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Let Go of the Guilt October 6, 2009

Posted by johnbohlinger in Dealing with Grief after Losing your child., Guilt and Grief.
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August playing harmonica in boots and red vest, five years old.

August playing harmonica in boots, red vest and favorite cowboy shirt. Great fashion sense for a five year old.

I attended a dinner party last night with some of my favorite people.  A film producers, a publisher, the former head of a record label with whom I’ve done some television, a college professor, a PR person and me.  The host chose an eclectic crowd to make for a fun night of stimulating conversations.  Of course as the wine flowed the conversation sunk lower with every round until we bogged down to the topic  of celebrity’s train-wreck lives.  This conversation was dessert,  the intellectual equivalent of empty calories.  Topics like:  who’s gay, who’s in what weird cult, who’s had what sort of cosmetic surgery, all insipid yet fascinating subjects.

Eventually John Travolta’s sad story entered the fray.  Although I’ve been quietly following the Travolta family’s grief since the loss of their son, I remained mute on the topic for fear of my own sad story being revealed. One of my friends said, “It’s just  a Karmic payback for the transgressions of John Travolta’s past.”  I excused myself and hid in the  bathroom until the topic changed.

You can’t apologize for your friends, even the best and the brightest say the stupidest things.  If I were to guess, my friend’s ridiculous deduction made about the Travolta family’s tragic loss came out of a need people have for a clear cause and effect.  We all want to believe that if we do the right things, we can avoid tragedy.  This gives us the illusion of safety and control which helps some of us sleep at night.  No matter how intelligent a person is, it’s difficult to wrap our brains around the fact that terrible things happen to good people for no reason.  That’s hard to accept because if a nice family can lose their son through no fault of their own, than it can happen to you and me.   Given this “logic”,    if somebody’s child dies the parents are some how responsible.   Here’s a mis- conclusion that tortures most of us.

I keep beating myself up wondering what I did wrong to cause my son’s death.  I have a long, stupid list of possible answers.

August began changing from the A student who did everything right to a rebellious artist drawn toward everything dangerous during his eighth grade year.  By the time he was an 18 year old senior in high school, he had pretty much quit listening to me, though I could not stop talking, advising, questioning, warning, etc.  This made for incredible stress on a marriage that was already teetering precariously close to a sad demise.  Aug’s mom,  a wonderful loving mother, completely disagreed with me on how to handle Aug’s rebellion.  Our disagreements made for more tension in the house compounding problems on top of problems.  Aug’s mother and I divorced when August was 18, about a year before he died.

No point in pointing out that divorce is a terrible, painful ordeal;  even if  people are running for their lives, they rarely make this enormous decision free of reservations and inner conflicts.   Now,  with August gone,  I wonder if his mother and I stay married,  would have made any difference?  This is a hellish question that has no answer.  I bringing this up not in hopes of finding this nonexistent answer but to illustrate that we as humans need a concept of cause and effect:  somebody died because somebody did something wrong;  karma is a bitch.

The fact remains that August died because he did dangerous things.   Play with fire long enough and you will get burned.  Regardless of his own culpability, I know that many people who knew my son died have at times whispered “well,  they really had some problems at home” or “they probably had their own drug problems and set a bad example.  John’s a musician you know.  That’s what musicians do.”  or “the were overly protective, of course he had to rebel” or “God is punishing them for their sin in their life”  or “they put too much pressure on August” or  any other crazy explanation that these whispering finger pointers can invent.

When I’m thinking clearly,  I know that these whispered rumors I hear and imagine come from scared people needing to make sense of a tragedy that doesn’t make sense emotionally.  When I hear my own thoughts bludgeoning me with blame I try to let it go.    If you are attempting to rebuild your life after losing a child,  you have to let go of the guilt and instead focus on the good things you shared with your child.  You can’t move forward endlessly re-addressing guilt.  If you look back, find the positive.

Guilt has a purpose; it’s our inner voice, soul, that human part of us that knows right from wrong, telling us to change our behavior because our actions are destructive to ourselves or others. But this emotion of wrongdoing is often misdirected when a child dies.  More than likely,  your actions, thoughts, or lack of actions did not contribute to anybody’s death;  if they did,  it was a terrible accident.  Accidents, like death itself,  are part of life.  You can not change the past, but you can improve the future.  Put your energy into life.



