I learned the hard way about the sort of regret that can accompany a death. Three weeks before my high school graduation my mom suffered a massive heart attack, crumpled and died. I came home from a lacrosse game to find a police car in our driveway, the ambulance having already taken away her lifeless body. When I had left for school that morning, my mom was asleep. I never got to say goodbye, never got to tell her I was sorry for being a selfish and bratty teenager, never got to thank her for doing all she could to support and love me.
Regret is a backward looking guilt. Before you had the chance to fix something, death intervened and the book is now closed. There will be no apology, no do over, no kiss and make up, no looking back and laughing about whatever misunderstanding occurred between you and the someone who is now gone.
You wish you had been a better person. Your mind remembers what you said that you cannot take back, the promises you won’t get to fulfill, and the “if only” statements that are on repeat cycle. Your last words may have been unkind or even angry ones. Or maybe you didn’t say the words you so desperately want to say now. You were going to say them someday and you truly meant to do it. You intended to share how you felt – all your love somehow condensed into word form but you couldn’t seem to find the right words that fit so you didn’t try. Maybe you did not fully appreciate all that this person meant to you until they died. Now they will never get to hear you say it.
You and your memories are stuck in time, but your feelings of self-recrimination have the ability to continue for the rest of your life. Is there anything you can do to stop this destructive thinking pattern?
The answer is maybe. Remembering what happened and your inability to change the outcome will never feel good. There will always be a scar in that place. It might help to recognize that because you have a heart and you are human, feelings like regret are normal. This doesn’t mean, however, that you need to dwell on them. To the best that you can, do for yourself what you would do for a friend you love. Offer forgiveness. It you need to do so, keep offering forgiveness to yourself whenever the regret seeks to shame you into a place of darkness. This may be a lifelong practice.
Another thing to do is to look at the regretful event, behavior, words or omission in the context of the relationship as a whole. The idea is to consider the broader perspective rather than overemphasizing what you regret. It may help to get input on seeing the bigger picture from others who are able to support you. Yes every life and every relationship has thorny bits, but there is also beauty and goodness and miraculous wonderment to behold in the context of the whole. These need to be permitted to shine through rather than allowing regret to shroud them.
The most important aspect of feeling regret is to learn from it. Whatever lesson you derive from the decision you now regret, determine to live differently moving forward. Say “I love you” more, forgive faster, act on your promises promptly, bite your tongue from saying the criticism, offer the words of appreciation freely, and be the one who overlooks others faults, knowing that life is precious and so are the people in yours. In short, choose to be the person you wish you had been yesterday.
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