Home » Death » Death guilt – on the relief you feel after a parent dies after a long illness.

Death guilt – on the relief you feel after a parent dies after a long illness.

There is a lot of guilt that comes when a loved one dies that we have taken care of. If you have been the primary caregiver, you are suddenly relieved of the majority of your duties. You duties don’t end totally – there is most likely an estate to settle – but they change. You aren’t “on duty” constantly.

There is part of where the guilt comes in. If your loved one has been sick a long time and you have been the main (or only) caregiver, you are worn out from that constant work. Sick people take a lot of attention. They are often sick at very inconvenient times. The middle of the night is a common time for things to go south. Everything is harder to deal with when you have just a little sleep. It is even harder to deal with when that has been going on for weeks. Or months. Or years.

Very few people talk about this, but there comes a time when you look forward to your loved one dying, because that means you are free to start living. It sounds cold to say this, so people will say that they want their loved one to “pass on” or “transition” so that they can be free of pain. They want that too, of course. Part of the pain of dealing with a very sick loved one is seeing them suffer and knowing there is little you can do for them other than bring them food and fluff their pillows. Death is a release and a blessing at times.

In reality, death is a release and a blessing for the patient as well as the caregiver. When the patient dies, the caregiver is now free to live. The caregiver no longer has to stay by the bedside of the sick person. She no longer has to sleep on the sofa, hurting her back. She no longer has to call in to work, using up personal leave or vacation time (if she has it). She no longer has to do double duty of taking care of her parent’s home and her own.

There is something to be said for having families live together. The more the nuclear family explodes into satellite units, the more problems are created when a member needs help. Also, why have three households who have to buy three sets of lawn equipment, when you can have one big one that shares? I wonder if this is part of the “commune” idea. Instead of having friends living communally, start at the source and have families live that way. But I digress.

Sometimes the reason children leave the household as soon as they can is because they don’t really like their parents. Just because someone is your parent doesn’t mean that he is a good person. Becoming a parent isn’t the same as being an adult or a mature person. Sometimes “parent” just means someone who has reproduced. The parent is little more than a maladapted child himself.

Our society doesn’t speak about this very much. We laud parents. We think that parents are all knowing and all powerful. They aren’t. Nothing magical happens when they have a child. They don’t suddenly stop being neurotic or needy. In some cases their problems just get deeper and darker. So when such a parent-person gets sick enough to need help, the child is conflicted. They are expected by society to help. They are expected to drop everything and take care of their sick or dying parent. The only problem is that the abuse that the child received is often never revealed. Sometimes even the child is not aware of how mistreated she was. She just knows deep in her gut that she doesn’t want to take on this task. It isn’t because she is selfish.

It is a double bind. The child was taught her whole life to serve the parent. She was taught that she deserved to be treated badly. She was taught that her own needs didn’t matter. So when the parent is terminally ill, the child is expected to drop everything to take care of him. Then she feels conflicted.

It is hard enough to take care of a really sick person. Nurses have training for this. The average person does not. You don’t just wake up with the know-how to be a competent caregiver. When that sick person is your parent it is extra hard. When that parent was abusive it is nearly impossible.

When your parent is very sick, you have to become the parent. You are in charge. There aren’t classes for this. We don’t talk about this in Western society. I’m not sure any society talks about this, but I know this one sure doesn’t. But Western society rarely talks about anything real anyway.

For years, the child is subservient. Even if the child has become an adult and has a family and household of his own, he is expected to defer to his parents. That role never stops unless he establishes boundaries. The only problem is that there isn’t training on this, and there isn’t a lot of social support for it. If his parents die before he has established these boundaries and stood his own ground, he has a lot of ground to make up.

Even if none of this is going on, even if the relationship is healthy and sound, there are conflicting feelings when the parent dies. One of those feelings is relief, but that feeling alone causes guilt. You aren’t supposed to feel relief when your parent dies. You are supposed to be sad. Often you are sad. Sometimes you are angry too, at them having left you. Sometimes you are frustrated about all the mess they left you to have to clean up. But sometimes it is relief, because it is a lot of hard work taking care of a sick parent. Sometimes it is relief because now for once you can live your life your way without being second guessed by your parent.

It is healthy to feel whatever you feel when your parent dies, regardless of what you feel. Your feelings are yours, and they are valuable. If they have died after a long illness where you were the caretaker, your feelings will be even more complex. Don’t ignore those feelings, and don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed. They are natural. It is healthy to feel them and express them. You may not have heard other people talk about the relief they felt because they thought they shouldn’t talk about it – but it doesn’t mean you are alone. Sometimes just sharing this feeling with others who have been in a similar situation is very healing. This is why I’m sharing this with you.

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