Grief is a sacred journey

Regret: It’s Too Late Now, or Is It?

Elaine, Jim, Virginia 2014

With Jim at my book release party, 2014

I sobbed myself to sleep the night after my brother Jim’s memorial service. The huge gathering went smoothly, including my reading, but something gnawed inside.

In the middle of the night, I woke up with a knot in my belly. Not simply grief, a feeling I know well. Not exactly dread or fear, but I couldn’t take a deep breath.

“We’re OK,” I told the feeling as I opened a window. “I need to sleep.”

“That’s bullshit,” my body said. “I’m not OK.”

After a few hours of twitchy snoozing, I got out of bed with the same tight belly. My shoulders hunched in self-protection. I had dark circles.

The day before at the memorial service, Jim’s colleagues had praised him and his life. They told stories of his adventures in public health, his work that saved many lives, and his kindness. They talked about his humility and lack of interest in being top dog. They told me things about my only brother that I hadn’t known.

The brother I barely knew

The brother I barely knew

In his career building years after 1975, Jim was absorbed in work and family. I focused on family, my spiritual path, and my work as a nutritionist. We talked once in a while, but he never said much about his achievements even when I asked. There was no blow-up or bad scene. Just drifting apart. I blamed him for never taking time to bring his family to visit.

With our mom in 1956

With our mom in 1956

“You don’t need to come,” Jim said when he phoned to tell me his daughter was ill. That’s always what he said, even when he was dying. “You don’t need to come.”

“She’s my only niece. I’m coming,” I said. That was over a dozen years ago. We worked hard to stay connected after that. When my husband Vic got cancer a few years later, Jim helped us find good doctors and called me often, but he still didn’t say much about himself.

When Jim got cancer, he said, “The drive’s too far. You don’t need to come.” I ignored him.

After cancer returned a second time, Jim said, “I’ll need you in the end.” He’d never asked me for anything. I paid attention. For the first time since we were kids, he talked about his inner worlds when we were alone.

“I’m sorry our children didn’t get to know each other,” I said a few weeks before Jim died. By then, cancer had made him elderly. His skin was as pale as the white sheets on the hospital bed.

“Yeah, it’s too bad,” he said, “but I don’t waste time with regret.”

A rare family visit in1986

A rare family visit in 1986

Regret? A waste of time? That stopped me. For me, regret is a teacher. I don’t wallow in regret or guilt, but if the feeling arises, I dig in and search for meaning. When I understand, the feeling loosens its grip.

I regret not trying harder during those years when Jim was in his world and I was in mine. I regret we didn’t give our kids a chance to know each other. I regret I wasn’t there to praise his successes the way he praised mine in recent years.

sddefaultMistakes are part of being human, but I want to learn from them. I pay attention to those confusing knots in my belly and vague unsettled feelings. They tell me something important is emerging into consciousness. They tell me something I need to know.

Jim and I stayed deeply connected the last dozen years. That’s what matters most now, but I learned about his other life at his memorial service and had to face that I hadn’t been present.

I forgive myself for those lost years, but I take this as another reminder. We don’t have forever.

***

Regret gets a bad rap. I don’t blame or shame myself, but regret helps me understand the results of choices made so I can do better next time. Do you have regrets? Most of us do. Have you let family or friends you love slip too far away? Do you wish you’d tried harder? For other posts about my relationship with my brother, see Waiting for Another Dance or Holding Hands on the Threshold of Life and Death

42 Comments
  1. A powerful post, Elaine. I resonate deeply with it. Thank you.
    Mary

    • Thank you, Mary. I hope you and your brother are well. I told the woman who runs the pet loss group about your September journey. She said she’d heard good things about that breeder. I hope to see you in September, even if only briefly.

    • Elaine, thanks for posting! Nice to be reminded to forgive ourselves in our neglect for when we do, we’ve taken responsibility for our lack of attention to what matters.

      • Shirley, do you find it hard to figure out what matters? Sometimes I only understand in hindsight. And when I look back at those years of distance from my brother, I wonder if anyone could have talked us into doing things differently. Thanks so much for your comment.

  2. As usual, your posts hit home. I too have a vague unsettled feeling, this time about my Aunt Ruthie, my second Mother. She is far into dementia and must be cared for around the clock. At age 97 3/4, her body too is failing and the doctor says we have to make a decision about a new pacemaker as time is ticking away on the old one.

    My sister who lives closest to her has scheduled a consultation to gather information from the data in her current pacemaker, so her three nieces (including me) can make an informed decision. Our last visit was in February, we are in the middle of a move, and I wish I could be there now. The distance from Florida to Pennsylvania seems mighty far when so much hangs in the balance.

