My father was dying and I wasn’t there – was there any way NOT to feel guilty?


It was 25 years ago. My father had been taken into hospital with a lung infection. He had a history of heart problems but this infection was nothing to do with his heart. He had been in hospital for 4 days and I was in close touch with my brother who lived nearby. I lived two and a half hours drive away. On the evening of the fourth day I asked my brother to ask the doctor if it was serious and if I should come. He phoned me back at 10pm when he got home (no mobile phones in those days). The doctor had said that everything was fine, there was no cause for alarm and no need for the family to come.

As I sat on the side of my bed at 11pm I thought about whether or not I should go. The doctor said not to and if I did go how long would I stay? Until he came out of hospital? after that even? It was impossible to tell how quickly he would get better and at this stage there seemed to be no doubt that he WOULD get better.

So here is the question I asked myself. “If you go to bed now and your dad dies tonight – will you be able to live with yourself?” I knew that if the answer was “No I wouldn’t, I would be guilty for ever” then I had no option but to get in the car and drive to him. But in the light of all the evidence and the medical advice I decided that in the event that my father DID die, that I COULD live with myself. That this was the best decision I could make – for tonight at least.

I got the phone call from my brother at about 2.45am saying I should come straight away. I dressed hurriedly and left leaving my husband behind with the children. Apparently my brother phoned again at 3.15am saying there was no point – I was too late. But of course there was no way to contact me so on I drove to the hospital getting there at about 5.30am. I knew as soon as I arrived at the hospital and they took me into a small room that I was too late. Everyone had already gone home with my mother. I am still so thankful that there were no mobile phones because if there had been I may well have driven straight to my mother’s. As it was, I had a precious hour alone with my father to say goodbye. His body was still warm and his spirit was still there. I could feel his presence in the room. He had waited for me.

And WAS I guilty? No I wasn’t. Why? Because I had made a conscious decision not to go knowing there was a slight chance that something could happen. (Where hospitals are concerned anything might happen). Part of decision making is living with the consequences. There is no greater responsibility than accepting the consequences of the decisions we make.

And I learnt something important about guilt. We cannot live in the world of ‘should’ and ‘ought’ and ‘supposed to’. Those words signify that we really don’t want to but if we don’t we’ll feel really guilty. So next time you feel a ‘should’ coming on ask yourself – what will be the consequence if I DON’T do this and can I live with that?  If you decide that you wouldn’t be able to live with the consequences then go ahead and do whatever it is – but now you are doing it from a place of WANT not OUGHT so you can do it with graciousness. And if you choose not to do it you are already prepared to face the consequences for you have chosen them. Now your courage will see you through.

Time to start developing courage and practising graciousness – and leave guilt outside the door where it belongs.