The Help Desk: A case of filial guilt

'Our relations with dying people are also, of course, relations with living ones'
  • @louisa_saunders

Q. Just over a year ago my mother died of cancer. She was only 60 and she'd had breast cancer for nine years. Her last year was an agonising time, and when she died, I think I'd done a lot of my grieving along the way, and surprised myself with how strong I was. My dad was in pieces and my brother and I were doing our best to help him.

But just recently, I've started missing her so badly. What's worse is I feel so guilty. During her last years, I spent a year in Hong Kong for work. I also met my boyfriend shortly after that, and this meant I tended to go and stay with her a bit less. Why didn't I spend more time with my mum when I could? I think about the sacrifices she made for me all her life and it makes me ashamed. I wish I could go back and do things differently. I don't know how to deal with my guilt.

A: Like some mythological monster, grief has ways of twisting itself into horrifying new forms just when you thought you'd learnt to cope with it. Anniversaries can be particularly tough; just when we may think we have learnt to absorb the sorrow of it all, it's as though our bodies somehow pick up the scent again from the season, then fire off a few painful reminders in case we're getting too comfortable.

Yes, it would be lovely to be able to turn the clocks back and see your mother again. But if you could, you wouldn't necessarily behave much differently. You'd be the same people, with the same family codes and inhibitions. Our relations with dying people are, of course, also relations with living people, and it is human nature to keep the emphasis on the living part as much as we can. It's agonising at times, as you say – all we can really do is take our cues from the dying person, and most would prefer to get on with the business of living while they can, rather than have their last years turned into a long leave-taking.

Your period abroad must have felt right to you at the time, and I suspect that's because it was right at the time. If she's like most parents, your mother would have taken great comfort in seeing you broaden your horizons and pursue interesting work, and also in seeing you happily settled with your boyfriend.

"Sacrifice" is just a thing parents do and usually do willingly, even self-indulgently. I recently went to bring my elder daughter back from her first year at university. She loves it there, and on the way back, she confessed that if university life continued through the holidays, she probably wouldn't choose to come home for the summer. "No offence," she added. "None taken," I said, quite sincerely, while actually performing a little hornpipe dance in my head because, much as I want her with me, I'm so glad that she's made an independent life she's happy with. Job done.

Remember that your life with your mother was not just her last few years, but all of your years together. You'll have shown her your love in whatever is your way.

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