when my heart condemns me

Posted on September 4th, 2008 by Abby.
Categories: Meditations on Scripture, Our Journey, Our Journey (chronological).

Today would have been James’s swallow study at the hospital. I have the detailed instructions for it marked through on my calendar, leaving no space to write anything new on today’s date. (That’s a good metaphor for my time right now–recently very full, and presently very empty.) The swallow study was supposed to give us a better understanding of what was making James choke on certain foods and thin liquids. I regret not spending more time trying to feed him by mouth, but we were waiting for the results of the study. He did enjoy eating, though. I wish I had tried to fit in more spoon-feedings simply because he liked it, at least until the coughing or retching began.

I regret a lot of things, looking back, and although everyone tries to talk me out of it, I feel a pretty sizable sense of guilt about James’s death. He was my responsibility. I was on duty. What if it was not his neurological problems that killed him, but something I did wrong? Maybe I should not have let him sleep on his tummy after he came home from the hospital (and was off all the monitors). The cloth diaper he was lying on might have kept him from breathing (although he was able to turn his head). His sugars were good…I had been giving him free water at night, but water should not cause any problems…I go through the list over and over in my mind.

I have confessed these things to God and begged His and James’s forgiveness. So when the guilt-tape starts playing again, I go to 1 John 3:16-20.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

God knows that I really did try to lay my life down for James and love him with actions and in truth, although I was not perfect in faith, diligence, or courage. Christ enabled me to do what I did do, partly by setting me the example of love through His literal sacrifice. Hebrews 10:14-23 confirms that Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient to secure our complete forgiveness for sin, and not only that, but also to cleanse us from a guilty conscience. That is the source of the hope we profess. And that is what I tell my guilty heart, as many times as it needs to hear it. God forgives me through Jesus, and Jesus has also cleansed me from a guilty conscience. God does work creatively and redemptively, even through my mistakes and bad decisions. 

I like to think that James has forgiven me, too, if he needed to at all. I never knew him to hold a grudge when I had to hurt him in life, at least not for long. He seemed to understand that it was all meant for his good, and he would put it behind him pretty quickly (after an angry shout sometimes).

I will write soon about the divine comfort and joy God has given me since James died, but I wanted to share these thoughts first. I suspect that there’s a lot of guilt out there amongst parents, especially “special needs” parents (and medical professionals), who are responsible for life-and-death decisions and interventions day after day. I just wanted to share the verses that help me avoid the temptation to listen to my heart and despair.

15 Responses to “when my heart condemns me”

  1. patty on September 4, 2008 7:05 pm

    It seems very common for people to feel “guilt” when a close family member dies. It seems to be some of THE most loving and devoted relatives feel the guiltiest, for some reason. Maybe they are the sensitive types which made them devoted and kind in the first place. Then it hit ME when my Dad died.
    I felt so bad for the things I did not do or say our final day together, and for the insensitivity I felt I showed toward him in my well meaning but misguided ways and thoughts and actions that final day I spent with him the day before he died.
    I had no idea it was his last day on earth. Psalms 51 brought me relief, as I realized I had ultimately sinned against God not Dad. And how Dad was so happy in heaven and he wanted me to be happy to and feel forgiven. Finally I did become at peace with my otherwise horrifying feelings of regret and guilt.

  2. Stephanie on September 4, 2008 8:05 pm

    I think the guilt you feel is only natural, I would ask myself the same questions.

    As moms, I think we feel guilt everyday, there is always something we would do differently if we had the chance. I think guilt is as fundamental a part of motherhood as the unconditional love we have for our children.

    Just because James has gone to heaven, your job as his mother has not ended and neither has your guilt. I wonder if it your heart’s way of remembering him and keeping him close to you.

    It is inspiring to me to see you continue in your faith despite the loss you have suffered. It is a true example of faith sustaining those who need it. I believe that James is watching over you and returning to you the love and strength you gave to him.

    I pray that your love for God and James will continue to give you strength and hope.

