DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley plays in fountain with her two sons

“He needs a colonoscopy soon, Marjorie.”

I think about these words all the time. My dad said them to me probably a month before Shawn’s diagnosis, after some tests had revealed that there were tiny bits of blood in Shawn’s stool. At the time, I told my dad that Shawn had one scheduled for January.

“I’d do it sooner,” he replied.

Our talk that day scared me a bit, but I brushed it off. Shawn had a doctor here in DC, and he was getting on a new antibiotic to help his pain. I didn’t need to worry too much.

Why didn’t I make him go get the colonoscopy right away? It wouldn’t have changed his diagnosis, but maybe it could have eased his suffering. Why didn’t I push for an earlier appointment?

God, there’s so many times I say to myself, “why didn’t I?” I know that it’s not useful to think this way and I know it’s counterproductive to my mental wellness when I allow myself to go down the rabbit-hole of guilt.

And yet I hear that question in my head. “Why didn’t I?”

Why didn’t I go with him to the hospital that first time? Why didn’t I call a neighbor and show up, so he’d know I’d always be there for him? Why did I stay home with the kids and let him get sent home without any painkillers? He didn’t need that extra week of terrible pain he endured before his diagnosis. I would never let one of my kids be in the hospital by themselves. Shawn never let me be in the hospital by myself, even if it meant leaving our kids so he could be there. But I didn’t go to the ER with him the first three times he went. I took care of the kids. I went to work. I didn’t grill the doctors and I wasn’t there when he got the first scan, the one that suggested he had cancer. I wasn’t there, and he was alone.

And in those long days in the hospital, why didn’t I spend every moment telling him that I loved our life together? Yes, I said it a lot, and he said it to me. But we mostly talked about mundane things (I vividly remember a specific conversation about a broken chair that went on for multiple days.) We usually just read and hung out and watched TV and did nothing. I should have entered that hospital room every day and said, “knowing you and having you as my husband has been the best thing that ever happened to me, Shawn Brimley.” But I didn’t.

The guilt. It’s there for me just as it is for almost every widow I meet with in person or talk to online. At least once a day, someone writes me privately on my blog and mentions the guilt they feel over what they did/didn’t do before their partner died.

And then there’s the guilt people feel after their partner dies and it’s time to start living again. Rather than, “why didn’t I?” questions, I hear, “why am I?”

Trust me, I feel that too.

Why am I able to wake up some mornings, go on a run and hug my baby in his bathrobe and feel like the world is a good place? Why can I splash in the summer fountains with my boys or braid my daughter’s hair and feel joy in my daily life? How can I possibly feel that way when Shawn isn’t here?

Why am I able to look at men again? Even if it takes me a long time to hold someone’s gaze, why is it even possible for me to think about what it would be like to have someone else’s lips on mine? My God, I never thought like this when Shawn was alive, even if I found someone attractive. Why am I able to do it now? Does it mean that my love for Shawn is fading?

Why am I excited about the future sometimes? There was a long time – over a year – when I couldn’t see any sort of good future. But I can see it now. I feel glad I can feel a bit of hope, but what does that say about my life with Shawn? What if I live 60 more years and our time together was just a fraction of my time on this earth?

These two questions: “Why didn’t I…?” and “Why am I…?” swirl in my head all the time. For anyone who sees me at the coffeeshop and thinks that I’m moving forward in a positive way, I appreciate that. But the guilt remains.

So for all of you out there who still feel the guilt, just know that I feel it too. It doesn’t fully go away. I think all we can do is try to live with it, push back against it when we can, and find some peace with the complicated nature of our emotions.

The guilt is normal. I know that Shawn would understand that. I also know he wouldn’t want me to be burdened by it. He’d want me to keep on living, even if part of me living in this world is living with the guilt.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.

8 Replies to “Guilt”

  1. I did this just this morning, The “why didn’t I”. Some days I don’t think of that but then it hits out of nowhere and it hurts all over again. I just passed the 1 year of his passing of my husband last week and I’m finding myself thinking, what now? I mean, I know I should keep going and living for our babies but its hard to realize THIS is now my life. And why do I get to live this life? Thank you so much for this, it just helps to know we’re not alone in our guilt, all of it. ❤

    1. Oh, I wrote a lot about the “what now?” feeling of getting to a year last spring (try this post: It’s so tough, but I think there’s no other way to make it through all these feelings – including the guilt – except by doing it one day at a time.

