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Coping When Your Spouse Dies

“I wish I had been a better wife/husband.” Going back over the marriage in your mind can cause you deep feelings of guilt, even in the best of marriages. The list of “SHOULD HAVES” can be lengthy. You may think I SHOULD HAVE:

…been more affectionate.

…kept my mouth shut more often.

…remembered anniversaries and special days with cards and flowers.

…not been so wrapped up in work or the kids.

…made a point of doing more together.

…traveled more.

…not teased or been so critical.

…been more patient and not so angry or hostile at times.

…been more loving and not so quiet or withdrawn.

The unfair part of being the survivor is you are the one left behind to handle all the affairs, deal with all the problems, and shoulder all the guilt. You carry the entire load of the rights and especially the wrongs. You both did things that were wrong in the marriage, but there is only you left to worry, fret, and feel guilt.


You are responsible for your words and deeds— abusiveness, drinking bouts, coldness, cheating, profanity, and so on. There are no excuses. There is no pretending otherwise. You feel guilty about what you did or said. Unless resolved or forgiven, this guilt can be present and gnaw away at you for years like a spiritual cancer. Admit to yourself that you are human and weak, that you make mistakes and that you, too, are a sinner. Through prayers and with tears, ask forgiveness of your departed spouse. The inner peace that you experience will be the sign of forgiveness. Ask forgiveness from your children and others. A tremendous inner healing will result. Finally, seek forgiveness from God. The Sacrament of Reconciliation also gives the assurance of God’s acceptance of you, your love, and your sincere sorrow. 


Remember that your late spouse was an adult. He or she also had to be responsible, and many events that happened were beyond the control of both of you. Most of us tend to be hard on ourselves, to heap blame and guilt on ourselves for everything that goes wrong in a given situation. Few of us recognize that if we fail to be all we can be at home, or we do not show or tell others that they are loved today we may not have the opportunity to do so tomorrow. And when one of those others is our departed spouse, we drown in a sea of guilt. 

Unrealistic guilt should be banished from your life. Yet you continue to blame yourself for past events—even though you were not responsible for them. “If only I had been there when my spouse died.” It is impossible to always be with someone. If you were not there for whatever reason, that is not a clear cause for guilt. That is why the guilt you are shouldering is unrealistic.

List all the “SHOULD HAVES” as you review your marriage. Label each as realistic or unrealistic guilt. What guilts are you particularly harboring? What do you find most difficult about forgiving yourself? How have you been hard on yourself throughout your grieving of your deceased spouse? Ρ

Excerpted from Coping When Your Spouse Dies, © 1998 Medard Laz (Liguori Publications 802263). To order, visit or call 800-325-9521.

Published inReflections