1. me - October 8, 2009

Sure, John, as parents most of as carry some guilt that comes out every time that our children go through their own struggle with growing and become responsible adults. But there is only so much that we can do… My kids were so rebellious, at such an early age, that I lived with the fear that something tragic would happen to any of them. Even now that they are adults, the job of being a parent – just worry most of the time- never ends. I did what I could…not my best, but I don’t know what my best is in anything; who does?
It is OK. You are right, “Put your energy into life”, let the guilt go, and look at those that surround you and need you.

2. me - October 8, 2009

And yes, you mention an other interesting topic.
In my years of teaching high school, I sometimes left meetings where teachers were discussing those ‘troubled’ kids… The conversation, unavoidably, always centered on the parents; many times in a not very constructive and healthy way. I left those meetings no so politely, as you did: I slammed the door on them.
And they were good teachers… and supposedly good people!

johnbohlinger - October 10, 2009

I can imagine you storming out of a room. That makes me laugh. Thank you.

3. Roberts Mom Linda - October 10, 2009

What is normal

Normal is having tears waiting behind every smile when you realize someone important is missing from all the important events in your family’s life.

Normal is feeling like you know how to act and are more comfortable with a funeral than a wedding or birthday party…yet feeling a stab of pain in your heart when you smell the flowers and see the casket.

Normal is feeling like you can’t sit another minute without getting up and screaming, because you just don’t like to sit through anything.

Normal is not sleeping very well because a thousand what if’s & why didn’t I’s go through your head constantly.

Normal is reliving that day continuously through your eyes and mind, holding your head to make it go away.

Normal is having the TV on the minute I walk into the house to have noise, because the silence is deafening.

Normal is staring at every young man who looks like he is my son’s age. And then thinking of the age he would be now and not being able to imagine it. Then wondering why it is even important to imagine it, because it will never happen.

Normal is every happy event in my life always being backed up with sadness lurking close behind, because of the hole in my heart.

Normal is telling the story of your child’s death as if it were an everyday, commonplace activity, and then seeing the horror in someone’s eyes at how awful it sounds. And yet realizing it has become a part of my “normal”.

Normal is each year coming up with the difficult task of how to honor your child’s memory and his birthday and survive these days. And trying to find the balloon or flag that fit’s the occasion. Happy Birthday? Not really.

Normal is my heart warming and yet sinking at the sight of something special my son loved. Thinking how he would love it, but how he is not here to enjoy it.

Normal is having some people afraid to mention my son.

Normal is making sure that others remember him.

Normal is after the funeral is over everyone else goes on with their lives, but I continue to grieve my loss forever.

Normal is weeks, months, and years after the initial shock, the grieving gets worse sometimes, not better.

Normal is not listening to people compare anything in their life to this loss, unless they too have lost a child. NOTHING. Even if your child is in the remotest part of the earth away from you – it doesn’t compare. Losing a parent is horrible, but having to bury your own child is unnatural.

Normal is taking pills, and trying not to cry all day, because I know my mental health depends on it.

Normal is realizing I do cry everyday.

Normal is disliking jokes about death or funerals, bodies being referred to as cadavers, when you know they were once someone’s loved one.

Normal is being impatient with everything and everyone, but someone stricken with grief over the loss of your child.

Normal is sitting at the computer crying, sharing how you feel with chat buddies who have also lost a child.

Normal is feeling a common bond with friends on the computer in England, Australia, Canada, and all over the USA, but yet never having met any of them face to face.

Normal is a new friendship with another grieving mother, talking and crying together over our children and our new lives.

Normal is not listening to people make excuses for God. “God may have done this because…” I love God, I know that my son is in heaven, but hearing people trying to think up excuses as to why healthy children were taken from this earth is not appreciated and makes absolutely no sense to this grieving mother.

Normal is being too tired to care if you paid the bills, cleaned the house, did laundry or if there is any food.

Normal is wondering this time whether you are going to say you have two children or one, because you will never see this person again and it is not worth explaining that my son is in Heaven. And yet when you say you have one child to avoid that problem, you feel horrible as if you have betrayed your child.

Normal is asking God why he took your child’s life instead of yours and asking if there even is a God.

Normal is knowing I will never get over this loss, in a day or a million years.

