Drowning in Guilt


 “You know what happened is not actually your fault, right?” said Beth, my therapist, with eyebrows raised.

I couldn’t meet her eyes, instead I stared out of the window at spring’s new leaves dancing along their sturdy branches.


“Fine.  Have a nice life!” These were his last words before slamming the phone down.

My boyfriend’s angry red outburst was in stark contrast to the muted gray skies of late November.  It was Thanksgiving and gratitude was farthest from my mind.  I waited by the phone for him to call back.  I’m sure he was doing the same, but I was not going to give in.  I was stubborn like that.

The sun rose and set on three days of silence. It was the longest we’d ever gone without talking to each other in the 10 years I knew him.

Every Monday he’d drive to campus and meet me after my last class, often coordinated by pay phones and answering machines.  I was sure he’d turn up, cooled off and ready to spend time together.  He was never one to hold a grudge for very long.

pay-phone-just-walked-byOnce, I found him standing outside my Psych 101 class in a gorilla suit wearing a T-Shirt that said “I’m Sorry.  I’m a Schmuck” with an arrow pointing to his face.  God, I loved that goofy guy.

Even though I walked past the familiar bank of payphones at least 10 times going to and from classes, I wasn’t about to call him.  I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing that I wanted to be with him.  I was stubborn like that.

At the end of the day, I walked slowly to my car.  I looked longingly around every corner, holding tightly to the hope that he would pop out with a smile and a hug.

He never did.

That morning, he and his father went on their yearly boat trip to a woodsy area where mistletoe grew high in the treetops.  They’d blast the festive parasite from the canopy with a shotgun to sell for a little extra Christmas Cash.

He might have skipped the trip with his father if I would have made that call.  A tiny dime and a sliver of lost pride would have been a small price for me to pay to keep them from drowning in the icy waters.


“But, it is my fault.” I said out loud for the first time in twenty-five years.  “I feel so guilty for being stubborn like that.”

Without a word, Beth sat with me as I wept, staring out at the leaves now completely still.


39 thoughts on “Drowning in Guilt

  1. Oh, that’s not fair, that hand you were dealt. And I know there are days you won’t believe it, but that’s what it was. An unfair draw of cards. On those days, I’m there at the bottom beside you, every nerve exposed and irrational thought having its field day. Here’s to stronger days and faking it until you make it, because I have to believe you will. Hugs.


    1. Some days I see the idea that it was my fault as ridiculous and absurd. Other days, I realize I have to face any trace of guilt I have in order to let it go entirely. You are so kind. Thank you.


    1. I feel better now that I’ve written that. Each time I re-read it, I realize how incredibly out of my control all of it was. I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to begin working through it. Like I said, I’m stubborn like that.


  2. *sigh*

    i feel you hear. you write so eloquently the guilt. but i wish it weren’t so. i wish you didn’t have to feel that – instead, i wish you’d feel peace, feel freedom from that guilt. hope that it wouldn’t tie you down.

    thanks for sharing such honest, open posts.


  3. I felt so sad after reading this. One often thinks, had I done this I could have stopped the misfortune.


    1. Yes, I find myself living on hindsight and “what if’s.” My hope is that by confessing my inner workings to my therapist (and anyone reading this!) that it will pass. Fingers crossed.


  4. My heart ripped out of my chest for you. Don’t let that guilt consume you. The best thing you can do, for you and their memories, is to live life as fully as you possibly can. Live a life full of everything under the sun.


      1. I hope I didn’t come off as “advice in your face” in that. I can’t imagine what you’ve been through and continue to go through. I really meant it as an alternate method of thinking. I’m sorry.


      2. Good! Whew! I’m glad. And thank you! You are awesome and sugar-sweet from your head to your feet!


  5. So powerfully written. I love the image I left with of the boyfriend in the gorilla suit. I’m trying to hang on to that image, along with the startling sadness of the ending.


  6. “That morning, he and his father went on their yearly boat trip to a woodsy area where mistletoe grew high in the treetops. They’d blast the festive parasite from the canopy with a shotgun to sell for a little extra Christmas Cash.”

    My brain filmed this scene: the two men in the boat on the water, the camera panning up to the treetops and focussing on mistletoe leaves and then a bullet ripping through it. Powerful imagery! I’m very sorry this tragedy happened. I hope you find your way through it. ❤


    1. Yes, they did. And, yes it was terrible. And, I appreciate your confidence in me. Writing the post and talking to my therapist has really helped redirect my thinking around my assumed guilt. It happened when I was only 20 years old and I think feeling guilty was a coping mechanism. I know that sounds weird, but my traumatized 20 year old brain couldn’t make any sense of such a random “unheard of” thing happening. Somehow blaming myself brought more sense to it. Now, I can see the absurdity of it and that is a good thing.


  7. People who abuse and neglect children should feel guilty. Yet the fact they have the capacity for such behavior precludes it. People who victimize women because they can should feel guilty, but their mindset almost always ensures they can contort themselves around regret. I could list endless scenarios where pain is intentionally inflicted onto innocents, and the one common denominator is the perpetrators creating twisted justifications to rationalize their behaviors. You and I know this. And we both know this tragedy through which you have suffered is not your doing. It is one of life’s cruel losses which leaves loved ones bobbing in its wake, asking “What if..?”. You are such a sweet soul. You have to know there is nothing in this tragedy for you to own.


  8. I’m so glad I read this. I can relate. I lost the love of my life in April. We were together on and off for 8 years. He texted me the day before to tell me about a mural he was painting but I was too busy to answer. If I would’ve called him that night, maybe he wouldn’t have taken that pill. It still doesn’t feel real to me yet and I haven’t been able to actually write about it.


    1. Oh Erika. I’m so sorry to hear this. Just like in my case, it is not your fault. It isn’t. Don’t be like me and walk around for years and years blaming yourself. He wouldn’t want his death to make you suffer.


  9. A friend of mine broke up with this guy who was completely shattered. He went onto a retreat with his friends to get over her and he drowned in the sea. She has never got over this incident. She always blames herself, and all through your article I only imagined her.

    I’m sure I know what you must have been through. But death is destiny I suppose, you being or not being there wouldn’t have changed death.


    1. Most days I don’t think much about it since its been 25+ years, but I still have trouble when around water or when I dream someone has been hurt. (I dreamt it happened the night before but didn’t tell anyone.). In any case, thanks for reading!!


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