mother's day reflections

Paul Prather: Let guilt improve you, not define you

Contributing ColumnistMay 10, 2014 

May conjures up painful emotions for me.

My favorite grandfather died in May. It was the first time I lost someone I loved, and 46 years later it still hurts.

Some years afterward, my grandmother died in May.

In May 2000, my first wife was diagnosed with cancer. Midway through her ensuing struggle, my mom got cancer and died, in May 2003. Ultimately, my wife passed away five years almost to the day after falling ill—in May.

When this month rolls around, I find myself feeling lower than a snake's belly in a wagon rut, as the old preacher put it.

Along with grief, which you might expect, I also experience guilt.

Normally, I'm not a self-flagellator.

All those May deaths, however, work together to remind me of my shortcomings, of words I wish I had or hadn't said, of things I wish I had or hadn't done.

For instance, my mom was one of the dearest people I've ever known. Others may have had mothers as good as mine, but nobody ever had a better one. She was kind to the core, and given that I was her only son, she treated me with even more affection and patience than she showed the world at large, which was considerable.

That goodness, paradoxically enough, stokes my guilt.

I often took her mercy and gentleness for granted. I suppose I assumed, wrongly, that all moms were like her.

And when she was dying, I was too emotionally spent and too busy—legitimately, critically busy—to spend the time with her I wanted or say all the loving things I needed to tell her.

Fortunately, my sister and brother-in-law were able to place their own lives on hold to look after her. But I only sat up with Mom through one agonizing night, although I did visit the hospital every day.

Anyway, my whys and wherefores and schedules aren't the real point.

The point is, looking back I see the opportunities I missed over 47 years to show my mother how grateful I was for her. Then, even as she was dying, I couldn't give her the due she deserved.

So I wrestle with guilt.

I regularly encounter others who also battle that wrenching pain an acquaintance called the "woulda, coulda, shouldas."

It's not always guilt about a loved one who's died.

Sometimes it's over a divorce or an affair. Sometimes it's over a business failure. Sometimes it's over a hurtful lie told. Sometimes it's over a child not raised right.

There are about a million things in this world to regret, give or take.

I think people make two errors in dealing with their guilt.

First, some don't take their failings seriously enough. I'm suspicious of blithe folks who skate through life without regretting anything. They're probably immature—or sociopathic. Part of becoming an adult is owning up to our failures.

In fact, guilt can be a backhanded gift. A nagging conscience prompts us to change our minds for the better and improve our ways.

But there's another kind of person who makes too much of his guilt. Guilt becomes the proverbial millstone around his neck, warping his back, crippling him.

That helps no one.

The answer, I think, is to purse a middle path—to take our sins to heart, but without letting those failings permanently define who we are.

Healing from guilt can begin only when we truthfully assess our actions.

I feel terrible I didn't spend more time with my mother as she was dying.

But when I look back honestly, I remember how shredded I was from three solid years of taking care of my wife, which I was still doing and would for a couple of years more. I couldn't figure out a way to sit by two deathbeds simultaneously.

I realize I did about the best I knew, at the time, under gosh-awful circumstances. My performance wasn't splendid, but it wasn't despicable. It was somewhere in between.

To an extent, then, I ought to cut myself some slack.

Of course, sometimes we look at what's haunting us and realize with a pang that we indeed royally, inexcusably screwed up. We feel guilty because we are guilty.

There's also freedom in facing that.

That's when we say to God, ourselves and most vitally to the people we wronged, "I failed. I know it. I'm truly sorry."

We make restitution, if possible. If there's any chance we can undo the damage we caused, we're obliged to try.

If we can't undo it, we accept the loss for what it is.

Having done all we can to make it right, we trust in God's forgiveness.

And we forgive ourselves.

We let our sin return to the past, where it belongs. We vow to prove our repentance by acting better in the future than we did in the past.

We keep traveling forward.

Paul Prather is the pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at

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