“I Am Relieved That It’s Over …And Guilty For Feeling That Way”

Feeling Relieved and Guilty with Depression

The confusing mix of emotions that follows in the wake of the death of a loved one sends us for a time into an unfamiliar landscape. We expect to be devastated; but when there is also relief, the paradox can bring on waves of guilt. And that can make it difficult to sort out the entire grief process. This mixed reaction of grief and relief is normal but challenging to accept. It can feel like a judgment on our capacity to love and care deeply. Acknowledging these feelings is crucial for processing and healing.

In a death-denying society, we feel ashamed and confused by raw emotions. We worry they indicate we’re unprepared to handle profound grief. End-of-life issues are emerging, making the aftermath of loss a welcomed exploration. Bereaved caregivers seek understanding and peace with their journey through these explorations.

“We’re a fix-it society: We like smiling faces and active, happy people,” says Lee. L. Pollak, director of The Bereavement Center at San Francisco’s Jewish Family and Children’s Services. “There’s not a lot of room for the devastating sadness that comes with grief. There’s a huge range of normal feelings that people experience when dealing with grief.”

In a culture uncomfortable with loss and lacking mourning rituals, transitions are often overlooked. There’s a challenge in saying goodbye to one stage before embracing the next. This cultural context complicates the process of moving forward and acknowledging change. But willingness to move through the pain is one of the keys.

All of Your Feelings Are Perfectly Normal

Bereavement is a lonely business. It isn’t socially sanctioned, so depressive feelings of sadness and emptiness, anger and guilt, are common – and isolating. We tend to make judgments about our own feelings, and that exacerbates our unease.

Caregiver grief usually begins before the actual death, as does the torment over wanting everyone’s suffering to end. When everyone’s suffering does finally end, relief actually is an appropriate response. But we often feel uncomfortable about this because what we have been taught is normal or acceptable behavior – is different.

“It is perfectly appropriate to feel relieved at the same time you are feeling devastated,” says Rabbi Earl A. Grollman in his “Decalogue: Ten Commandments for the Concerned Caregiver.”He believes these emotions are deserved—relief from torment and freedom from burden. However, societal conditioning shapes our responses, making it challenging to discern reality. Until we confront and understand these conditioned responses, clarity remains elusive.

Moving Beyond Guilt

Grief work involves addressing relationships and can leave us with unresolved emotions. We may feel we haven’t fully expressed feelings or sought forgiveness. Caregivers often struggle to feel they’ve done enough, balancing complex roles over time.

In her book on widowhood, I’m Grieving as Fast as I Can, Linda Feinberg defines “death guilt.” And she counsels: “Widowhood is the time to be kind to yourself and not be your own worst critic.” Some of the thoughts and feelings associated with death guilt include:

  • Torment over not having done or said everything you wanted;
  • Feeling you could or should have done more, even controlling the dying process;
  • Discovering you are more accepting of the death and grief becomes less intense;
  • Smiling and laughing after the death;
  • Guilt because you were not overly fond of the person anyway.

Phil Garrison, a hospice and respite professional for 15 years, has noted a common struggle. Caregivers find it challenging to acknowledge and discuss their resentment.They bear the responsibility around the clock, which adds to their emotional burden.
“And then they feel guilt, or worse yet, shame, for their sense of relief when the loved one dies. Recognizing resentment and relief in caregiving is crucial for emotional recovery after losses. Honest acknowledgment of life changed by suffering empowers growth through grieving.This process is essential for coming to terms with the death of a loved one.

Gordon’s Story

As impossible as it is lose a parent or spouse, the death of a child comes in reverse order and throws a life upside down. The grieving process can become deeply complicated, but with time there is softening, synthesis. “I never expected to bury my first-born son,” wrote psychiatrist Gordon Livingston of the death of this 22-year-old son, Andrew, who committed suicide after a three-year struggle with bipolar illness.

Inconceivably, a further blow hit him and his wife, Clare, not long after when they learned that their six-year-old son, Lucas, had leukemia and a narrow chance of survival. During the six months that the family endured multiple hospitalizations, fever, a bone marrow transplant from Livingston himself, chemotherapy, a hopeful remission, and endless salvaging of hope and faith, Gordon kept a journal into which he poured his questions about life and death, and the injustice of the suffering of an innocent child. “The way he has dealt with his awful illness and its treatment has struck everyone who has cared for him as exceptional – the love and elemental goodness that he exudes,” Livingston wrote.

Transforming Grief: A Father’s Journey Through Loss and Healing

When Lucas died, after more pain than any parent could bear to watch, the parents were inconsolable. Gordon expressed vulnerability, feeling jealous and bitter watching other families, unsure of future happiness.His inability to save his child and their strong bond caused intense grief and guilt. Despite Lucas’s acceptance and lack of anger, Gordon found solace in the belief his sons were reunited in heaven.

Gordon mourned his loss of a future with Lucas but found peace and hope at the grave. He felt that regret and sorrow would not always dominate. Memories of Lucas connected to hospital machinery would be replaced with joyful memories.”The sadness and anger at your absence are transforming into gratitude for your time with us.”Gordon wrote of the importance of transforming his feelings of self-pity into courage. “I do not need God’s forgiveness; I need my own.”

