The Taming of Guilt


I’m sitting here in the hospital surgical waiting area, and I thought, maybe today is the day I start writing in my blog again. I had taken over a year off. The last time I wrote, my mother was hospitalized with a grim prognosis and my father-in-law died unexpectedly four days later. For the next year and a half I turned deeply inward, not writing, not really getting on social media, not reaching out to friends. I began to feel as though I was losing my friends, and yet I didn’t know how to explain to others that I just didn’t have energy…no energy to clean the house in order to have people over, no energy to be a good conversationalist…no energy to be ‘normal.’

While it was a quiet year, it was also an intensely productive one: we changed schools for our son, moved to a new town, moved my mother (who’d since stabilized miraculously) in with us for at least part of the year. I also started acupuncture treatments, meditation, and exercise, and I no longer wake up in the mornings with my heart racing in fear of what may or may not come. I am present for Fred, I am remembering to be a thankful wife, I am making efforts to reach out to the amazing women in my life. I am, finally and slowly, learning to be compassionate toward myself.

I’m in the hospital right now because my mother’s in surgery – not a life threatening one, but a serious one in which the best outcome will still affect her quality of life. We experienced an unexpected turn yesterday and I had spent a good part of the day fighting a guilt so strong that I decided I couldn’t allow it to win.

I am realizing that the guilt of ‘what-if’ is inevitable when a loved one suffers a calamity. What if I had questioned the doctors earlier? What if I had been more aggressive about pushing her appointments up sooner? Maybe I could have prevented things from getting to this stage. I suppose that the guilt is especially strong because I’m a daughter, and because I’m the first born and the one who always took ownership of my immigrant parents’ issues. Somehow I believed that I had the power to change the course of things, and I had failed. Worst of all is the knowledge that I had not done everything in my power…if this had been my child, I would have fought harder.

The new compassion comes in my understanding that the guilt is pointless. I’m getting better at asking this: what value does this thought, does this word add? The guilt really adds nothing, except the satisfaction that I am punishing myself. This must come from childhood, from having been taught to feel shame for having done something bad or being something bad. “There, I have beaten myself up” – there is satisfaction in that, like a metaphorical spanking or self-imposed time-out or an actual beating. There is satisfaction, but there is no good in it.

And to be a functioning daughter, mother, and wife I need to preserve whatever good I feel about myself. I am realizing that.

I started having this imaginary conversation with myself yesterday, while thinking about my guilt. In this conversation, I am the one getting the operation, and my little Fred is the one feeling guilty, for not having done enough. This is how it goes:

Fred:   (Crying)

Me:     What’s wrong? Why are you crying?

Fred:   I should have done more. I should have tried to get your surgery moved up. Then it wouldn’t have gotten to this point.

Me:     But you did move up the appointment once, and the doctor is booked! People come from out of state to see her, everyone needs her, everyone has probably waited months for her.

Fred: I just feel that if I had done more this wouldn’t have happened. I feel like I am responsible.

Me:   Fred, the ONE thing I do NOT want you to feel, even for a second, is guilt! How can you be responsible for what happens to my body, for what happens to me? Do you know how full my heart is, knowing how much you HAVE done for me? Can I ask you to instead think about everything you have done for me, instead of all the things you were powerless to have made happen?

Something like that. And it is amazing how things turn around once you treat yourself the way you would treat your child. The love is instantly palpable, even when it is coming from yourself. And you start seeing yourself the way others might be seeing you, as the good and decent woman that you are. That I am.


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35 thoughts on “The Taming of Guilt

  1. Maybe I can see your point a little bit, Cecilia, because your parents are immigrants, but it is still their own responsibility to take care of themselves, not yours. You can help them to get things done, but you can’t do it for them. They are adults. I think sometimes as our parents age, we begin to treat them as if we’re the adult and they’re the child, but they aren’t children. We can’t make decisions for them. They have to make them themselves unless they are no longer able to.

    • It’s the language and cultural barriers that make it difficult if not impossible for my parents to navigate the American medical system so they really are dependent on me…plus our culture’s strong emphasis on filial piety plays a strong part. I understand that from an American perspective my guilt or sense of responsibility doesn’t appear normal.

      • I see. But you can help them make appointments and explain things to them. You can’t make their decisions for them, though. If they make wrong decisions, that’s not on you.

        • I don’t believe I said that I make their decisions for them…my point was that I felt guilty for not having advocated enough for them, since they are unable to adequately advocate for themselves.

          • No, but it sounded like you were blaming yourself for their decisions. Maybe I misunderstood. But I understand. Still, you probably DID advocate enough. This may be a situation where you just can’t live up to your own expectations. Does that make sense?

            • In trying to keep my mother’s situation private I left out a lot of details, so maybe that led to the misunderstanding. My parents do take very good care of themselves and do as much as they can on their own, but in this particular case my mom was stuck with a doctor whom she wasn’t happy with and she said it over and over again, and I dismissed her concerns asking her to just trust him. It was hard for her to even know where to begin switching doctors, etc. So she stayed with him for 3 years, and it turned out to be the wrong thing to do and his insufficient treatment nearly cost her her eye. Anyway, it’s things like that that have fed into my guilt…but generally speaking, yes, I do also place enormous expectations on myself…

            • Yes, we moved her here and that was her surgery yesterday (when I wrote this post) – she had a rock star surgeon who fixed it!

