Wrapped gift for blog by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley Hale
Things That Suck

Things That Remain: Guilt (Part 1 of 4)

In this four-part series, I discuss the things that remain for me (and for some of my readers) in the years after widowhood.

“We didn’t get the Hallmark goodbye.”

I hear this a lot from my widowed friends, and I get it. Sure, I suppose there are times when couples do get that moment, just before someone dies, when they are able to express all of the love between them. I mean, it must happen sometimes, right? That’s how it happens in the movies!

So when you lose someone to an accident or suicide or heart attack – or any other relatively instantaneous loss – it can feel especially unfair. You want that Hallmark goodbye.

And yet, even when your partner leaves you more slowly, it’s not usually like that. Yes, Shawn and I got more time to say goodbye than most. But we thought we had weeks, and in the last day of his life he wasn’t able to talk much at all. He didn’t gaze into my eyes and tell me everything I needed to hear and then drift off to another world. That’s not really how dying usually works. I felt cheated.

But more than that, I felt guilty.

Guilty that I hadn’t told him enough how I felt when he was healthy. Guilty that we hadn’t spent all the last days talking about our love, rather than going over the logistics of his care. Guilty that I sent the kids to school, rather than give them more time with their dad. Guilty that Claire, Austin and Tommy never got to say goodbye – not because I did it on purpose, but because I thought we had more time.

Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.

There are a million more things I feel guilty about, but here’s one I still think about: Shawn bought me a Christmas present that I only opened after he died, did you know that? (It was a robot vacuum. Which sounds unromantic but I loved it.) I bought him nothing. It’s a silly thing, but I still think about it. Why didn’t I get him a present for his last Christmas? That would have made for such a sweet Hallmark goodbye, both of us opening the presents we’d bought for the other one. But I didn’t do it. I didn’t even open his present at the time. I let that moment pass me by, and now the guilt remains.

I know I’m not the only one.

When I asked some of my widowed friends and readers, they all agreed – guilt was everywhere. Usually it took the form of a “should have.”

You should have loved him more when he was alive and healthy.

You should have stopped her death.

You should have told him that you loved him over and over again on that last day.

I even had a reader tell me that she felt guilty that she didn’t cook her husband a fabulous last meal, and that instead she had served a Costco rotisserie chicken. How mediocre, she quipped!

(I mean, I will never deride a meal from Costco, but I get her point.)

These “should haves” are everywhere in widowhood. You should have been a better partner, a better healer, a better human. It’s all about guilt, but maybe it’s the worst kind of guilt – the kind you cannot fix.

Because here’s the thing – sometimes, you can address feelings of guilt. For example, there are times when I feel guilty that I haven’t been present enough for my children when they are doing their homework. But that’s a guilt that I can ease by sitting down with one of them after dinner and (painfully) working through math problems or science terms. I can do something about it.

But when someone is dead, there’s not a lot you can do about the guilt.

I was actually surprised to find that in over 560 blog posts, I only have two that are specifically about guilt. (One is here and the follow up is here.) But the thing is, I likely have dozens. They may not be labeled as blog posts on guilt, but they are all about what I didn’t do, how I wished I’d acted differently, and what I regretted about the past.

This feeling of guilt has eased over the years. But oddly, sometimes I still feel this strange pull to do something for Chris that I never did for Shawn. I might try to listen more intently to one of Chris’s stories about his work, or ask about a specific activity he’s doing (like repairing a bike) that isn’t really something I’m intrinsically interested in. Yes, of course, I do these things because I love Chris. But I think there’s also a small part of me that is bothered by the “should have” feeling, a part of me that remembers that I didn’t spend enough time talking to Shawn about the things he loved (particularly those that I didn’t love, like CrossFit.) I should have been a better wife, more interested in whatever he was interested in. And that is a loss that I still think about sometimes, even today.

I’m not sure how you really let go of the feeling of “should have.” Guilt is one of those things that’s tricky, especially if you don’t really have a way to make it up to the other person. I try to remember that Shawn wouldn’t want me to feel bad about how I was back then. He was an imperfect person, too.

But he got me a Christmas present as he was dying. And I didn’t get one for him.


  • Steph

    Yes to all of this. And like you Marjorie, I find myself being more present with listening to my new partner. I think our experiences fundamentally change us and make us better people – we didn’t know what we didn’t know back when we were someone different. I’m still learning to forgive myself for not being/ doing enough in the final hours/ days, choosing to work in the week before, etc. Is what it is. They know we miss them and would do some things differently – I imagine they only feel love and acceptance for us and support us every day.

    • M Brimley

      I like how you say that our experience makes us better people – I want to write about that for a future post. Obviously, it’s not a life I would have chosen, but there are some parts that I can appreciate about widowhood. Thanks for this insight.

  • Cathy

    I’ve had the same overwhelming feelings lately. I didn’t go to the hospital the last day because I knew he didn’t have a lot of time and his mother had not seen him in months. Due to COVID we couldn’t both go. By the time they called me later that night it was too late. Truthfully, I don’t know if I could have sat through those last hours. I feel like a horrible person for saying that. He had been intubated for months and it was breaking me. I was in bed with the kids and it was day 114 of his hospitalization and ICU stay. I was broken but still I can’t forgive myself.

    • M Brimley

      It’s so hard. But I will say this – I think sometimes the people we love try and leave us when they know we are safe and somewhere else. I’ve heard a number of stories from other widows whose partners died when they took a 10 minute break, and I do think it may be because it’s easier for them. So maybe take some comfort in that. He knew you were devoted, and that’s what matters.