On the evening of Monday, October 17, 2022, I took my beloved Emily to the hospital for what we thought was gallstones. By the early morning of Wednesday, October 19, she was gone. She passed suddenly, unexpectedly, and in a way that was anything but logical.
I left the hospital later that morning with many unanswered questions and even more concerns. All those unanswered questions have eaten away at me for the past six months as we anxiously awaited her autopsy results.
In other words, I’ve spent the past six months finding ways to blame myself.
The autopsy results finally arrived about a month ago. Several people said something along the lines of, “Now that you have answers, will you stop blaming yourself?” Each time, I laughed off their comments. Deep down inside, I knew that I would probably continue to blame myself. After all, my brain had already found plenty of reasons to pin my partner’s death on me.
“It Was My Job to Protect Her”
One of my best friends asked me if I’d stop blaming myself after I shared the autopsy results with her. I replied, “As my partner, I feel like it was my job to protect her.” My friend said she understood and would likely feel the same if something similar happened to her husband.
Once we commit our lives to the person we love, we pledge to be there for them always. For many of us, I think that vow includes the understanding that we will do everything possible to keep our spouses happy, healthy, and out of harm’s way. That’s what marriage is — a promise to have each other’s backs.
Even though it’s illogical, I feel like I should have somehow protected Emily from going into rejection. I should have protected her body by asking her to work less and let her rest more. Because I didn’t, I failed her.
“I Didn’t Do Enough”
When I talked to Emily’s parents about the autopsy results, they said I did everything possible. They reassured me that they would have done the same thing if they’d been in my shoes. Yet, no matter how many times or ways they say it, I still have this nagging feeling that I didn’t do enough for my partner.
I don’t know a single widow who wouldn’t have moved Heaven and Earth to save their spouse if they could have, myself included. And now that I know exactly what led to my partner’s death, I see so many places where I could have potentially done more to save her.
Maybe they would have noticed something if I’d taken her to the ER instead of telling her to schedule an appointment with her primary care physician when she complained of abdominal pain a couple of weeks before she died. I should have been more persistent that we get a second opinion when the doctor blamed the pain on stomach ulcers and wrote her a prescription that ultimately didn’t help. Perhaps I could have been more aggressive during those final 36 hours and insisted they run more tests, move quickly, and find answers instead of letting the doctors run the show.
Could I have done a better job determining what was wrong or intervening at the end when CPR and other measures were needed? Probably not. But will I continue to feel like I didn’t do enough for her to save her life? Absolutely.
“I Should Have Said More”
I’ve processed this loss with my therapist a lot. She has tried to help me reframe many of the self-blame fallacies my brain has created. However, one thing I have told her over and over again is this: “I should have said something more profound in those final moments.”
I feel that’s also a common sentiment shared with widows who lost their partners suddenly and unexpectedly, as I did with Emily. In cases like ours, we don’t usually know it’s the end until the end is there.
A few hours before Emily died, we were sitting in the hospital room. We planned out upcoming events. We also discussed what we’d do once they medically cleared her to go home after her procedure. She temporarily crashed mid-conversation. But within a few minutes, she was back to talking and telling the nurse who was drawing blood our entire proposal story. When she told me she felt unwell again an hour later, I told her I’d grab the doctor.
“It’s going to be okay… we will figure this out… you’re going to be okay.”
Why was that the last thing I said to her?
If I’d known that was the end, I would have clung to her and gushed about how much I love her. I would have expressed how much I was looking forward to all of the things we discussed doing in the next year, and I would have reminded her of our plans to grow old together, retire at the beach, and play music together every day. But how was I supposed to know?
According to my therapist, there’s a very specific reason why I keep trying to blame myself for my partner’s death. In fact, it all boils down to a single word: control.
Our brains are wired to look for places where we have control in painful situations because we can use this information to make different decisions in the future. In other words, if I find ways to blame myself for Emily’s death, I can learn from my mistakes and protect other loved ones, like my children, from death in the future.
In many ways, I find it easier to blame myself than accept the truth about my partner’s death. Unfortunately, that’s not really how life works, and blaming myself is causing more pain than it is solving any problems. Instead, I must find ways to counteract the self-blame I keep placing on myself.
Although there are many ways to do this, I have found these methods somewhat helpful:
- Reframing Thoughts — Instead of telling myself, “It’s my fault Emily died,” I must say, “Emily’s death is complicated,” or “Several unknown medical issues led to Emily’s death.”
- Checking The Facts — When I begin to question the part I played in her death, I must look at the facts of the situation. I took her to the hospital, I stayed by her side, I talked to the doctors to give them all the information I had.
- Radical Acceptance — Blaming myself won’t bring Emily back, and I cannot change the past. The more I remind myself of this and accept it, the easier it becomes.
I know I’m not the only person who has struggled with self-blame after a spouse’s death. I also know I won’t be the last to work through this issue. However, I do hope that I can continue to turn my mind toward acceptance. And hopefully, sharing my struggles will help other widows do the same and feel less alone.