Guilt

Chaplain Intern Rick Durance

I regularly find myself driving home from my shift at the hospital wondering, “Did I do enough?” I think about how many patients I saw, how long I stayed with them, and even how much comfort I might have been. At the end of the night, I judge my shift and myself by counting, measuring, and timing my experiences. Everything becomes about numbers and effectiveness. Did I do enough in the hours I was given to help our patients?  

And honestly, on those drives, I find myself feeling deeply guilty. I think of what I could have done better. I am often hard on myself. I think how I could have just walked a little faster, taken a few more moments to ask another question, or even spent fewer minutes drinking a cup of tea on my break. I almost always leave feeling as if I could have helped more patients. I am still heartbroken for our patients after I leave the room. I still worry about the families left to grieve over loved ones. I still feel the weight of the prayers and hopes that I voiced. I know I make an impact. I know I help as a chaplain during a global pandemic. Yet guilt continues. 

That guilt is not unique. When caring for other or when exposed to trauma, guilt is common. Guilt is one of the strongest emotions people feel when faced with suffering. Guilt is a primal, instinctual, human response to heartbreaking situations. It is a profoundly natural, especially in ministry settings,

It is not only us as spiritual care or medical staff that experience it; our patients and families feel it too. I have heard patients describe how they wish they could have been better parents (no matter how compassionate and loving they were). Families, especially spouses, describe regret, as if they should have seen illnesses coming sooner. Since this pandemic arrived last year, we have learned how much of our lives are out of our control. Yet, we want to control our lives, even if it means blaming ourselves and taking on this guilt. We do so, even if we know we did our best. I know I still feel guilty, even though I know I did what I could for my patients.  

We must engage with these ideas of guilt. Guilt can easily cause burnout. It can regularly affect our decision-making and judgments. It can sow doubt in ourselves and in our actions. It can cause us to neglect relationships and retreat inside ourselves. I know for me it is achingly painful. I regularly find myself sad or tired after shifts, even if I comforted my patients and myself in those moments. And guilt can feel almost inescapable. It feels especially heavy in those quiet moments of reflecting, like on my commute home. It can dull other feelings of joy, and I know it can follow me home. I suspect our patients and their families can sometimes feel the same way as they leave the hospital too. 

Yet, I think there is hope. From my tradition as a Christian, especially as a Lutheran, I know that guilt is not the end. I see in the hospital every day. I see it in the everyday moments of conscience, forgiveness, and compassion. As I often see guilt (in myself and in others), I also see the genuine desire for love and deep understanding. Parents want what is best for their children and ultimately to reunite with them (especially after the isolation of this pandemic), even as they acknowledge they could do more. Family members want to honor those who are dying in the humor, stories, and joys they might never have done in other parts of life. Spouses just want their loved ones to be well, no matter what happened before they entered the hospital. People want to help and make amends, even if they have done nothing wrong. 

In my tradition of Lutheranism, there is always hope for life beyond guilt and despair. We need not torture ourselves indefinitely with our concerns over guilt. It is a great joy of my job that I get to remind people of that fact and remind them of their own profoundly loving nature that I hear in their stories. I take pride in hearing beyond the guilt and to the love at my patients’ cores. And I appreciate being able to tell them honestly that they do not need to feel this guilt. I see the possibilities in people themselves and in us as ministers to give people this hope, this knowledge that they can overcome their own guilt.  I see how our rituals, prayers, and even compassionate listening to patients can help them process and move past this guilt.

While I still feel guilt, I also know that it does not have the final say. As I drive home, I now try to console myself a little (as I consoled others on my shift). We as loving people often do the best we can. We know we are not perfect, but part of the struggle is just to recognize that feeling of guilt and reasonably understand where we messed up.

And in the end, we can try to do better. For me, it is thinking about the better questions to ask of patients. It is considering what I might pray for with our people that might touch their hearts. It is in searching for ways to find a little sense of peace, and how to share that sense. Part of life is just reminding ourselves of the better angels of our natures, even if we mess up. I hope as we all leave the hospital that we can find ways to let go of this guilt. Instead of driving home and dwelling perpetually on what might have gone better, let us find ways to forgive ourselves. I pray that we all may find absolution for our guilts and grace on our journeys forward.

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