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First Hand: Guilt and Grief (best friends in many ways)


My seven year old son, Aaron, drowned in the neighbor's pool while I was eating tortilla chips. My parting words to him were, "Why don't you take off your life jacket and practice swimming with your Dad?" He could swim 20 yards the summer before. He zipped it up tighter and I left him with his Dad and little sister and headed off for the food. My husband thought he had left the pool with little sister and he was sitting on a raft chatting with the neighbors who were up on a deck. Next thing I know my older daughter runs in the house saying Aaron had drowned. I performed CPR and was unable to revive him. No one knows quite what happened, only that Aaron was found at the bottom of the pool, and that my husband and I, the two people responsible for keeping him safe in life, let him slip through our fingers and he died. And it got worse. The newspaper came out the next day with the headlines reading, "Father Naps While Son Drowns."

This terrible thing happened to two very safety conscious parents. I remember the wails of pain coming from my husband the next morning, a sound of utter despair I hope never to hear again. The story is about me, however, so I will tell her about the grief and guilt that were my companions over the next year. I think perhaps it would have been easier to curl up and die than to stare the guilt and grief in the face and keep on living. It still surprises me that with four living children to raise I wished to be dead as much as I did. I even considered taking my own life one afternoon, not something I have ever considered before. I thought of myself as a stable person prior Aaron's death, and was pretty shocked at just how crazy and dysfunctional I could be.

The guilt didn't end at his drowning and the fact that I failed to revive him. I felt guilty about his life. I should have made sure he could swim better. He died a week after his birthday, and I hadn't had a party for him. I felt guilty for leaving him home with grandparents when I took his older sibling to Disneyland a couple of years before. I felt guilty that I wasn't nicer to him when he was sick and throwing up. I felt guilty that I got so mad at him for being lazy about doing chores. I felt guilty that I hadn't given him a good enough life.

But the guilt didn't end there. I felt guilty the year after he died because I was pregnant, sick, grieving and his siblings drove me CRAZY! I thought I would have this sudden unending patience for the rest of my kids and all my bad parenting moments would be gone, and it was quite the opposite. I am surprised my teenage son and I got through that year and still like each other.

It has been three years, and I survived, the death, the grief, and perhaps especially the guilt. I can smile, laugh, and enjoy life in a way I never imagined I would again. So, you ask, how did I make it? It didn't happen overnight, nor is it a process that is complete now or probably ever will be. But it is so much better.

I had to forgive myself. Most people with children have lost one for a moment in a store. It was a moment that I had to forgive myself for, even with such a tragic ending. I believe Aaron is in a better place. I had to believe that he wouldn't want his death to ruin the rest of our lives. I had to believe that he wouldn't want his death to forever define our lives and who we are. I had to believe that the best thing I could do for Aaron was to survive, pick up the broken pieces of my life, stay married, and raise his siblings.

It was a tough journey. I still have flashbacks to the pool almost daily, but they are less disturbing, and I can banish them more quickly from my mind, thinking of the winning smile he flashed that afternoon in the pool. He was so happy to be swimming for the first time that summer. I still feel really bad about not having a birthday party for him, even though I know in my mind it isn't such a big deal. When the birthday guilt comes I pull out his scrapbooks and remember that we really packed a lot of fun and great family times into the seven years that he was with us, does one birthday party really change that? I had to forgive myself the bad things and bad times and focus on the good, there was so much more good.

My journey has made me realize that guilt and grief are an integral pair. Grandma dies, and we feel guilty for not visiting enough and making a good enough effort while she was alive. We have a miscarriage, stillborn, or child with birth defects and we torture ourselves wondering what we could have eaten or unknowingly been exposed to. Why did our body do such a thing and how were we to blame? Perhaps a child died after we had a fight with them, and it haunts us over and over again. What if we sent our spouse to run an errand and they were killed in an accident on the way. Maybe we don't feel we were aggressive enough about medical treatment and being an advocate for our child. I doubt you could name me a death where there wasn't guilt involved, and it doesn't even have to be rational. My oldest son told me one day that he thought he should have saved Aaron. He was off doing an assignment his father had given him, he was totally blameless, but still let himself feel the guilt and total responsibility of losing his brother.

We can let guilt destroy us, or we can fight back. We can forgive ourselves. We can learn from our mistakes, even the huge ones. We can do better in the future. We can open up our hearts so we can see all the wonderful moments in life before a terrible argument came in which a child took their life. We can believe that even though tragedy struck, we were working hard trying to do the right things for our children whom we love so much. Life can be so hard with mental illness and substance abuse, that it can seem almost impossible that there really are right answers to help those with such extreme challenges. If we know death, we know guilt in one form or another. I decided that I was going to fight back, I chose life, without a 500 pound pack of guilt on my back. It was too heavy and I made no progress with it, so I exchanged it with a 5 pound bag so my guilt is light enough to carry around in my purse all day. It is there when I need to wallow in it. But it is light enough to ignore on good days.

Embrace the guilt, learn from the guilt, let the guilt go.......piece by tiny piece, until your 500 pound pack is down to a reasonable weight that you can stick in your pocket and be free to love again. You notice I don't know how to totally banish my guilt, I think it will walk with me the rest of my life, in a small compact form that I can live with. The key word is LIVE.