  3. Kimberly on September 4, 2008 11:35 pm

    These past few post we can all see just how much your sweet heart is breaking. Abby, NO ONE is perfect, only Jesus. You are beating yourself up of each little thing and you were an amazing Mother. Please don’t feel as if you had anything to do with James death. I personally think God just wanted to take him home, God needed that beautiful little boy with him. James now has no pain, no problems. You loved that precious little boy with every ounce of you, you wanted only the best life for him. Please don’t think for a moment anything you did caused James to go to heaven. I can’t even imagine how you must feel, and I don’t pretend that I do, but I do know from reading about your life that you were SuperMom and that you would gladly switch places with you son and take all the pain yourself. Please Abby, don’t blame yourself, because of you and your loves for James you filled his time here with joy.

  4. Pam M. on September 5, 2008 10:30 am

    Oh, Abby, I understand on a just a small scale the guilt you feel. I experienced this, too, when my mom died. But after reading through your blog this past year and watching you at church, it’s evident how much James was loved by you, John and all your family. You were an incredible mom who loved James with all your heart. No one could have done more than you and John (and your parents) did. I stand amazed! Chuck and I will continue to pray for you all as you walk through this valley!

  5. Kim on September 5, 2008 10:40 am

    With your words…
    You remind me to draw close to God, whether during life’s most tragic events or it’s daily annoyances.
    You remind me to hug my son a little harder, a little longer, for no one knows when it will be the last time.
    You remind me that there is no limit to the impact you can have on others when you are a witness for Jesus’ love.

    God WILL wipe away the guilt.

    And remember, God will never allow anyone or anything to take away or diminish the love you and your beautiful son shared with one another. Unending love is one of His many gifts.

  6. Karen on September 5, 2008 11:57 pm

    Hi Abby,

    I found this blog through cakewrecks, and I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. The guilty feelings you are experiencing are a natural part of the grief cycle, but even reading through a few blog posts, your tremendous love and attentiveness to James is evident. He was a lucky, lucky child to be born to such terrific parents. I urge you to continue to write…I think you will find it cathartic, and you have really touched me, a stranger. You’ll be in my prayers.

  7. jen on September 6, 2008 4:47 am

    i have found, by way of your unconditional welcome mat left out for the world, that life is not a journey where we should live to be lucky, but rather to find and embrace our humanity. many people live an entire lifetime and aren’t able to impact as many people so profoundly as James. while that does little to fill the void in your hearts, my wish, my prayer, is that in some way it reminds you of how full your cup is and will remain.

  8. Jo on September 6, 2008 7:16 am

    I wish I could wrap my arms around you and have a good cry! Never have parents given more love, devotion and caring than you and John! Everything you did for James was selfless love and in love there can be no mistakes because God IS love. I guess we all feel guilt when we lose a loved one. I felt guilt 2 years ago when my Dad died in America and I was here in England and could not get back for his funeral! Never mind the what ifs though, sweet Abby for Sweet Baby James never knew anything but love surrounding him in this life which is what made his pain bearable. If he hadn’t had such remarkable parents he wouldn’t have stayed here as long as he did. The love you gave James made it possible for him to be here for almost 16 months and bless people all over the world, who will never forget him! His soul was perfect but his body was not, so his perfect little soul went back to the God of love where he will wait with Dora until you arrive. My arms stretch across the world to wrap round you and grieve for such a horrible loss. It is good for you to talk to us that grieve with you and we will try to give back some of the love that James taught us so much about…. Jo

  9. Jeff Stairs on September 6, 2008 10:39 am

    I’m with your other readers when I say that it’s laughable to think that James could have had a more attentive champion as a mom.

    Keep pouring out on this blog, sister. You and John are so precious to us.

  10. Stephanie on September 6, 2008 10:44 am

    Remember Abby, that God appoints the day and the hour that we shed these mortal bodies. Perhaps God in His mercy chose not to allow James to have to endure another test (the swallow study), and potentially another surgery.

    But this I know without a doubt. James is in heaven, and for him, the time until he grasps your hands again will be but the blink of an eye. I have to wonder if the first words Jesus had for His littlest missionary were, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

  11. Angee Hudson on September 7, 2008 11:51 am

    Oh Abby. I cannot imagine the pain you’re going through. Thank you, once again, for sharing this with us. I’m at work and should know better than to read your beautiful words here. I hope no one calls right now because I am sobbing and cannot stop.

