Last week I attended a memorial service for a mother/wife/sister who ended her life too soon, by most of our standards. The week before, I euthanized my almost-fifteen-year-old, beloved dog. I am weighted down by loss that comes with loving, however imperfectly.
Grief and Guilt
The handout the hospice veterinarian left behind is titled, “Love and Loss: Saying Goodbye to a Dear Friend.” The second page is entirely devoted to dealing with the guilt that is often part of grieving. When we lose a loved one, we regret things we could’ve done better. At my mother’s memorial service in 2015, I talked about wishing I was a better daughter. Watching my dog breathe her last breath, I wished I was a better pet owner.
Regardless of how our loved one died, those left behind are left with nagging thoughts about what we could’ve done to prolong the life of the deceased. When my young sister-in-law died in a head-on car crash, I wondered if I could’ve prevented the accident, which occurred on a remote country road, by insisting she live with us in the city while she was going through a particularly difficult time.
Losing someone who chooses suicide leaves almost everyone wracked with guilt and questions about what they could/should have done to prevent such a tragedy. Surely our love could have saved him or her: if we had only loved better, more. Being imperfect is hell.
Positive vs Negative Biases
When we lose a loved one, his or her flaws seem to disappear. We forget why we were so angry or frustrated with our relationship. Of course, funerals and memorial services are highly curated events. My mother liked to tell the story of going to a funeral with one of our aunts from “the old country.” Aunt Lena was loud and had few censors. During the glowing eulogy for the relative, who few in the family admired, Aunt Lena turned to my mother and in her loud, broken English, said, “I think we’re at the wrong funeral!”
In contrast to the rose-colored lenses through we view the deceased, survivors often see themselves through negative lenses. We might have been loving and caring 99% of the time but we focus on the 1% of the time when we were impatient, dismissive or otherwise not available.
Always loving freely and openly isn’t sustainable. We do have flaws and limitations and struggle to keep them in check. What we’re looking for is the balance sheet that shows we’ve given at least a much as we’ve received from any of our relationships -- that we tried our level best.
One of the suggestions in the veterinarian’s handout is to write a letter to your pet expressing your guilt. This seems like a worthwhile activity for anyone who has lost a loved one. Forgiving oneself for being imperfect is an important step in healing process. While keeping the memory of our loved one alive, we are obliged to continue living and loving, however imperfectly.