The Regret Trap
[Journaling] may not be the answer for everyone but all the experiment takes is some paper, a pen and a box of tissues. When I think of my father now, which is quite often, my memories are not plagued with guilt. I think of the funny things he said or how much we are alike. I can stop dwelling on the “what ifs.” I did what I could at the time and I did it with love. There are no regrets.
by Judith Rowse Demick
I have been a Hospice social worker and bereavement counselor for over thirteen years. It is my job to listen, which is not as easy as it sounds. The stories are heartbreaking and the natural reaction is to try to make the pain go away. Experience has taught me, however, that the telling of the story is therapeutic and that, in addition to listening to others, I need to listen to myself, my inner voice.
If I push all of the clutter out of mind and pay attention, I usually hear a message. And so lately, when I keep hearing the same story over and over, I knew I had to take notice. Was my inner voice trying to tell me, the bereavement counselor, something I needed to hear? Grieving family members, who had been attentive, loving caregivers, were telling me their list of regrets.
“I should have brought him home from the hospital to die.”
“I wish I had told her one more time that I loved her.”
“I should have taken off from work sooner to spend more time with my father.”
I knew that they had done everything for their loved one. I had witnessed their superhuman efforts to make those final days as meaningful as possible. No matter how hard I tried, though, I could not budge these people from their “regret trap.” I already knew that I could not cure grief but, for some reason, this particular issue haunted me.
What I finally came to realize was that my inner voice was trying to tell me that I was also a victim of regret. My ninety-one year old father had died three years ago on Thanksgiving. It was a very short illness at the end of a healthy, productive life. My brain told me that he was lucky to have avoided long-term illness and lucky to have lived so long. We were not close in the sense of best friends but he had always been a role model of honesty and hard work. I deeply appreciated all that he had done for me.
What I was ignoring was a heart full of regrets. Just like the families I counsel, I felt that, in some way, I had let him down. He had walked into the hospital emergency room and did not come out alive. He had been my responsibility. He had trusted his only child—his smart, strong daughter—to take care of him. I had not stayed around the clock with him while he struggled for his life. I was not there when he died. In the end, I had failed him.
Am I being hard on myself? Perhaps, but thinking it and believing it seemed to be light years apart. It became clear that if I was to grieve in a healthy way, I had to forgive myself. Unfortunately, it is easier to forgive someone else than it is yourself. I had to do some serious work to find what worked for me.
Ultimately, writing this article became my therapy. I faced all of my regrets and then turned the page to the good, positive things I had done.
I had not been neglectful. Before he entered the emergency room, I knew that his health was failing. I accompanied him to several doctor’s appointments. During his stay in intensive care, I was there three times a day. Maybe I didn’t stay around-the-clock but I was a single parent with a job and a mother in the early stages of dementia. And, actually, I did arrange to spend one night with him to catch his uncommunicative doctor on morning rounds. I picked the brains of every doctor and nurse I knew to make sure he was getting the best care. I told him a dozen times that I loved him and he was able to say it back to me. He had never said that before. Ultimately, I made the decision to get Hospice involved so that he could die peacefully.
I found that once I started my list of positives, I wanted to keep going. There were many self-imposed regrets about our father-daughter relationship. I had never told him how much I appreciated the sacrifices he made to put me through college. He didn’t know that I modeled myself after him. His influence had made me independent, competent and responsible.
Now that I had decided not to beat myself up anymore, I discovered many examples of our unspoken love and respect for each other. I know that he was proud that I completed graduate school. He never worried that I couldn’t take care of myself as a single parent. He was immensely proud of his grandsons. We bonded in our total exasperation over my mother’s imaginary illness. I took him on weekly rides in the country when he could no longer drive. I surprised him on his 90th birthday with a breakfast party at McDonald’s where he met his coffee buddies every morning.
My heart became much lighter as I made my list of positives. I felt healing, even though I had told myself that I was healed.
What I had learned to do was journal. Even though I often recommend this method of healing, I had never tired it myself. My journaling became an article but it doesn’t have to be published or even read by anyone but the author. It can be tucked away in a drawer or thrown out after it is written. It can be a work of many months or a one time effort.
This may not be the answer for everyone but all the experiment takes is some paper, a pen and a box of tissues. When I think of my father now, which is quite often, my memories are not plagued with guilt. I think of the funny things he said or how much we are alike. I can stop dwelling on the “what ifs.” I did what I could at the time and I did it with love. There are no regrets.