When I moved to Italy last fall, my friend Elka was starting her second year of cancer treatment. Although I had been emailing her and responding to posts on her CaringBridge site, I felt badly that because I was living in various cities distant from her, I couldn’t provide the kind of support other friends could, like helping with the day-to-day tasks of her life during treatment.
After I made the move, I felt even worse. Mind you, Elka herself was nothing but encouraging and supportive. She asked me to send her beautiful pictures because they made her happy and she never failed to express her appreciation of how the Algernon and Ilsa pictures we took with the Elka Strong bracelet made her laugh. I, however, often felt guilty—here I was enjoying an interesting adventure in beautiful surroundings, while she was literally fighting for her life.
At one point, I called the therapist who had helped me through the aftermath of my accident and talked to her about it. She listened and asked questions and finally said, ‘yes, of course, you would like things to be different, but is your guilt making her better?’ She suggested that I think about what guilt was doing for me, what purpose it was serving in my life.
Shortly after this conversation, Elka died and I realized that whatever purpose guilt was serving in my life, it sure as hell didn’t keep her alive. Along with grieving her loss in my life and the incalculable loss in the lives of her family and friends, I was, and am, angry. Most of my anger is about her untimely death, but some of the anger is about wasting all that mental and emotional energy over useless guilt.
That realization prompted me to start thinking about what purpose guilt was serving in my life and about why, for most of my adult life, I’ve had a sort of free-floating guilt. It isn’t guilt connected to someone I had injured or something I had done—that kind of guilt seems to me justified. No, this is guilt around concepts like ‘should’ and ‘why’ and ‘who am I to be / have [fill in the blank].’
While I don’t yet have much in the way of insight on this one, I’ve realized that it’s time to let the guilt go. Just as I’ve eliminated physical objects in my life that no longer bring me joy or fit the life I have now, maybe I should look at what’s in my mental and emotional closet and see what I can discard. As with the physical objects, I don’t pretend it’s an easy process. However, not only do I not have the time and energy to maintain these unproductive emotions, I figure if I’m having to let go of loved ones and expectations and a whole host of other things, then I can jolly well let go of some of the crap too.