I Should Have Known

Dear Dr. Leary:

When someone spends a lot of time with a loved one, they get to know the silly little things…the guilty pleasures, the instantaneous knee jerk ‘ew!’ responses, too.

Much of the time, I find myself crying and feeling so very alone and guilty, I guess you could say, when I find myself enjoying something my little one can no longer enjoy because they’re no longer with me here, on earth.  It hurts so badly that I become nauseous.  The same sort of thing happens with the ‘ew!’ moments. I relished those moments with my little one…the experiences, the learning, the discovery….

They left me way too early;  it’s my fault, because I didn’t know what was going on when I wasn’t around.  I should’ve KNOWN they were being harmed.  I let my little one down. It doesn’t help when someone says ‘no one could’ve known, don’t be so hard on yourself’.  Because I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN.  If I could’ve known, I could’ve stopped it and gotten them to a safe place.


Dear Grieving:

My heartfelt condolences on the death of your beloved little loved one.  Your grief is woven into joy as you remember your child, but also weighed down by your feelings of regret, guilt, and remorse.

You say that you “should have” known.  You wanted to know.  The truth for all of us is that we want to have more power, more vision, more strength than we have.  We just want it, and especially to use for our children.  And the human condition, our vulnerability, and the truth is that we do not have as much power as we want.  We want to protect our children from all things bad, and we can not.  We want to stop disease and death and pain, and we can not.  It is our human condition.  It does not make us a lesser parent, or less loving.

You have picked up a heavy boulder. You have been carrying this load of guilt on your back while trying to climb up the high hill of grief. Your guilt, remorse, and regret have not relieved, soothed, or changed the reality of your child’s death. But the way you have been thinking about the circumstances, and punishing yourself for events, have exacerbated your grief.  How you think about the cause of her death, and that you take on the responsibility for someone else’s decision and actions has hurt you.  I am suggesting that your guilt may even get in the way of feeling the love that you relished with your child.  Your regret and guilt muddy the brilliance of your love for each other; please don’t let your regret color your memories and separate you further.  Someone’s actions took her from you; please don’t allow your thoughts against yourself keep you from the gifts of memory.

If you can learn to put down the boulder, you may feel her presence more profoundly.  The truth is that a precious life is over, too soon, and against your will.  The how and why, and the anguish you continue to feel about it, can not make sense of a senseless death.  Your feelings are strong and complicated and there is nothing wrong with any of that.  Please find support with others who will allow you to feel all of your feelings, in your own time, and be present for you whenever you need it.  That may mean you work with a therapist or find a friend who has also lost a child.  To find one of those truly helpful supporters, I recommend a process best written about as “the Ring Theory”; see wapo.st/ringtheory.

Thank you for reaching out.  My thoughts are with you,