We probably know, or have heard of, spouses who die within a year of one another. We sometimes say, “He died of a broken heart.” What we mean is, people love one another so much that they literally die without each other. Or perhaps we mean that the weight of grief is too much for the surviving spouse to bear. Possibly, the work of grief is just too hard, and death is the way out. I do believe that people can die of a broken heart.
This begs the question, “Can someone die because of the hurt I have caused them?” When we have been the ones to inflict hurt on the dying person, we may find ourselves struggling with very difficult and conflicting feelings. I have known ex-spouses who endure overwhelming feelings of guilt if they were the ones who left the relationship. This is exacerbated when they left to follow an affair that began while they were still in relationship with the dying one.
Sometimes, when we are in this situation, we don’t have access to the person who is dying. There is no chance to say goodbye, let alone to try to ask forgiveness for our behaviour in the past. Even when we do have access, when someone is dying is hardly the right time to say we are sorry. The one who is dying does not likely have the energy to make us feel better. Nor should this time in his or her life, be about us. The time for confessions, amends, and forgiveness is past. If we didn’t take it when our ex-partners were living, we cannot justify taking it now.
The guilt that haunts us in these circumstances is ours, alone. It will complicate our grief work, and may linger much longer than the emotional pain of knowing that our former love has died. If we allow our pain to direct us to deepen our self-examination, and use the new insights we gain to avoid repeating painful patterns with others, this aspect of grief can be a gift. Again, this may be a situation in which therapy is called for.