Guilt, Shame, and the Survival of Death

What Happens When Grief Takes A Year To Start Processing? Guilt, Shame, And Blame Is What.

This week is messing with me. Those of you who know me know well enough how effectively I can process an emotion (aside from anger, I guess. Fuck you, Anger!) and be done with it; just put it away in the back of some internal vault and only visit it from time to time to remind myself of its origin. But this week when I made that contemplative little stroll to the recesses, the emotion waiting there for me grabbed hold of me from far away, much further than a practiced emotion putter offer like myself is accustomed to being accosted.

A year ago this Friday I received a call from my sister-in-law from the passenger seat of my younger brother’s truck as they drove in the direction of my mom’s house. Her first word gave everything away. The cracked, wet, nervous way she said my name and waited for me to recognize her from her particular tone and timbre was all it took to petrify me in my seat on the saggy left end of my sofa, a cat on my lap and another conspicuously absent from the room.

I remember the thud of blood deep in the back of my ears. I remember feeling the constriction around my chest and neck that suddenly held onto all of the breath in me. And as the rest of her words fell through the phone’s earpiece onto me, too late to deliver their message, I remember closing my eyes very, very tightly, putting my hand over them, and thinking the words I doubt I will ever be able to forgive myself for thinking, especially since they echo around in there from time to time alongside the last few fragments of detail Stephanie had finally been delivering on the phone.

“…ambulance is leaving. . .”
“…still have to wait for the Coroner.”
“…the body…”

“It’s over.It’s for the best.”

In the weeks and months after March 6, 2015 — the day I signed before a witness the papers authorizing them to carry out the cremation which Mom had long since confided to me that she wanted — I rationalized that secret, heartless response. I propped it up with justification after justification as if I could somehow plaster over the ugliness of the thought with enough evidence to neutralize its sting and to redeem myself as her loving son.

Finally, much sooner than seems decent, yet on no particularly memorable date that I can recall, I stopped thinking about it altogether and turned it off. It was bottled up nicely tucked away so that I could be who and what I had to be without also being burdened by that useless regret over a thought based on truth.

Tuesday, I found myself standing in the middle of my home office, one arm folded beneath the other elbow, my hand pinching my cheeks together with my head down and my eyes looking off through the floor completely consumed with recreating the days she lay there alone. Rereading in my head the last superficial little nothing conversation we had had via text messaging just days before she died had left me catatonic and out of it for a moment.

Here’s where I landed: what I was ashamed of was that there was truth to that insensitive thought of mine last year; not that I had somehow been disloyal or unfair to my mom with a shameful and selfish reflex that smeared her memory. I didn’t, and I don’t need to forgive anything except maybe the fact that it took a year to realize that I was being disloyal and unfair to myself.

I’m not sure what the next few days have in store for me, but I feel like I’ll walk out of this sad week of remembrance with a little less guilt and a bit of weight lifted from my shoulders. Plus, there will be a shelf open in that vault for the next emotion that tries to hamstring me.

Miss you, Mom. Like, every day.

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