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  • Ann Hollander

"But I wasn't there when she died"

Many of us hold unconscious covenants with our kin. Among the most poignant, perhaps, is a commitment to "be there" when death is near. As adults, we may feel an obligation, and an honor, to be with our parents as they leave, just as they helped us enter. With our spouses, the ultimate commitment—'til death do us part—often translates symbolically to a promise to be present at the deathbed.

But sometimes life interferes. You may be on your way when your loved one expires. The result of travel woes or just timing that didn't work out as you hoped. In recent months, many families have found themselves separated from a loved one's bedside by public safety orders. Due to virus risk, many hospitals set policies that prohibit visitors.

Whatever the circumstances, those who are not able to be at a loved one's bedside grapple not only with their grief, but also tremendous guilt. There is often a sense of having abandoned a loved one at their time of greatest need.

How to cope with these feelings? Hospice chaplains remind us that the relationship never dies. Even if a person dies alone, all the love given is still with them. Love transcends distance and continues beyond death. The relationship doesn't die. It simply changes.

And yet, those who miss being at the bedside often feel distressed at having lost the opportunity to express important sentiments. The distress may be even greater if the relationship was difficult. In truth, however, dramatic deathbed conversations are a Hollywood illusion. Most people are not conscious the last few hours or even days before death.

Hospice staff report that writing a letter can assist with positive closure even after a loved one's passing. They suggest a letter elaborating on these five statements as if you were talking at the bedside:

  • "Please forgive me."

  • "I forgive you."

  • "Thank you."

  • "I love you."

  • "Goodbye."

Are you feeling guilty after a loved one's passing?

You certainly are not alone. As the North Shore and Chicago experts in family caregiving, we at Options for Aging see this a lot. Give us a call at 847-868-1445. Let's talk.

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