Simulated Death As Guilt Relief



A few weeks ago I posted the details about a vivid dream I had of dying in my sleep. In the dream my biggest regret by far was the time spent with loved ones that I was about to lose, and the time I’d already missed spending with them. I had one lone other regret, about not publishing a particular novel that’s always been near and dear to my heart. But otherwise, it was the lost time I was most unhappy about.

I also mentioned having a dream earlier than that where I found out I had a terminal illness and only a few months left to live. My only reaction there was feeling cheated over that lost time. Not even the book regret found its way into that one.

So as I ruminated at the time, a whole bunch of other stuff didn’t find its way into my mind during those dreams. Not the other unpublished books, or novels I hadn’t written yet. Not wondering what would happen to all the books I own, or the family heirlooms, or any other possessions. This was a surprise to me upon waking. In a way it still is.

But you know what? It’s also wiped a lot of guilt off my slate.

Not all, but enough so that I can feel the difference in weight as surely as if a barbell had been taken off each shoulder. For instance, if I finish out this year without starting a new book, it will be the first time since 2001 that I’ve gone a whole year without either starting work on a new novel, or what became a new novel after chopping up an older big one. This had been bugging me for months – that I didn’t have anything on the slate I felt passionate enough about to jump into. But when I “died”, I wasn’t fretting over the unwritten books.

That’s a definite perspective shifter. And suddenly I don’t feel so guilty about not knocking out a new book every year.

So what might I still be feeling guilty about? Well, I’ve been brooding over whether I am spending enough time with loved ones, or doing enough to help people. I’ve grown so used to being passive about helping, waiting for someone to come to me, that I’m not certain anymore about how to be an active helper.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There are some things I feel confident about – like writing.

Right now, I’m editing a book written by a friend at a time when she came to grips with how abusive her husband was to her and her children, and decided to leave him. I can do that. I could also listen to her describing the abuse, venting, and telling me about her hopes for the future after she brought the book to me to look over.

I’m editing another book for another friend too, with rewrites that will end up meaning a co-author credit. This friend wrote her book while undergoing multiple health issues, along with other odd things like, of all things, finding out her house was built over an underground lake and would likely sink into it someday.

Both friends put a lot of heart and soul into their books, doing so at critical times in their lives when the books themselves became a lifeline in a way, and I feel like one thing I can do is to do right by them by doing right by their much-loved work.

I can listen. I can visit. I can try to be there to talk to. Even if I don’t know what to say (and I often don’t), I can be there as best as I can.

I think the way to shed a lot of this guilt about whether or not I’m doing enough or spending enough time with them is to do what I can alongside realizing this might be a post-bridge George Bailey It’s a Wonderful Life moment: Where Jimmy Stewart doesn’t have a clue how much he actually has done for people and what he means to them until he ends up needing an angel to point it out to him in stark detail.

If I really did die now or in the near future, I’m not sure at the moment how I would feel about the way I’ve spent my time thus far in regard to the ones I love. But I am certain now that when my time comes I won’t, to paraphrase the saying, feel guilty for not spending more time at the office.


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