize for. You did everything you—”
I shook my head, tears sluicing off the inside of my glasses. I whispered it again and again: “I’m sorry.”
Of course Kat’s right, that I have nothing to apologize for. I know that. There was nothing any of us could do except what we did: Fight for her, and make sure her short life was full of wonder and love. I am proud of what we did, but I still carry the guilt of what I could not do: Save my child’s life. I still carry the guilt of what I do now: Continue to survive when my child did not.
I would give almost anything to be able to tell Rebecca how sorry I am, over and over, to beg her forgiveness for my failure to do the impossible. For letting her down, for violating her trust in me to fix everything, the way parents are supposed to.
Just as I begged Joshua his forgiveness, as he huddled in my lap.
This article was originally published as After My Daughter’s Death, On Guilt and Apologies at Modern Loss on 18 June 2015. It has been edited for clarity.