  2. Marjorie, I’m so glad you posted this. The ghosts of “why didn’t I?” have haunted me too. My husband was very knowledgeable (at one point he taught anatomy and physiology to nursing students) but when it came to his own health he had a blind spot. There were many times when I pressed him about troubling symptoms, but he would brush me off and say everything was fine, stop worrying so much. Why didn’t I insist? And with that guilt comes anger, too. Anger at him for ignoring what was happening and anger at myself for not being more forceful about what I could see was happening.

    Like you, I look back at our conversations during the last weeks of his life and wish we’d talked more about important things. We did, some, and said how much we loved each other often, but now it just seems, for want of a better term, lacking. I think the whole situation seemed so surreal at the time that talking about mundane things, as you put it, helped take our minds off of the “unthinkable.” He did tell me many times that I was doing a great job of being his caregiver because he knew that I had beaten myself up over being the caregiver for my mother before she died. He didn’t want me to do that over him, but I find myself doing it anyway. There are many, many things I can look back on and wish I’d done differently. I guess I always will.

    1. I think these feelings of guilt are really common. And I love what you wrote here about talking about non-serious topics:

      I think the whole situation seemed so surreal at the time that talking about mundane things, as you put it, helped take our minds off of the “unthinkable.”

      So perfectly put and SO TRUE.

  3. The guilty feelings are the worst. It took a long time for me to learn to let the guilt waves wash over me, just like the sad waves and rage, and all the other ones. It’s one of those lessons that must be learned, not taught, I guess. Grieving is full of those, and it’s sh##ty, as we know.
    I’m 60 now, and my entire adult life has been determined by my wife’s struggle with Cystic Fibrosis. Every decision about everything, since the early 1980s, has been affected by CF. Still, CF became central to my identity, even if the real story was her incredible strength and determination. I felt guilty for years, for wanting it to end long before it ended.
    Then, this month, public radio featured an interview with a CF researcher who could finally publish the news that a three-drug cocktail will allow 90% of CF patients to live normal, regulated lives, as if CF were like diabetes, or other chronic conditions.
    I feel great joy for the 90% and their families and future children, of course, and I feel compassion for the 10%, but beyond that is a feeling I don’t know, and I thought I’d felt them all. It’s almost like I woke up one day and realized there was no monster under the bed, except I know there WAS one, for the longest time, and it dominated my adult life. It’s a weird, empty feeling after all these years, but it seems to be a guilt-free one.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing all of this – and yes, I am so glad that you’ve been able to let go of the guilt. It can be all-encompassing, and even debilitating, but learning to live with it has been something that’s made my life better. Bit by bit, it does fade.

  4. Marjorie, i am the last one to give any advice. Let me just say that the first 35 year career I had as a Police Officer I had the difficult task from time to time to give very difficult news to families who had lost a family member from what ever tragedy. When I retired I entered into a new career of working at. Funeral home making every effort to assist families who had lost a dear family member. From my 48 years of working with families suffering as you are your feelings are real and at know time should you ever give into the idea “That I could have done more” You did everything you could for your self and your entire family- you should never have any guilt. My wife and I have been very blessed that we have known each other as teenagers living two homes apart, as 15 year olds started dating and in our early 20’s married. We have lived in many places, had lots of hard times and are still after 51 years very much in Love. We have often discussed what if and when if. We have always come to the same conclusion – Do not stop living and please seek out companionship and always live life – do not become sad and lonely as we both deserve more.

    Continue in your life journey as well as your writing. I am certain this is helping you as much as your writing is helping many others. Thank you so much for allowing me to be able to connect to your publications. You are a very special person.

    1. Thanks so much for this comment and for thinking of me! I agree – and Shawn would too – that I need to keep living. Learning to live with the guilt that remains is part of that for now. But that guilt has faded a bit over the past two years, and I’m hopeful it will get easier every year.

      Take care.

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