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  • Writer's pictureLee Erickson, MA, LPCC

The Burden of Guilt: How Joseph's Story Resonates With Our Own Struggles

Updated: Jan 9

Several years ago, there had been a death of a beloved teacher at a school in a suburb of the Twin Cities. A colleague of mine and I were asked to come out to the school to meet with students and teachers and to help lead them in thought, process and ritual around the death. When you hear, "Grief counselors were on hand to assist students and teachers," that is what we would do.

When we arrived, the school was very somber. Administrators, teachers and students were walking around with heavy heads and hearts. It was very sad. The principle asked us into her office to talk about the plan for the couple of hours we would be together. It was almost the end of the school year and the normal student/teacher urge to get out had been curtailed by the death of the teacher.

We had gathered the teachers into the teachers lounge and they talked at length about their love for this teacher. She was the helpful one, the one people could go to when they needed someone to watch their class for a few minutes while she had a prep hour and the first one to bring food when any of them had experienced a loss in their personal lives. It seemed like a big hole to fill.

After processing with the teachers, we had a few moments before we were to meet with third, fourth and fifth grade students. She had been at the school, teaching third grade for several years and the administration thought it would be important for the students from all three grades to have the opportunity to talk about this wonderful teacher.

Before the gathering was about to begin, I noticed a student, a little boy, sitting away from the other students, waiting to go into the gymnasium. He was sitting on the steps and he was crying. I asked another teacher what was going on and she said she didn't know and I asked if I could talk with him. Engulfed in her own grief she said, "Sure," and waved me off towards the little boy.

When I sat down next to him, his crying continued. I asked him what was wrong and he kept on crying. I asked him his name and he said through the tears, "Joseph."

I sat in silence with him for a few more moments and I asked him, "Why are you crying?"

He turned and looked up at me with puffy red eyes, tears streaming down his little cheeks and he said, "It's my fault my teacher died," and he turned his face back to his hands and continued to cry.

The teacher, it seems, had died of a heart attack and had a long family history of heart disease. She hadn't take very good care of herself over the years, according to some of her fellow teachers.

Upon further conversation, Joseph, it seems, had noticed several days before, that his teacher had been eating something that he knew wasn't good for her heart. Sadly, he had neglected to tell her that she shouldn't be eating whatever bad food she had been eating.

In his heart Joseph believed that it was his fault that she had died. He thought that if he had told her not to eat the bad food, she would still be there.

Some who I have told this story to have much compassion for Joseph. We too can see that there is nothing logical about his assessment of the situation. The teacher had a long history of heart disease in her family. She had not taken good care of herself. Whatever she had been eating when Joseph saw her, more than likely, wouldn't have had a long term affect on the quality of her health or her life.

Yet Joseph continued to believe that it was his fault.

We all have a little bit of Joseph's guilt in ourselves. We take situations and things that are clearly out of our control and we, in our minds, warp them to believe that if we had done this or that differently, there would have been a totally different outcome.

I, too, had this type of irrational guilt when my brother died by suicide. If I had called him more or if I had visited him more or if we had talked more, maybe this wouldn't have happened? It can be a terrible rabbit hole to fall into. The truth was my brother killed himself and whether it was a choice or a reaction to a feeling of a lack of choice, there was nothing I could do and it wasn't my fault.

That seems like human nature to me. Human nature that we would blame ourselves for things that are totally out of our control. In some ways, I think that sometimes we blame ourselves for things that are out of control as a way to try to have some control. Joseph couldn't give the teacher responsibility for her own lifestyle choices; it was easier for him to blame himself.

I spoke with another teacher who said she would be sure to let Joseph's parents know what was going on so they could make sure he got additional help if it was needed.

I have thought often about Joseph and wishing there was someway he could know how much he helped me with my own feelings of guilt and how his lesson of loving a beloved teacher and his feelings of guilt will live on to help others.

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