Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: My mother died before I could say goodbye

She was in a car crash, and we were fighting at the time. Now I'm finding it hard to forgive myself

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

I still cannot get over the terrible guilt I feel about not seeing my mother before she died last year. I loved her so much, and we had a stupid row – which we often did, I’m afraid – over a small thing and I refused to speak to her. This had gone on for 10 days and I was just about to ring her so things could be normal again when my sister rang and told me she’d been killed in a car crash. I go over and over those moments, and feel so terrible that she died thinking I was angry with her. I will never forgive myself. Can you offer any comfort?

Yours sincerely, Judy


Virginia says...

When our loved ones die, we often experience the strangest of emotions. Grief is, sadly, only one of them, and I’ve known people tormented because they feel, also, relief, rage, even pleasure – or, sometimes, just blankness. And it’s very common for bereaved people to feel guilt – that there is some blame attached to them. Usually they feel guilty because, even though the loved one may have been in great pain, 95 years old, longing to die and on a life-support machine, they didn’t do one thing that, they feel, could have helped him live longer.

In your case, since clearly there wasn’t anything you could have done to prevent your mother having a crash, you’re experiencing a feeling of guilt but have nowhere to put it. Aha! But yes you do! You had a row with your mother (something you often did over the years but always made it up) and failed to make it up quickly enough.  Wretched guilt has found a peg, a tenuous peg certainly, but a peg on which to  hang all the guilt that so many people  feel after a bereavement.

Looked at logically, there is of course no reason for guilt. Your mother could have rung you up first – have you thought of that? – but she didn’t. It was just as much her choice as yours to maintain the silence. Then you say this was a common occurrence. So there was no way your mother was, in the days running up to the car crash, thinking: “Oh dear, oh dear, will I ever see my daughter again? She hates me!” No, she was thinking: “Here we go again. Better wait till I get the usual phone call. Ho hum.” Then you say you loved your mother very much. She loved you. And minor scenes were all part of your relationship. Perhaps you couldn’t have loved her – nor her you – without these minor blow-ups now and again.

But that’s the logical side. The illogical side – the feeling that part of the reason this bereavement is so terrible is something to do with you, your fault – is because most of us, understandably, find it very difficult to believe that such terrible things, such as death, can happen. Surely, we feel, if there were a way in which we could take responsibility for just some part of the misery, wouldn’t that make it a little bit easier to bear than to realise this horror could just descend out of the blue? Easier sometimes to feel a little bit in control – that some of the pain is our fault – than to realise we’re simply powerless over it.

I do hope, dear Judy, these thoughts  have helped.

Readers say...

Remember the good things, too

I was saddened to hear of your loss and feel I can offer some empathy. My 11-year-old daughter died from a heart attack, very suddenly and unexpectedly, earlier this year while she was away on a school trip. I, too, felt great guilt because I wasn’t there with her when it happened and have spent many hours wondering about her last hours without me or her mum.

It is imperative to remember your relationship as a whole and not what happened in those last few days, because it is unlikely the argument was relevant to her. She didn’t die thinking you were angry with her, she died knowing you “loved her so much”. 

You can make the assumption that she would not have wanted you to grieve for too long, or too deeply or with guilt. And it is fair to say you should aim to have her assumed wish fulfilled. As the one left behind, you must remember that your grief is essentially about your emotion. You will, therefore, eventually have mastery and control over these emotions and feel more at peace.

It takes time to see the greater picture – the loving, normal, life-long relationship you had together with its disagreements and bickering – and its relevance will far outweigh what was a genuinely minor incident. It sounds as if you and your mother had enough love for a lifetime. So remember that.

Ben, by email

She knew you loved her

Grief and guilt make a painful combination that’s hard to shake off, but please don’t torture yourself any more. I’m sure your mother was in no doubt you loved her, despite the little spat you’d had: such disagreements happen in every family. It’s time to stop dwelling on the negative. Remember all that she did to make you the person you are, and the happiness you shared together. Regard this experience as a final gift from her, one that teaches you to enjoy each day and settle differences with your loved ones as quickly as possible, because none of us knows what lies ahead.

Jessie Bartholomew, Grangemouth

Honour her memory

Judy, these two issues are separate and should not be conflated. Loss is a terrible thing no matter what the circumstance, and you should allow yourself to grieve. Your mother’s accident was not caused by the argument. Most of the time our relationships are conducted on an expectation of life, not death. You had a tiff. Guilt is not necessary. Honour the memory of your mother as she deserves. 

Alan, by email

Next week's dilemma

My friend and I were in and out of each other’s houses as children. We stayed in touch and last year she had very bad cystitis, which wouldn’t go away. Eventually her doctor suggested a therapist. Now she’s remembered all kinds of child abuse through flashbacks. I just can’t believe it – she seemed such a happy child. Her dad was incapable of doing anything like this – he’s lovely and I was often alone with him. But she refuses to talk to him now. Her mother’s been on the phone to me, crying and begging me to ask her if they can meet. What should I do?

Yours sincerely,


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