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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
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.