Self Blame is Magical Thinking

I once knew a woman, I’ll call her Michelle, whose daughter died at the tender age of 25. That was 8 years ago, and Michelle still blames herself for the death.

“Ellie was an alcoholic,” Michelle says. “But she was so much more. She was kind and funny. She entertained kids at the local hospital with her impersonations of cartoon characters and her homemade puppets. She was a girl scout. She used to drive me nuts with the injured birds she brought home to nurse back to health. Everyone loved her.”

Magical Thinking 1

“How did she die?” I ask.

Michelle can barely speak. “I killed her.”

Here are the facts: Ellie started drinking at the age of 15. Michelle put her in treatment, in-patient and out-patient, many times, but Ellie would run away from home. She’d be found living on the street. She’d engage in wild behavior to get what she needed.

Magical Thinking 2

“Ellie died in a car crash,” I say gently. “How do you believe you killed her?”

“I made her move out. I couldn’t stand seeing what she was doing to herself. I was selfish, selfish, selfish.”

“You told me that Ellie did better after she moved out,” I remind her. “She was going to college. She had a job and an apartment.”

“I know,” Michelle says. “I thought she quit drinking. She looked healthy and beautiful.” Michelle takes out a worn photograph and shows me a girl with long blonde hair and blue eyes. “But she got drunk that night and got into her car at 3 in the morning.”

The story is even more bizarre. “You told me that another car, with a drunk driver, jumped the divider and hit Ellie head on,” I say. “It wasn’t Ellie’s fault at all. That driver is in prison for vehicular manslaughter.”

Magical Thinking 3

“I know, I know,” Michelle cries. “But maybe Ellie would have been safe at home with me. Maybe she wouldn’t have been on the road that night, drinking. I killed her because of my own selfishness. I’ll never believe differently.”

I had these same conversations with Michelle many times, over many years. On good days, we talked about how she could honor Ellie’s memory and recall the joy her daughter brought to the world in her short life.

There’s no such thing as closure. It’s an invented idea by people with magical thinking who wish it were so. And there is no such thing as getting over the loss of a child or a loved one. But there is hope. Life is precious, and although it’s forever changed by a tragic loss, people can find comfort in remembering their loved ones and honoring their memory by living a good life.

Magical Thinking 4

It’s magical thinking for Michelle to believe that she could have done something that would have saved Ellie. I know that’s not true. People make choices. Unpredictable things happen. We have control over a lot of things, but not everything.

The best we can do is to be open to learning new ways of living and thinking, and to act in a way that seems right at the time. We’ll make mistakes. We need to forgive ourselves and others.

I hope that someday Michelle can understand that, and forgive herself. The interesting thing is that she’s never blamed the woman who took Ellie’s life.

*Names and details have been changed and fictionalized to protect privacy.


8 thoughts on “Self Blame is Magical Thinking

  1. This is sacred ground you are working on, Candy. I used to think of becoming a doctor, so I can make people feel better. But people don’t always get better, and I never became a doctor.

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  2. So many interesting thoughts in this, a couple that make me stop and think. Especially the one about being open to new ways of living and thinking. And the idea about closure and not being able to get over loss. Gives me a new way of looking at it. Thanks!
    And the idea that we aren’t responsible for how other people behave and other people’s choices, that’s something I’ve been learning at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Perhaps she needs to understand the biological connection between family members who are very sensitive people, which might shift her emotions to a sense of oneness with her daughter rather than losing the mental connection by blaming herself. I have counseled hyper-sensitive young people, and we discuss this trait as a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that people born this way are among the most creative because they feel their feelings so strongly; the curse is that managing those feelings is far more challenging than for the average person, and sometimes results in self-medicating. The mother needs to focus on her own inherited sensitivities, similar to her daughter’s, that she’s translated into self-blame. (Would she have blamed her daughter for being so sensitive as to self-medicate, yet she’s can’t let go of the self-blame because she, like her daughter, is hyper-sensitive?).Then, she needs to question whether self-blame is her way of paying penance, a form of satisfaction similar to what people get when they cut themselves. Self-blame may be her way of keeping her daughter alive. Also, she should explore her own needs for control since emotional people tend to crave it more. And… people who crave more control (due to their own lack of it in childhood) often need to take a new look at how they’ve convinced themselves that parents can control everything simply because they WISH they could. It’s tricky dealing with clients who believe they will never feel differently, so the only avenue in these cases is to simply focus on the raw emotion, peeling away its layers, and uncovering its deeply embedded origins .

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  4. I hope Michelle finds peace one day. Although I don’t believe she is responsible for her daughter’s death, I can understand her thought process. I’m a guilt-magnet and often feel like I’m to blame for events I had no control over. For instance, my ex- once failed an important course. I was convinced he failed because I had turned down a social invitation from the instructor’s wife, so she was obviously mad at me. (I see now that this scenario makes no sense. My ex- failed because he’s a poor student who isn’t very bright, not because of anything I did.)


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