And last of all, Normal is hiding all the things that have become “normal” for you to feel, so that everyone around you will think that you are “normal”.

author unknown

4. johnbohlinger - October 10, 2009

Thanks Linda, That was a tough one to read, it hit so many parts of our lives.

5. Roberts Mom Linda - October 12, 2009

Okay I love what you said BUT….this is so much easier said than done. Which I know you understand. I try I have tried so hard but I know in my heart of hearts if I had not gone to that meeting if I had not cleaned out that closet my son would be alive and Austin would still have his brother instead of this nightmare. I tell people including my therapist I don’t blame myself because that is what they want to hear but the truth is I do and I don’t know if I will ever be able to let it go

6. johnbohlinger - October 12, 2009

I have discovered at least a dozen of my mistakes as a person and a parent that lead directly to my son’s fatal overdoes. I deconstruct everything my son ever saw me say or do, looking desperately for reasons to blame myself because I want to pay for this horrible loss. Our prime directive as parents is to protect our children. That’s nature, that’s life. That’s why mamma bears will attack a dozen wolves; its a suicide mission but they do it in hopes of saving their babies. You, Robbie, Austin, God, me, everybody who knows you knows that you would gladly have given your life to save Robbie but you can’t and the pain is overwhelming, so you try to pay retroactively by torturing yourself with this guilt.
This search for blame is a destructive exercise in self torture. (And highly inaccurate; we are very good at finding explanations and patterns that do not exist. ) I understand why you look for reasons to blame yourself; It feels right to feel terrible and guilty. But Linda, you don’t have the luxury of self destruction. Austin is going to recover with your help. This is when you get to be the mamma bear and protect him from that horrible guilt. I’m sure you are putting on the facade of strength for him and your family, but you need to start believing it. Yes, I am a complete hypocrite who’s telling you to do what I have been unable to do myself, but maybe we can make a pact to stop blaming ourselves and try to rebuild a beautiful life.

7. Roberts Mom Linda - October 13, 2009

Thank you John. I will try if you will.

8. Lena - January 27, 2010

It is almost a year and a half ago when my beautiful, gifted, intelligent, funny, wonderful 19 year old daughter Maija-Liisa sat eating sushi in a restaurant with a good friend. A truck drove through striking her and she lay in the restaurant without help for over five hours while chaos ensued around her. They said she was not “viable” and did not take her to the nearest hospital five minutes away. You can see how it is easy to find both the driver and the people in charge guilty of such a horrific act. And yet somehow I still managed to wake up this morning and realize that with every minute detail that I had gone over prior to this event, I had not focused nearly enough on one of our final phone calls to each other. The one where I stood with cell phone in hand wondering why she sounded almost “sad and reluctant” when she told me that she was going for sushi with her friend. I stood with the phone held a foot from my head thinking, should I call her back and say don’t go if you don’t want to. But of course I dismissed such a silly notion. A notion and a feeling I had never had before. Why did I not call her back and scream “For God’s sake don’t go if you feel uneasy about it!” or better still…. “Get as far away from that restaurant as possible!” Because I also immediately thought she would laugh and say “it’s fine Mum” “We’re going”. But I had never heard that tone in her voice before because she always sounded happy about upcoming events with friends. And then there was the night before. The night we were driving home from the Oregon Coast. I had an even stronger intuition not to return home but I relinquished the driving to someone else and chose to let the instinct go. It was actually more than an instinct, I would call it a vision. I missed my turnoff and ended up on a country road where I pointed back to the city lights and said in the weirdest way “I want to go there”. Why didn’t I insist on it? I have completely convinced myself that if I had listened to these gut instincts my daughter would still be alive. Even my grief counsellor says that they were just everyday decisions. But I will never agree about that. I feel that I ignored my own intuitive powers. And yet someone reading this might think I am crazy when clearly a truck drove through the restaurant.
And if that isn’t enough then there is the part where she never even wanted to go on the trip with her parents. She would have preferred to stay home and get ready for school but I pretty much dragged her on it. Naturally I feel that had we not gone, it would have changed the timing. The timing that was everything in this case. That horrific moment that she sat in that restaurant. And then the day before when we were still on the Coast. I sent her off for Chai tea on her own because supposedly I was too busy packing! God had I known this was my last day with my beautiful gifted daughter I would have kissed her feet and hugged her until eternity froze over. I want to scream! (and I do in my car) She whom I loved more than life itself has been taken from me. Where is the justice and fairness in life! There is none.
Your son August’s photos remind me of Maija-Liisa. Happy, joyful, creative, loving life in all it’s beauty. I love your sincerity about your feelings. Honesty and sincerity are rare these days. When I came across your writing I said wow, there is a person who is sincere. I wish I could reach up and grab your August from the (sky?) where he sits atop a cloud playing one of his favourite instruments perhaps, and put him on the couch in your living room with you, where he belongs. You were clearly an amazing Dad and he did what so many kids do when they are young. Experiment with life. We take our chances when we send our kids out into the world to live. I keep telling myself this. I never tried to control my daughter’s life. I trusted her judgement and yet I let her drive with a brand new license to a music festival in Wenatchee not knowing that she would be driving treacherous icy roads. Jeez! What the h! And she sits in a restaurant eating and gets killed!
Don’t you think that going over and over these events is part of the process of somehow absorbing this new reality? This so-called “new normal” that we have been thrust into? How else can we ever adjust to it if we don’t go over the events that led up to it? In order to let go of the guilt I believe we have to face it. You know how before life seemed so simple, as we now reflect back? Of course there were challenges…lots of them for me. Ones that I thought were incredibly difficult. Ha! Sure… But I do believe that we cannot fight off those demons unless we face them head on and hopefully overcome them.
I have learned that life is so incredibly fragile. We just pretend it isn’t. But it is. And everybody has to face loss. For some of us it is just so damn untimely. Ok breathe and have another coffee and take the dog out for a walk.