We Grow as We Grieve

The process of grieving is individual, and it marches to its own seasons. The land mines of memory are everywhere: Certain foods or songs, grocery shopping, birthdays and anniversaries, selling a home. They keep us periodically vulnerable, never far from the pin pricks of experience. But it is during these intense times that greater possibilities emerge. “There is great strength gained through the process of facing grief,” says Massachusetts General Hospital geriatric social worker Daniel Paris. “It is integral to our growth and development as human beings.” For where there is relief, there is not always guilt, but love.

Over time, caregivers reflect and find many gifts in their challenging journey. They realize they gave immense love and excellent care in difficult circumstances. This experience transforms them, bringing wisdom, patience, and renewed faith in human resilience. Grief becomes companion rather than enemy, a reminder of the preciousness of the relationship.

Cindy’s Story

For seven years, Cindy, 50, cared for her mother with Parkinson’s at home. During that time, she worked full time while also balancing duties as a wife and mother of three. Daytime home health aides cared for her mother while Cindy was at work. However, from the moment she returned home until her mother went to bed, Cindy was responsible.

She read to her mother at bedtime, they shared and reminisced, and when death came, “It left an enormous hole – not only because we had a close relationship, but suddenly all those tasks weren’t there anymore.” Her focus on her mother led to unintentional neglect of her own family’s needs. Cindy reflects that her family was understanding, but the impact wasn’t apparent until later. After caregiving ended, issues in her marriage and with her children became evident.

Navigating Loss and Healing
Cindy was struck by a, “tremendous sense of freedom,” after her mother passed away. She also felt that she had substantially lost her mother the disease years earlier. Guilt weighed heavily on me. Grieving seemed obligatory, yet freedom permeated my emotions. Parental love enveloped my thoughts; her passing resonated deeply. Missing her was undeniable, yet the absence of her illness brought relief.

So many family issues had been percolating, she didn’t have time to fully grieve the first year after her mother died. But now that her family is back on track, “and am really struck by the loss of her. I try not to hide from those moments or put them away, but lean into them and experience them. I’m able to separate her from the disease now, and mourn the loss of HER.” Revisiting the loss has erased Cindy’s feelings of guilt; now this midlife passage is one of remembering their strong connections.

Catherine’s Story

For four of Catherine’s seven impossible years of caregiving, she and her husband, Dick straddled the fence of uncertainty. His disease, a rare auto-immune disorder, would render him completely bedfast for days at a time. Then, just as suddenly, he would go into remission. The roller coaster was unrelenting. While doctors were treating him, he suffered a stroke and heart attack. Then, the disorder began affecting his nerves and moved into his organs. Dick’s body was attacking itself. Catherine, who was 31 at the time, stood by her husband’s side all the way.

“I was very fortunate in that in his mind, we were sick; it wasn’t just that he was sick.In the first four years of his illness, there was hope it would subside, but it persisted. Physicians then initiated aggressive treatments: chemotherapy, transplant medication, and steroids with side effects.”

Catherine’s Journey: Loss, Caregiving, and Healing
The losses were both tangible and visceral as Catherine took over more responsibilities, especially during Dick’s last three years. “There were parts of my marriage that I lost – the ability to show affection, the ability to make love or show love in a tangible, physical way. I had to take over all the partnership aspects of our lives, so that partnership disappeared. It was an illness – it was a ménage a trios. Here I was not only responsible for taking care of him but was responsible for his life – what an incredibly difficult burden.”

When Dick died, he was only forty-five. Catherine has looked realistically at their relationship so that healing could take place.

“We’re all cautious not to speak ill of the dead, and we’re reared with that, but when we’re trying to heal, we can’t constantly put the person on a pedestal. There’s one side of grief that gets you prepared for loss, but there’s that devastation that we deal with, that ‘what could have been/would have been.’ The challenge was, I had lost myself. I had lost my identity. I didn’t have any hobbies while he was ill, there was no time for me, so when he died I didn’t have anything to do.”

Embracing Life After Loss
Catherine says that although her husband was a wonderful person and there was no doubt that she would always be with him, part of her grief process has been coming to terms with shadowy elements. “There are many qualities that I missed but many I didn’t, and I was glad they were gone,” she admits. “I’m also glad that my life could go on, because it was a personal choice to stay with him and care for him.”

Catherine began grief counseling to make sure that she was dealing with everything, including guilt over wanting her husband’s suffering to end, that she had somehow brought on his death. “I realized I needed to deal with this darkness and get it out. I wanted to make sure I don’t look back with regrets, that I get over any resentment about losing seven years of my life. That’s been tough, but it’s been good.”

“Caregiving took its toll on me physically, emotionally, mentally and financially. It just eats at you every way it can, but you keep moving.”

“I made a list of things that I always wanted to do, and I’ve been doing them, like ballroom dancing and scuba diving. I have a much better respect for the fragility of life, and I want to make sure that my priorities are really the ones I’d want to have, rather than ones someone else thinks I ought to have.”

This series of bereavement articles is in memory of Steven Mintz.