Dear Family Advisor

How do I stop feeling guilty that I killed my sister through neglect?

Last updated: Feb 09, 2011

My mom died a year ago, and I became the legal guardian of my mentally and physically challenged sister. My mom was her lifeline, and they were inseparable, but I had to place my sister in adult daycare because I'm single and have to work. She died six months after my mom. I feel like I let everybody down.

I have all these thoughts that haunt me: I should have quit my job. I should have noticed certain signs and symptoms. I should have done more -- but now it's too late. I've talked to my pastor, and he says all the right things, but I just can't get past this crushing guilt and regret.

You didn't kill your sister. I can say that a million times, but I'm not the one who needs convincing -- you are. If you haven't joined a bereavement group, please do. You need to know you're not alone in how you feel. You need a safe place to share, to cry, and to work on these feelings. They won't be reasoned away. You have to give them voice -- and then, in time, you can let them go.

I know many people who have experienced a "double death," two deaths close together or connected in some way. Sometimes this just happens -- two people seem unable to live without each other. In some ways, your sister's grief was so powerful it took her. Don't let your grief take you. The best way to honor your sister and your mother is to live a full and meaningful life.

You're reeling because you've lost two very close family members within a short amount of time. You need to grieve, and grieve hard. It's natural, and you're going to have to get it out. I'm glad you've already talked to your pastor, but I hope you'll also consider talking to a therapist. (And if your therapist recommends antidepressants, then consider them. You need all the help you can get right now.) Family issues are complicated, and this has to have kicked up a lot of hurts, regrets, and unfinished business.

At the same time, surround yourself with healthy people who really care about you. Gather your friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers and ask for their help, their humor, and their strength during this time. Let go of any toxic relationships, but hold onto the good ones. Make sure that not a week goes by that you don't reach out a few times with a phone call, a walk in the park, or a movie night with a gal-pal. Connections heal and ground us.

Next, start something new -- maybe not today, but soon. Sign up for a class or a club. Ask a friend to volunteer with you at a nature group. Steer away from heavy issues for the time being and encircle yourself with beauty, hope, and joy.

Give yourself a timeline -- say, six months or a year -- and then assess where you are and how you feel. Ask people such as a doctor, your therapist, and a good friend to help monitor your status. You might not be able to know if you're better or worse. Denial, depression, shame, and blame can really do a number on us. This isn't going to be easy and it's not about fighting hard (sometimes it's about giving in), but you're going to have to let other people help you.

One day you'll look back and be able to offer yourself mercy, compassion, and trust. You'll see that you did the best you could. You'll see that this was beyond your control. You'll be able to hold your mother and your sister in a place of love and peace. Hold onto that hope, and that day will come. For now, do all you can to surround yourself with love and goodness, and honor your family by living a healthy and happy life.