    A few days ago I read a letter she wrote me in 1980 from the Lancaster General Family Health Service Unit where she was volunteering. She inquired about my first week of teaching, mentioned the home schooling movement. Then she said, “Yes, I miss Grandma [her mother] many times and in many places. One needs to work at not falling apart. Seems there’s no need to cook a meal – go for a drive, etc. But it’s nice to think she didn’t need to go through this hot, hot humid summer. It would have been difficult to have kept her comfortable.” On and on she goes about freezing lima beans and making apple butter. She mentioned trying to convince Phuong, a Vietnamese refugee, who was still living with her, to go full time into school instead of piecemeal.

    Today I spoke to both of my sisters on the phone about next steps. At the moment, I am glad we can act as a trio to make such a weighty decision. I would hate to have to make this choice alone.

    Yes, Elaine, we don’t have forever as you wisely remind us. You did the best you could at the time. I hope you really have forgiven yourself for those lost years, the best course. In the end, you were very close. Hold onto that, my dear.

    Thank you for listening to this litany. You do have a third ear, and I know you understand.

    • It is a huge decision, Marion. Something to keep you churning when you’re already overwhelmed with busy. I’ve made it clear to my sons that if I have dementia, nothing should be done to keep my body going. I remember telling Vic’s medical team to turn off his internal defibrillator. This is the difficult path of modern dying. I’m sorry about Aunt Ruthie. I can feel your love for her. I wonder what the three of you will decide. Sending you love. I enjoyed reading a little about your move on Debby’s blog.

  3. It is often only after someone passes that we learn something or things about them we never knew. And I love your attitude on regrets, they help us to understand where we missed out, but doesn’t mean we have to beat ourselves up over them. We acknowledge, take from them and move on. I’ve learned more about that word in writing my latest memoir on forgiveness for my abandoning my narcissistic mother years before her death.
    Your post was enlightening and poignant as all of your post are Elaine. I hope the heaviness in your heart is beginning to lessen as you focus more on the love you shared with your brother, rather than what was missed. <3

    • Thank you, Debby. The heaviness lifted when I got a clear view of the source of the feeling. I’m grateful for years of psychological training that gave me tools for excavation. If the feeling hadn’t opened a little on first inspection, I’d have painted it, moved with it, or used Active Imagination. Without regret casting a shadow, it’s easier to feel connection and love. I truly appreciate your support.

      • I love the way you find a path to bring you to a different place where you soul needs to be at certain times. And I love the term ‘tools for excavation’. You are certainly a wise woman and a pleasure to read and learn from your knowledge. Thank you Elaine. 🙂

        • Thanks so much, Debby. I’ve been given many tools for psychological and spiritual introspection from many teachers and traditions. I’m grateful for the most compatible ones–and the ones that don’t work for me fall by the wayside.

  4. Wow. Another amazing post about you and your brother. You’ve inspired me to get in touch with a couple of people I haven’t talked to in a long time. Thank you.

    • Wonderful, Amy. The takeaway point: get in touch before it’s too late. If I fail to make a positive connection or reconnection, I’ll know I tried and that’s all I can do. This becomes more challenging when friends move far away. I’m grateful for social media.

  5. Hi Elaine.
    I have a lot of self inflicted “shoulds” and catholic school guilt and regrets about everything I do! “Should I have done this or that” I feel guilty that. Didn’t do this or that”
    Since I always am regretting something, I have to ask myself – do I have regrets because I SHOULD done something ? ” ( says who?). Or do i have regrets because that is the way I really feel? So first I have to search inside to see if the regret is MY voice or the much felt punitive voice. Often hard to distinguish

    • I hear you, Patt. I have many feelings swimming around in this psyche, but regret isn’t as usual as some others (such as shame). In this case, I had something to face about the past and it wouldn’t let go until I had a deep look. It helped to drive home with two good friends who are therapists. I’m not sure I could have made those lost years any different than they were. We were both preoccupied and we had no idea how precious our relationship was. I’m mostly grateful we figured that out later. It was lovely seeing you briefly. I hope there will be another meeting in a quiet place where I can hear and be a little more present. It was an intense day for me.

  6. I know what you mean about taking notice of those boulder-in-your-belly feelings. When something’s not sitting right in my head or my gut, the best thing is to stop and investigate. Because sleep won’t happen, and focus will be tainted, and life will not be lived the way it should be until the underlying problem is faced. And I know, even before I can recognize the specifics, that it is something I must act on with a brutal honesty. And with self-forgiveness in the end. Life is too precious to live it with regrets weighing you down. Cheers, Elaine.

