Q. My daughter is suffering terribly from guilt. Part of it is my fault. I've assigned her the role of "the good one." She's the child I'm most proud of and it has boomeranged. She won't allow herself to make mistakes. I beg her to talk to me and she shuts me off. She's intensely private.
So, please write about guilt. She's 20 years old going on 40. Since my husband died six years ago she's been my main support. We live together when she's not at college.
My other two children don't seem to have any guilt. They're both selfish and live alone. My son visits once a year, and briefly. My other daughter and I are friends. We socialize. She calls me by my first name. I think she loves me and I know I love her very much, even though I spend most of the time worrying about her. She hasn't yet "found her way," and partying is not forever.
A. Over the years, guilt has gotten a bad name for itself, which can be a pity. A little guilt -- and shame -- helps the conscience develop and keeps us walking the fairly straight and narrow, even when we want to stray. But there's clearly such a thing as too much guilt, and that's when it's heavy or unconnected with reality.
That's the kind that's playing such a role in your younger daughter's life. Some of it may be brought on by your expectations, but most of it probably comes from other directions. A sense of abiding guilt would be a classic reaction to her father's death. That had to be terribly hard on each of your children, especially the youngest. Fourteen is a critical age to lose a father, no matter what kind of relationship they had. If they were close, the loss would seem limitless; if they were distant, she would grow up swamped by the "what-could-have-beens." In either case, the loss will to some degree color all her future relationships with men.
Time and again you'll see adults react to stress as if they were much younger, only to find that this was their age when some terrible trauma hit. This may be what you're seeing in all three of your children, but each is acting differently because each child is different and because the tragedy hit them at different times. Moreover, siblings don't have the same parents, because parents, like children, are also growing and changing.
However your children have expressed it, you can be sure that the loss of their father generated a great deal of anger. Studies show that with such a loss -- through divorce, abandonment or death -- anger is almost always directed to the parent who remains, as irrational as this is. This also may be making your youngest feel guilty. While her father may be idealized, you are resented because you didn't, somehow, prevent his death from happening: You didn't keep the family intact.
At 14, she would still have been egocentric enough to think she could have done something about it too -- still another cause for guilt. As Elyce Wakerman describes so well in her ground-breaking book, Father Loss (Doubleday, $15.95), this child tries hard to be good and helpful to make sure the other parent stays. She does her best to grow up and does it much too soon. This premature sense of responsibility is mighty welcome to the widowed parent, but it's a mistake to accept it. A child who loses her father is still a child. She only has enough strength to be her own main support. If she has to also be yours, she's going to resent it and then feel guilty about that, too.
Your older two children didn't let themselves be leaned upon, and wisely. They may seem selfish to you -- and possibly they are -- but this is how they tell you that they're in charge of their own lives. They don't, of course, have to stay in these roles, and they won't, if you get out of your own. For every small change you make, they will make changes, too.
Nature also requires its young to be independent, physically and emotionally.
To cut them loose, you have to create a full and separate life for yourself, and keep it going as long as you have your wits about you.
This won't be easy, but some sessions with a clinical social worker or a psychologist will teach you the techniques. You'll also want to talk about this with your children, for when they see you take the initiative, they may want to do the same.
Your younger child especially needs this counseling, so her father's death doesn't affect her choice of a husband, or whether she'll marry at all.
Only when adult children are treated as intellectual equals, accountable for their own accomplishments and failures and accepted as they are, do they dare to reach out to their parents.
Questions may be sent to Family Almanac, P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.