Last year, in an effort to help him and many friends of mine struggling with the tragic death of Chloe Weil, I told Jeremy Keith I had let go of guilt over Rebecca’s death, and that was the truth. I mourned, I had regrets, but there was no guilt, because there was nothing we could have done except what we did. Her cancer and death was always going to happen, and the only thing — the only thing — we could have done to avoid it was to have never adopted Rebecca in the first place, thus causing some other family to experience all the joy and sorrow of her brief life. I accepted that, and it brought some small measure of peace.
All that was true. Almost all of it is still true…except for guilt. That came back, seeping into me so slowly that it took me a long time to realize it. When I finally recognized it for what it was, I realized it had been there for months. I also realized it was a particular form of guilt: survivor’s guilt. This came as a surprise, honestly. As it’s usually defined, at least as I understand it, survivor’s guilt seems to be recognized in the parents of children who take their own lives, but not to those whose children die from disease or accident.
Last week, I published my first piece with Modern Loss to talk about this. A brief excerpt:
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.
You can read the whole thing at Modern Loss. It’s a standard-length article, about 800 words.
I wrote it, in part, to understand myself. But I published it in the hopes that it will help someone, some day, understand a bereaved friend or relative a little bit better…or possibly even themselves.