Sara Engram is on a maternity leave. The following column is excerpted from her book "Mortal Matters: When a Loved One Dies."
Guilt. It's a simple word, but it complicates our lives -- and our deaths as well.
A woman in California has some wise observations on the subject:
"I've noticed that the more guilt I have about a person, the more difficult the grieving is after the person's death.
"It only took me two weeks to get over feeling heavy and sad after my grandmother died. I think that was because she spent a month dying in the hospital, and I went as often as I was allowed, even after she stopped knowing me. I showed her before she died how I felt.
"On the other hand, I felt weighed down by the death of a supervisor at my husband's work. I think it was because I'd known about his cancer and had wanted to thank him for some kindnesses but never did. So when I heard about his death, it was a shock. It stayed with me for about a month."
We humans are social animals. The death of one person inevitably affects the lives of many other people.
Death stops the daily give-and-take that characterizes any human relationship. It rudely reminds us that intentions are meaningless if we never follow through. And who can say he always followed through on every good intention?
The death of someone we know or love inevitably raises questions about our own behavior, even our secret attitudes.
Did we uphold our responsibilities as a relative or friend?
Did we care enough?
Did we say what needed to be said?
Did we help ease a person's last days on Earth?
Sometimes we overdose on guilt, punishing ourselves far beyond the seriousness of the actions or oversights or emotions we regret. Sometimes, however, the guilt is there for a reason.
There are times when guilt seems to paralyze us for reasons we don't understand plenty of psychologists and psychiatrists have gotten rich on other people's guilt. But guilt is not all bad. Like physical pain, it can serve to remind us that something is amiss, that we're not living up to the standards we've set for ourselves.
That's what I find so refreshing about this woman's remarks. She recognized guilt for what it was -- a reminder that she failed to follow through on her good intentions. She knew this man was dying, but she waited too long to say thank you.
Of course, she feels badly about that. She also knows she's not the prisoner of that one failure; her experience with her grandmother proves that. And she's clearheaded enough to recognize that nothing dooms her to repeat the failure.
One reason we dread the thought of death is because it so often brings with it reasons for guilt. But that's also a reason for facing up to the fact that we should live our lives and conduct our relationships so that when death does interrupt -- as it surely will -- we'll have fewer regrets, and a lighter burden of guilt.
Do you have a question about mortality for Sara Engram? You can write to her in care of Universal Press Syndicate, 4900 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64112. Questions of general interest will be addressed in future columns.