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A mother’s grief: ‘I blame myself for my son’s death’

The story you are about to read is being shared by permission. Not long ago, a mother came to me in tears seeking help. Why? Because she believed she caused the death of her son who died the week before from COVID-19.  She was distraught and deeply depressed. She had not slept since the day he died. The pressure was great because the entire family got COVID-19 and not only did her son die, but his girlfriend, and her mother died of the virus as well.

She was adamant that her son, and the rest of her family, not take the COVID-19 vaccine because of her beliefs. Early on in the pandemic, the mother believed her faith was stronger than any other drug and she had doubts about the effectiveness of the vaccine. Not only was she against taking the vaccine, but she was also against the use of face masks, physical distancing, and crowd control. She told me that she frequently attended large gatherings (social and religious) and was often within close proximity to others. She didn’t think she could become infected with COVID-19 because her faith was strong and she lived a decent life. 

What really caught my attention was when she told me about the time she attended a church service in Nassau and the pastor insisted that people in the congregation, sitting closely together, take off their masks. The preacher reportedly proclaimed that wearing a mask and taking the vaccine demonstrated a lack of faith in God. Sadly, that pastor contracted COVID-19 and became very ill. Luckily, he survived.  

 What she was hearing from the preacher reinforced her beliefs and strengthened her resolve regarding the wearing of masks and vaccination. But it did not take long before her family, like many others around the world, were impacted by the virus. One day, her son came home and informed her that he was not feeling well. He said his girlfriend was also sick. At first, this caring mother did not think the virus was the root cause of their issues until she began feeling unwell herself.  After going to the doctor, she learned that not only did she contract COVID-19, but so did her son, his girlfriend and her mother.  Today, out of the four of them, she is the only one alive.  Now, she blames herself for the death of her son.  She is now wearing a mask in public, physically distancing, and washing her hands frequently. She has not yet decided if she will take the vaccine.  However, she is now following the protocols to protect against the virus. 

Understandably, this mother is in deep emotional pain. There are many stories like this in The Bahamas, and around the world. It is normal to feel guilty if we really did something wrong.  In a 2014 article, titled, “Guilt and Grief: coping with the shoulda, woulda, couldas,” by Litsa Williams, she writes:  “Sometimes we fail to do things we wish we had done or should have done. That may be as large as a grievous error in judgment or mistake that led to a death. It could be as small as something hurtful we said, or something meaningful we failed to say.”  

Sometimes we feel guilty because we did something wrong. Note, that because you feel guilty doesn’t mean you are guilty. Litsa Williams states, “Our irrational brain will find just about anything to feel guilty about. Despite being irrational, this guilt can be consuming.”   

What will be the result of feelings of guilt in this mother’s life? Will it prevent her from moving forward, working, and serving others?  Will it cause a long depression and painful emotions? 

Here are a few tips by Williams for persons dealing with guilt:

1. Acknowledge that guilt is a normal grief emotion and don’t let others minimize the validity of your experience. 

2. Consider what your guilt is all about. Is it rational?  Is it irrational? Is it about control?  

3. Talk it over with others. Though you don’t want people minimizing your feelings, talking about guilt can help you reflect on your grief.  A good counselor or support group is a great environment to talk about feelings of guilt.  

4. Examine your thoughts. Often, our thoughts, whether rational or irrational, start to consume us.  They can drag us down into one of those bottomless black holes – the kind that are full of isolation, despair, and far too much wine and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

5. If your feelings are irrational, admit it. This doesn’t mean dismissing your feelings of guilt. It means acknowledging that, though you feel guilty, you may not actually be guilty. Some common examples are acknowledging you did the best you could with the information you had at the time; you couldn’t predict the future; there were many other factors at play other than your behavior, etc.  

6. Forgive yourself. Easier said than done, right? Remember that forgiveness does not mean condoning or excusing. Forgiveness can mean accepting that we may have done something we regret, but finding new attitude and perspective toward ourselves in relation to that action. It doesn’t mean we forget, but means we find a way to move forward. Do something with your guilt. 

7. Whether rational or irrational, you can use your guilt to help others.  

I would encourage everyone to be wise during this most difficult time in our country and the world. Seriously consider taking the COVID-19 vaccine. If for some reason you can’t take the vaccine, medical or otherwise, continue to follow the health protocols by wearing your mask, practicing physical distancing, sanitizing your hands and avoiding large gatherings. Do not listen to so-called spiritual leaders who make a mockery of faith by stating it is a lack faith to wear masks or take the vaccine. Remember this truth: these same spiritual leaders will not allow their faith to prevent them from washing their dirty hands before they eat a meal or leave a bathroom.  Faith does not conflict with common sense. 

Barrington Brennen is a marriage and family therapist.  Send your comments or questions to questions@soencouragement.org or call/WhatApp 242-477 4002 or visit www.soencouragement.org

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