            • That’s great! I am looking forward (not!) to my husband’s surgery tomorrow. He fell down while doing something stupid and now is having a tendon reattached to his knee cap. Ouch!

            • It did, but he is laid up for at least the next two weeks. He had already been laid up but was becoming more mobile, and more helpful. But now we’re back to square one.

            • I remember that from when I broke my ankle…so frustrating for the person injured and a lot of work for the caretaker! I hope the recovery won’t take long!

  2. Welcome back! I know you’ve done so much for your mom, and it’s so good that you’ve given yourself a break to regroup and gather your forces (as my mom says). And what a great point, that we should try to treat ourselves as we would want to treat our own children. ❤

    • Thank you, Carolyn! I was surprised at how stark the difference was, between how I treat myself and how I treat my son. I imagine that many of us moms don’t take good enough care of ourselves…

  3. Excellent points, Cecelia! Caring for our parents is such an energy-drainer, especially when you still have your own immediate family (partner/spouse and child/children) to care for, too! I am thrilled to hear that you are taking care of yourself. That is what matters first and foremost. You cannot give much to others until you give to yourself. I love your imagined conversation with Fred! I’m certain I’m not alone in having missed you! Positive energy comin’ atcha! For now and forever!

    • You’re sweet, Lynn, so happy to hear from you! And thank you so much for relating and sympathizing. It is so hard being in the sandwich generation, but I know I am in large company. We just have to get through it and I really have learned that I need to take care of myself first, something I wasn’t so good at when my son was a baby. But I’m not that young anymore, so I really have to take time for myself. I appreciate your good wishes. I hope you’ve been well!

      • You have just reminded me of something for which I have never expressed gratefulness. Although I advocated for my mother’s health care and took care of her to the best of my ability the last 3-4 years of her life, I never once considered myself lucky in that I no longer had children at home to care for. I was extremely fortunate in having just one loving, supportive husband and a kitty in my life. Though I think in a way it might also be somewhat of a balance to have your child with you still, too. It’s just never easy.

        • Yes, I think that caring for an aging/ill parent is never easy – not when you’re ‘sandwiched,’ not when you’re alone, nor anything in between. Watching a once-all-competent parent become dependent and decline is emotionally painful in addition to physically draining. I was not prepared.

          I think you’re very fortunate indeed to have a loving and supportive husband! That makes a WORLD of difference. I am the rock for my parents but behind closed doors I crumble, and if it weren’t for my husband I wouldn’t be able to do this.

  4. It’s so nice to ‘see’ you here again, Cecilia! I was so happy to see your post come up on my screen. 🙂
    This is a lovely post, and something so many of us have to figure out how to cope with. There are so many reasons to feel guilt. But, it sounds like you’re taking good care of yourself!
    I love the imagined conversation – a good idea for me to keep in mind.
    And, good to hear the surgery went well!

    • Thanks, Naomi! Guilt is an awful emotion, isn’t it? And if it’s not over our parents it’s over our children, or work, or whatever. I think a healthy dose maintains our good conscience but it’s tricky keeping it under control (at least for me).

  5. Lovely to hear from you again Cecilia, and wonderful post. I’m in a strange place in life where my father started suffering recently from debilitating back pain, and I also recently became a mother. I understand the “obligation” that we as Asian children can feel for our immigrant parents, and it took me a really long time to understand that feeling guilt or responsibility for them wasn’t helping me or them…AND in fact, they don’t want us to feel that way at all…though I must admit, sometimes they can definitely make it seem that way lol. 🙂

    • Shelley, you said it perfectly!! Yes – they DON’T want us to feel obligated or guilty but at the same time I think they do transmit some sense of obligation to us 😉 It’s both a blessing and curse of our culture. Thanks so much for relating and understanding.

      I’m sorry to hear about your father’s condition! This life stage is so challenging, I am finding. I am so happy that you just became a mom – congratulations! I’ll have to catch up on your blog. I hope all is going well and that you’re managing, between caring for your baby and your dad.

      • Fortunately, he doesn’t live in the same country as me, so mostly my mom has to deal with it not me. Though he is visiting and staying with us for 5 weeks right now. It is NOT natural for grown children to live with their parents again…and in the case of Asian fathers, it’s like having 2 babies in the house now, instead of 1. Hahahaha. :p

        • Haha! I so hear you! My mom is with us right now, though my dad stayed back. I’ve said more than once that I can handle my mom (even that is not always easy) but if my dad comes they will need to get their own place 😉 5 weeks is a long time – hang in there!

  6. Oh, Cecilia. I am late to this conversation, but I loved reading your voice and epiphany. I understand your words and the responsibility of caring for aging parents. As you know, I became immensely involved in my father’s care when his illness took over – to be honest – I didn’t practice much self-care and probably neglected many facets of my life. There isn’t a guidebook to any of this, but it sounds like you are taking steps to be gentle with yourself. xo

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