    I know that you laid down your life for your son. He was such a lucky little boy and you were the perfect mother for him. I hope you can stop feeling guilty by the circumstances of his death. You did everything you could. He has absolutely no need to forgive you. I can see it in his sweet eyes on every picture. He was FULL of love. Nothing but love.

    Thanks Abby, for giving sweet baby James a wonderful, if painfully short, life.

    With Love,
    Angee Hudson
    Houston, Texas

  12. Mary on September 14, 2008 12:24 pm

    Abby, I mentioned in another post that I too had lost my daughter Sara. It has been two years and I still feel that guilt. As a mother it was my job to protect her and I could not even do that.

    But when I start to feel that I remind myself that it was also my job to love her, and I did more than anything, to take care of her, I did this too. God just had bigger plans for her than I knew about and he knew that my husband and I would lover her more than any other parents that would have her. That is why he gave her to us.

    So while we have our guilt we also did the best job as mothers.

  13. Sharon on September 29, 2008 5:28 pm

    Oh how my heart echoes with yours in your guilt! There is not a day that goes by when I don’t wonder if I’m in the right field. I love my job-but with it comes great responsibility. I am the eyes and ears of the doctors here. I am the caretaker of a precious life for twelve hours a day. It is my job to be sure they are well, fed, comfortable and not getting sick. I am supposed to be able to anticipate when things are going wrong and to know when to call the doctors and how to ask the right questions. What if I miss something? What if I don’t know the child well enough to know when she is getting sick? What if what I think is a normal for him is really not like him at all? It is a scary place to be, but I wouldn’t be any other place. As I’m sure you would agree-you wouldn’t have been anywhere else than where you were-by your son’s side day in and day out. Taking care of him as best you knew how and learning every day how to care for him better. If you weren’t scared during it, if you didn’t feel guilt now, I would question that. But the guilt shows how deeply you loved him and how very much you tried to always do what was best. Rest in that when the questions cloud your mind. You always tried to be the best mommy to James that you could be. In the end that is all he could possibly have asked for or ever wanted.

  14. Grandpa Bill & Nana on October 1, 2008 11:14 pm

    Abby, I know you did everything humanly possible for James and he survived as long as he did because of the excellent and comprehensive care you provided.

    I have to admit that I am so thankful God did not take James on one of my watches…he was merciful to me because I know I never would have been able to completely forgive myself for not being able to do something to have prevented losing James. I still miss him so much and will always remember his smile and how he came to know me and respond to me so wonderfully when I helped care for him.

    Thank you for entrusting your wonderful treasure to us and allowing us to enjoy caring for and loving James. He truly was a very special gift from God that we had for a brief season but the impact of his life was and continues to be far greater than any of us could have ever thought possible.

    Still loving and missing James!!


  15. Shantel on October 3, 2008 2:07 pm

    It is October 2008 and I just read your blog entries for the first time. Oh how my heart breaks for you but at the same time I find much joy in knowing 1) James is with Jesus and no longer suffering and 2) you (the parents) are able to rest in the comfort that only comes from the Lord since you are Believers.

    As the mother of 2 autistic sons, I too have struggled with guilt, wondering what I did wrong during my pregnancy or along the way in infancy to cause such a horrible condition. But I know this is just Satan’s way of distracting me from what is most important in my life.

    I am about to listen to the message you referenced in this blog entry, as I too have struggled with the questions about what happens to the soul of a special needs child/person when they die. My sons are not infants any longer, so I have had moments of worry about them and their ability (or lack thereof) to understand, comprehend and act on what the Lord did for us on the cross.

    Thank you for sharing your journey, and most of all, your faith.

    In His love,
    (mom of 2 autistic sons in South Carolina)

    By the way, I found your blog through Jen at CakeWrecks… I am a cake designer/decorator myself so I read her blog daily. Funny what little bits of life can lead you down a path to things bigger than you ever expected to find….

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