Residual Symptoms: Did She Die Because Of Me?

Her mom died of cancer in 2006. Priyanka* admits that she is still not over those 10 months between her mom’s diagnosis and death. She finds it difficult to concentrate, has bouts of crying or intense anger. She has been in therapy for several months, been put on anti-depressants. But somehow, nothing seems to work.

Last week when I called her, she was telling me about a friend of hers who has been diagnosed with cancer for the third time in the last three years and how this girl has bravely fought off the disease each time. It was then that she said, “I know what my problem is. I deal with it everyday.” I’d thought she meant the emptiness she felt because her mom was gone. But she said, “Guilt.”

Imagine walking with a load this big everyday!

Priyanka and her dad didn’t disclose to her mom that she had cancer. The doctor had told them openly that she had at best a few months to live as the malignancy had spread all over her body. Her mom had asked several times, “It’s not cancer, is it?” And they kept telling her it wasn’t. And then her mom died, leaving her little girl to deal with her residual guilt, each day. Priyanka sobbed into the phone, “Each time I look at my friend, I wonder if mom would’ve survived, fought the cancer if we’d given her a chance.” And then the tears came. As they usually did.

I said to her, “Priyanka, my baby, just think about it. You loved your mom; you didn’t want her to die. In fact, you wanted her to live. You love your mom so much that even today you are suffering with all the baggage from that time. You didn’t do anything wrong. Everyone wants their loved one to beat the disease, but if that were possible, there’d be no death in this world.”

Priyanka is not alone. I know several people who feel responsible for the condition or death of their loved ones. I have been in that very position for years. I was in class XI when this incident happened. I had done well in my first term exam. But in the second term, I’d done really badly. The teacher scolded me in front of the whole class, but I didn’t say a word about mom’s illness. That term, my sister came for the PTA. My parents had gone to Mumbai for mom’s tests, to know what the diagnosis was. My sister was telling my teacher, who’d worked with my mom in her previous job, that my mom was suspected of having dementia. It was then that I broke down and said, “You don’t know, but mom has Alzheimer’s.

And yes, when my parents came back, the big A was pronounced. As the years progressed, I felt that “My mom got Alzheimer’s because I had said so.” It was really tough. To see mom like that, and to feel that I was responsible for it.

Dealing with guilt is not easy. The self has to be ready to let go of the “I need to be punished” feeling. This does not come overnight, especially when it is related to the death of a loved one. Listing down some of the things that helped me while I dealt with my guilt, and my redemption.

Keeping busy – Work towards finding equilibrium. For me, it came through my full-time job and through my bosses. They hadn’t known me through my bad phase, which helped. They put full faith in my intelligence though my track record hadn’t shown results. They gave me tasks which are measurable. That was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was hooked to the thrill of ticking off an item off my list. I started making one for my personal life. And I found as weeks went by that it helped me to get through several days without being down. Sometimes the downs came, but the work stopped suffering. This is a good sign because you begin to separate your personal from your professional.

–  Inner cleansing – I prayed, meditated and tried to be a good person. This included not telling even the smallest lies. This meant owning up when I lost my temper needlessly. This meant admitting that I wasn’t able to deal with myself sometimes. This meant wanting to be the person I could. This meant hard work. This meant waking up in the morning, when others were sleeping. This meant being disciplined. And it worked. I felt proud each time I successfully dealt with a situation – whether it was resisting the temptation to lie or telling my roommate that I was a shit for yelling at her, and that I loved her. It meant, deciding to be strong, and battle with myself everyday. The strength came from praying. I know people might laugh. But it’s true. I learned to forgive myself. It was really hard. But I began by forgiving myself for my temper. And slowly, it went.

Recording the good days – I created memoirs of the good days. I wrote diary entries, clicked pictures, went dancing, told someone about it, blogged and simply commemorated the moment whenever something good happened to me. I realised how the small moments added up. I gave myself credit for it. I gave my loved ones credit for it. And slowly these moments multiplied.

Priyanka said to me, “I don’t why you’re doing all this. For me, I just want to run away from these feelings. They’re too painful.” For many people this might work. But when I did that for seven years, I realised I had to stop somewhere. Not dealing with myself was impairing me as a functional person. The simplest way of figuring out is doing an objective check as to whether the guilt is interfering with our daily functioning. You can ask your spouse, friends, colleagues for feedback, and if they also confirm that you’re indeed erratic, then maybe it’s time to deal with the feelings.

You can try this your way, but usually a soul cleansing helps. You can take the help of alternative healing practitioners We would like to help you. But the question is, are you ready to stop punishing yourself?

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*Priyankaname changed to protect privacy

  1. pooja
    December 15, 2009 at 11:06 PM

    Well written and love that you have mentioned practical steps to deal with the caregivers’ guilt. Good going Ekta 🙂

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