If you’ve never experienced the death of a spouse, partner, child, or parent, please stop reading this and place it in your ‘Save for Later’ file—you’re not ready to read this yet. Nothing prepares you more for the death of a loved one more than, well, Death.

Mount St. Joseph News

Almost exactly one month after her 73rd birthday, my mother died suddenly of a massive stroke in my arms.  For years, she’d been a shut-in with a debilitating degenerative spinal disease that made it difficult for her to walk and only worsened her life-long battle with clinical depression.  

She lived with me in my house, where I washed, brushed and cut her hair; aided her in and out of the bath; and, helped her change her clothes and adult diapers.  By all accounts, according to my friends and family, I was a very good daughter.  Yet, when she died, I didn’t agree with this assessment.

Everyone tells you at the funeral that you’ll get ‘through this’. You think they’re referring to grief, but you’re wrong.  What they’re talking about is what comes after the casket is sealed in the mausoleum and people stop texting ‘you’re in my thoughts and prayers’—the silent Guilt.

Coco Chanel said, “Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death.” I didn’t willingly invite Guilt into my mind, but it took up residence there nonetheless, and then it became the houseguest that wore out its welcome but rudely refused to leave.

Why did I tell my friends the day before my mother died, “She’ll probably outlive me”?

Why did I make her get the COVID vaccine against her own wishes, even when she said, “This is going to kill me”?

Why didn’t I make someone who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day go to the doctor and have their blood pressure checked?

Why did I make her get up and go to the bathroom when she told me she didn’t feel well so that we could change her diaper and I could change a damp sheet?  And, why were my mother’s last words to me, “I’m ready”, sitting on a toilet waiting for me to help her back to the couch, where she would die two minutes later?

These are the insidious, guilt-ridden questions you ask yourself when you’re sitting in the bath, waiting at a red light, or trying to sleep at night. Why, why, why?

Guilt permeates your brain and eats away at all of its good memories like a parasite. It makes, by all accounts, an unemotional person cry at the drop of a hat or feel nauseous for no reason. I actually told my friends I thought I was having a nervous breakdown. They’d all met Guilt and assured me that one day it would go away. They were partially right.

While Guilt never leaves you completely—it still creeps up on me like the ‘bogeyman’ some two years after my mother’s death—it does dissipate. But, you must make it vacate the premise of your mind, just like the rude houseguest that it is, and accept that from-time-to-time it might come for a short visit.         

And, when Guilt comes to visit, you must push it away with good memories: going to the Cincinnatian for high tea and then seeing the holiday displays at Christmastime; how proud she was when you graduated from college and graduate school; the vacations you took her on to Hawaii and the Bahamas; and, the way she danced when you took her to every Rod Stewart concert before her spine twisted itself into an actual “S” shape. These are the things you must remember, or Guilt will eat you alive.

Perhaps the most bittersweet memory I have of my mother is when she said to me, as I was bending over washing her hair in the bath one night, “I’m sorry you have to do this with your bad back.”  In a rare instance of not being sarcastic, I said, “This is the least I can do after all you’ve done for me.”  She smiled at me and said, “You’re such a good daughter.”

That is what I remember when Guilt and the inescapable reality of Death knock at my door on the darkest of nights.  Why? Because now I am ready for it.

Kim Wilson was a contributor and assistant editor of Dateline. She is a writer and adjunct history professor at the Mount.