9. johnbohlinger - January 28, 2010

It’s the arbitrariness of death that’s so maddening. Randomly, every single minute of the day and night, young, healthy good people that the world needs will die while terrible people who consistently do everything wrong leaving destruction in their selfish paths live to an old age. It’s a stupid thought that makes me so angry at times but I feel a bit of a relief acknowledging that the system has no system.

I don’t know how we heal. Sometimes I face the pain head on and others I deny its’ existence. I do know that if we work on it, and look for the good, life does get better.

God bless you.


10. Lena - February 4, 2010

I believe that after a time the subconscious mind starts to weave this devastating reality into our dreams. No matter how beautiful or how terrible are these dreams, they are an attempt for our minds to fully grasp what has happened. For some it could be years before this occurs and for others maybe never. I know that I have finally after a year and a half started lucid dreaming. These dreams are not good ones as they are turbulent and confusing but maybe it is a way of trying to make sense of the senseless. I believe that the connection with our child is so deeply engrained in our genetic code or our dna or whatever, even if that child is adopted, doesn’t matter, the connection has now been broken and we frantically search for that child. No one refers to this search in the grief literature but I believe it is the reason we feel so awful. We are disconnected and we have to now create a kind of new life. And yes some days we act strong and face the pain and others we cannot. There are so many days when I have to just “pretend” that Maija-Liisa is away and will soon return, or I could not bear it.
We have to return to the beauty in life at some point. The beauty that seems surreal and other worldly at times, without our child. I wonder if the search ever will end though or will we always feel this empty lost feeling.
It seems only natural to be angry when awful people can live out their lives and beautiful giving children cannot. Anger that may eventually subside, maybe not.
May God bless you too jb.

11. Kristin Carson - March 31, 2010

Life can sometimes be a weirdly wandering journey. I’ve gone from idly watching American Idol tonight, to surfing the internet to find a song that was performed, to somehow landing on a link to Nashville Star, and then to John’s posting about losing a child – and now I’m just sitting here remembering my daughter’s friend, and John’s son, August. August was such a truly kind individual. When my daughter – a newcomer to her social group when we moved to Nashville from California during her freshmen year in high school – got sideways with her boyfriend and found herself with no loyal friends as the teenage mob took sides – one curly haired guy stood out as someone who refused to join the mob. August was a faithful friend to Kate, even though this ex-boyfriend was August’s best friend. Kate has always, always appreciated his kindness and love and I think to this day carries the program from his memorial with her in her gigantic purse. Whenever I think of August, I think of that kind, sweet boy. And then I remember the funny things … like the cold winter night when all the high school girls were inside being giddy high school girls and August was outside with my husband riding the rusty old, left-over-from-childhood Razor Scooters down the driveway as fast as they could go. John – I will never forget your son and I have only wonderful memories in my bank. May blessings and good things fall into your life.

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