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Grief, guilt and a last letter


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My great aunt passed away last Monday at the age of 97, and I am having tremendous feelings of guilt coupled with an identity crisis.

She was such a wonderful woman, still completely with it mentally at that age.  When she first moved into the nursing home a couple of years ago, I told myself, let's not let her feel lonely in there.  She couldn't hear very well anymore so I would write her a letter every month or two, just to let her know what was going on in my life and letting her know we all were thinking about her.

The last time I wrote to her properly was in mid-January, to show her pictures of my wife and I's first house.  Then sent her a postcard in early February from San Francisco.

During this whole Coronavirus outbreak, I've called my parents every weekend.  I've been trying all sorts of new hobbies, baking, painting. Watching a bunch of trashy movies.  Wasting time. I've been asking the family how she was doing, but as I wasn't really doing much, didn't ever think to write and tell her how I was doing, or to ask if she was ok.

When my gran died 12 years ago, we were living in different countries.  She went into hospital about two weeks before she passed. I immediately wrote her a letter telling her what a great impact she'd had on my life, all the happy memories I had of her, and how whatever happened I would never forget her.  They read the letter at the funeral, and I felt no grief. I missed her, but I felt that I had said everything I wanted to say to her. The letter became a bit of a big deal in the family, and a real source of pride and achievement for me.

With my great aunt, she was a 97 year old woman, living in a nursing home, in the middle of a global quarantine and lockdown.  I didn't even consider that something could happen. If I'd thought about her for a minute in the last two and a half months, I could have spent 30 minutes writing to tell her the same.  Tell her how much it meant to my wife and I that she came to our wedding as a surprise three years ago. Tell her how loved she was by all of us, and how we'd never forget our dear Auntie with the Atlas.  Instead, I watched movies, goofed around on the internet, focused on work and other projects.

Now, all I can think about is the things I didn't say to her on the way out the door.  I'm questioning who I am as well. I thought I was someone who would ease the passing of all his loved ones, with these heartfelt letters and thoughts.  Now, I've lost my Auntie without writing to her, and I'm left wondering: was she hoping for a last letter from me? Was I the only one who didn't think to write to her?  Our did nobody write to her, and I would have been the only one? I had a four day weekend at Easter three weeks ago, a holiday to remember lost loved ones and celebrate rebirth, why did I not think to write to her?  I haven't felt this way since I was 12: I put something off and now completely, irrevocably messed things up.

My wife recommended writing her that final letter.  I did, and it really helped me over the past week. Now, those old thoughts are feeling back in.  Why didn't I write to her? I was telling myself how quickly it had happened, as she fell ill on the Sunday and passed on the Monday.  But then I'm like, why did I never think of her during all this quarantine? I could have wrote to her any time in the past two months with this same message, and it would have been great.  

She was such a lovely woman, and I know the last thing she would ever want is for me to be sad or to distress my wife who she loved like a daughter.  I'm trying really hard not to think of it, but every time I try and do something to take my mind off it all I can think is "whatever you do now, what you SHOULD be doing is writing to Auntie, but you can't now because she's gone and you missed your chance.". We've got some plans for this long weekend that I know will help take my mind off it, so I'm looking forward to that anyway.

I love you so much Auntie, and I'll see you on the other side.  Wherever you are, I hope you were reading my last letter to you over my shoulder.

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It's never too late to write her.  My husband passed unexpectedly nearly 15 years ago, I keep a file in my computer, "Letters to George."  I don't write much now but I did in the earlier days, but never a day goes by but what I think of him and he's on my mind.

I don't know your belief system but I believe in afterlife, they say energy doesn't die, just changes form.  I definitely believe their spirit still exists.  Write her a letter and read it aloud to her.  Who knows, maybe she can hear you!  There's so much we don't know but I truly believe they still ARE.  

And for what it's worth, I'm sure she knew how you felt about her.  We get so caught up in our lives...try not to be overly hard on yourself, just take what you've learned from this with you, that's all any of us can do.  Nothing is a waste if we learn from it.

I am very sorry for your loss, it sounds like she's a lovely person!

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Thank you kayc for your kind words.

It was her funeral today, which of course I couldn't go to due to the current lockdown situation.  I'd only ever been thinking about, people not being able to have vacations or weddings.  I never thought about how hard it is to not be able to have funerals.

I read her letter out loud as you suggested at the time of her funeral.  It felt really good to read out into the world.

Time is just so strange right now.  Like, I saw her in December, which is more recently than most of the family.  I wrote to her a couple times this year, and she knew how much I cared about her.  One thing I'm really glad I did, is drafted all the letters I sent to her on my laptop before handwriting them out.  This way I can go back and remember, it's not like I disappeared for years at a time, I was always keeping her up to date.

That said: I really wish I'd thought about her during all of this.  It's difficult when you're like, I'll never let this happen again, but in the back of my mind I'm like yeah, you can't, because this was a one-chance situation and you missed it, despite all the warning signs.  But it is what it is, and she knew how much we all loved her.

Thank you again, your comments have helped.

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In addition to what Kay has shared with you already, my friend, I hope you will take whatever lesson you've learned from this experience, live by it, and model it for others in your circle. The message seems to be, "if you have something to say to someone you love, do it now, as you may not get another chance." I agree with Kay that the one who needs to be forgiven here is you. Undoubtedly your dear great-aunt already knows how much you love her. Love like that never dies. It lives forever, just as long as you keep her memory alive in your heart.

It seems to me that part of your regret is that you couldn't share your letter with others, in the same way that you did with your grandmother. As a result, it was very private, and no one else got to hear what you've written and how much your great-aunt meant to you. That seems to be for you a lingering and an unmet need. In addition to the last letter you've written to your great-aunt, might you think of something meaningful you might do to honor her memory in a more public way?

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