Regret: it’s an emotion we can all relate to and something we have experienced many times prior to the loss of a loved one. What’s interesting about regret is that it can come as equally with action as it does with inaction. We can regret doing something as much as we can regret having done nothing at all.
In life before loss, however, there is always the sense that tomorrow is another day. That even if we took the wrong path there would always be the chance to set things right.
I often say nothing can prepare us for the finality of loss, and I think in this same way nothing can compare with the powerlessness and frustration of wanting to go back and do things over or do things “right”. How hard it is for a griever to live with the fact that because of the finality of this loss, whatever went “wrong” can never be changed.
We can get stuck in this frustration. And we can punish ourselves for the things we “should” have done, the things we feel we “should” have said, the things we wish we’d done differently…
There are many reasons a griever may be feeling regret, but here are just a few examples:
- Regret over medical care/treatment: Caregivers who lost a loved one to a long term illness may ask, should we have gone to another doctor? Should we have tried a different treatment? What if he had been diagnosed sooner? Some grievers may have lost their loved ones suddenly to a stroke or heart attack, leaving them to wonder, should I have pushed harder for him to eat healthy or to stop other bad habits? Or maybe questions surround the place where a loved one received treatment, wondering if nursing home placement was the best decision, or if care should have happened elsewhere.
- Regret over any time we feel we may have taken our loved one for granted: I don’t particularly like the phrase “take for granted” especially in relation to those we love. There is such a harsh and rough judgment to it. It seems to paint a picture of a person who is ungrateful, and I think that would be a very unfair label for a griever to put on themselves. In searching for an alternate term, I instead came across a meaning to this popular phrase that made more sense to me. When we “take something for granted” in life it is often because we “expect something to be always available”. And to me, that is such a normal and common thing to do. We’re all just living our lives. Trying to get through our days. We have bills to pay and bathrooms to clean. We have family and work demands. There isn’t a lot of time to focus on the big picture and think about life and death or to focus on what’s “really” important when there are so many day-to-day tasks stealing our attention. Some days there simply doesn’t seem to be enough opportunities to get the quality time in with every person we love. In fact I’d say most days it’s near impossible. But a griever will go back to this time perhaps and wish they didn’t assume their loved one would always be here. They may wish they had worked less, made more time for date nights, or simply told their loved one more often just how much they loved them.
- Regret following the loss of a loved one to substance abuse or suicide: Though these are two very different types of loss, the regret that can follow can look very much the same. Many people who lost a loved one to substance abuse may have spent years trying to help and rehabilitate their friend or family member. Typically more than one approach to helping would have been incorporated leaving the griever to wonder, did I do the right thing? Did I show enough love and support? Was the “tough love” approach the right thing or was I not tough enough? For those who’s loved one died by suicide they may have regrets about not reaching out more or “trying harder”, or of not having seen the signs of what was to come.
- Every other type of regret we could have: I should have picked up the phone, I shouldn’t have let him leave the house that night, I should have visited more often, I shouldn’t have been so strict…..this can be a very endless and very personal list of things we wished we had or hadn’t done. And not only is the list endless but the non-stop cycle of second-guessing and regret can feel like a 24-hour news station that is always on in our head.
So where does this regret come from, and can we entertain the thought that maybe the first step toward change is a shift in perspective? Consider the following:
*Your current reality is not the only reality. Sometimes we need to take a step back and realize that just because we have convinced ourselves that something is good or bad, regrettable or not, doesn’t in fact make any of it true. Psychologist and author Tara Brach challenges us to ask ourselves, “What am I believing right now?” and “Is this true?”. Meaning can we challenge our memories and our perception of the situations that have passed and realize that another look may reveal something very different? Too often we tend to take the thing we regret and then use it to label and define ourselves. For example, I speak to a lot of people who question whether they should have placed a loved one in a nursing home. While typically a lot of careful thought and consideration goes into this decision, many grievers tend to breeze over that part of the reality, and instead focus only on the second-guessing and possible regret once their loved one is gone. This can create a spiraling down effect, “I put my mother in a nursing home. I don’t know if it was the right thing to do. I’m not sure I was a good daughter to her…”. So as Tara Brach suggests, ask yourself, “Is this true?”. Rather than taking just this one decision and just this one point in a very long life together and using it to define and label ourselves, can we instead look at the bigger picture, at the entire relationship, and can we find faith and confidence that we are good people and that our intention was and always has been to do the best thing for those we love?
*It’s possible you are more prone to regret and guilt by nature of how you were raised. It’s amazing how important our childhood is, and how infrequently we go back to look at it as a source for answers to understand ourselves better in the present. I’m not saying we travel back in time to place blame on parents or family who were only trying to do their best. But instead we need to revisit these memories as an observer. Did the important people around us tend to place blame on themselves or those around them? Was guilt, regret, and second-guessing something you’ve seen the people in your life do to themselves? It’s an important thing to consider because it can help us understand that some of these aspects of our coping are actually the result of a long-laid foundation. Meaning it can be tougher to change perspective when we’re looking to change things about ourselves that have been there a long time. Think back to a time where you or someone who helped shape your life was stuck in a cycle of regret and ask – what purpose did it serve? Have you seen yourself or anyone you love grow or change in a positive way because of guilt and regret?
*Regret can be the apology we get to say over and over again, every day. For whatever reason, the griever feels they’ve done wrong…it could be anything from the list above. The person they feel they’ve wronged is no longer here to make it up to, to make it right with or to apologize to. So instead, living with regret is the sentence they have served themselves and they will carry it with them for as long as they have to, often with no end in sight. But take a moment to consider that sometimes our only real flaw is being human. The question then becomes, can we forgive ourselves for being human and for doing no better or worse than anyone else would or could do? It may help to think of your loved one and how hard it would be for them to see you in this state. We need to forgive ourselves the way we forgive others and the way our loved one would surely forgive us if they were still here to do it.
Because here’s the final piece of it. If I were to ask a griever, don’t you want to be happy again? Interestingly many grievers (if they were being truly honest with themselves) would say, not really. Either because they don’t think it’s possible, or maybe because they don’t feel they deserve it. Or because of the things they’ve done or not done, or because they feel that they can’t possibly ever be happy without their loved one here. For some, moving forward may feel like a betrayal.
Guilt, regret, and remorse can all be testaments to the love we have felt for those who have passed. In its own strange way, holding on to regret can help a griever maintain connections to the deceased. While moving forward may on the surface appear to be the goal I think if some grievers are honest with themselves they would know that by their thoughts and actions that perhaps it’s not.
So what do you want as a griever, really?
It’s okay to want better. It’s what your loved one would have wanted for you. Let that be your driving force forward. And remember more than anything, that wanting better for ourselves and looking to make a positive change in the way we view life can be one of the most significant transformations that can be found on the other side of loss.
People can blossom and grow in grief. Learning to shift our perspective and to stop punishing ourselves with regret can be a great place to start.
Connect with those who have had a similar loss, and you will find that you are not alone.