  7. This is an important lesson I’m in the middle of. I’m so grateful for this read. <3

  8. Thank you, Elaine, for “allowing us the freedom of our mistakes.” I put that line in a poem, once awhile back. When I wrote them, I wanted to be sure that the other person would not feel blame, just the freedom to process both our roles in what happened, so we could move when the time came. A wise post. So sorry about the loss of your brother and only sibling. Much love, Jenna

    • We have to leave plenty of room for mistakes, Jenna. My biggest mistake as a young woman was believing I shouldn’t make any. That knot took time to untie. Marion Woodman started me with ‘Addiction to Perfection’ and I took it from there. Thanks for your encouraging and comforting message.

  9. I am glad you distinguish between regret and guilt and shame. That is often hard to do. But I too think the folks who claim to have no regrets are missing something important. We’re multidimensional beings in an (apparently) linear world, and even if every choice we made in life were done with perfect awareness of what was needed in the moment, and capacity to fulfill that need, and even if we plan as carefully and responsibly for the future as we know we need to, we still have to make choices without knowing their full consequences. And of course, we don’t have always that perfect awareness, or that full capacity, or even the luxury of planning ahead. That’s the human condition. I think I would rather feel regret and do the work that is necessary to heal than put it at a distance because of the unhealthy associated feelings that may or may not come with it.

    • I just wrote a response to an earlier comment: “I wonder if anyone could have talked us into doing things differently.” We weren’t angry at each other. We were engaged elsewhere and thought that was more important. Maybe it was. Regret is another one of those banished feelings hanging around on the edge of consciousness. The more we push it away, the more it hassles us. Rooting around in those feelings often yields gold, at least for me. Our whole society, the whole world, could use a big dose of regret for what we’ve done to each other and the earth.

  10. Elaine, Love this post!! Such an important message and reminder. At an early age I was told not to rely on my intuition and gut – I was told they were wrong, not important,etc. – As a result I sunk slowly and steadily into a very dark place where I stayed for far too long. I was at war with myself. Then I went to the opposite extreme. By sheer will power born of the survival instinct I blocked whatever caused me problems. That didn’t feel much better but I functioned better in the world. Now, at last, over the last decade I have begun to reconnect with myself, my inner guide, my gut and I listen to it and heed it’s warning as often as I possibly can. Living a congruent life is now something I am able to manage more and more often.

    I had a friend who tattooed “No Regrets” on her ankle. At the time (a decade ago) it didn’t sit right with me. I wanted to understand. I knew she had a horrific life that she wanted to put behind her. Now I realize her declaration of “no regrets” was a way of not going deeper. It was a way of brushing aside not only her responsibility, but guilt and shame that did not belong to her. Once, very close friends, we fell apart precisely because of her “no regrets” approach to life. She was unable to allow herself to wrestle with her mistakes or allow others to be less than perfect.

    Thank you for spelling this all out so clearly in your post today. I will be sharing it.

    • Thank you for your encouraging message, Dorothy. Turning toward uneasy vague feelings and body reactions was something I had to learn, too, but I was introduced to the idea in my twenties. So I was lucky. No expression of feeling was allowed in my childhood family after my father died when I was 14. My mother didn’t want to be cry or remember. (She held on to that grief and regret for 40 years and finally talked to me about those times as she was losing it to Alzheimer’s.) Facing regrets releases me from continued suffering. It sounds like that’s true for you, too.

      What an interesting and sad story about your friend. I’ve never had anything horrible happen–just regular life disappointments and losses, but no one purposely tried to hurt me. It seems best to look at what’s happened so it won’t be repeated, but I know not everyone can do this or has the support to do it. I’m sad for your friend and for you, but she taught you an essential life lesson. Blocking our feelings because we don’t like them or don’t understand them is a perfect way to lose contact with our deeper selves/souls and with people we love.

      Thanks so much for sharing my post. I appreciate it.

  11. I don’t know anyone who can bring home a point as gently as you do in your writing, Elaine ~ yet it still hits your reader right between the eyes. Well said, my fried. Point taken. Wow.

    • Thank you, Marty. I’d planned to take a summer blogging break, but had to explore that feeling first. There’s always something to learn–as long as I don’t get stuck in self-flagellation for failing to be perfect. Your encouraging words mean a lot to me.

  12. Thank you for your writings….I find myself often saying that I am living my life making new memories…. I don’t feel that I have many regrets and am aware that as our life changes I also don’t want to create regrets … Your posting is a good reminder . I smile as I think of the last two exhausting weeks we have had with our grandson, one of them with our nieces and great nieces as well and I am so happy that we did not let our exhaustion limit our visit..these are memories. That they and we will have forever.

    • Thank you, Chaya. It’s a blessing to have few regrets. I’m grateful I don’t have big ones and had few after my husband’s or my mother’s death. This time there was something I needed to face about the past–something too far back to correct, but it still needed to be recognized. Now I can let it go. Every time I packed for the 7-8 hour drive to my brother’s place in the spring, I thought, “I will not regret having gone an extra time. I will only regret if I don’t go.” I’m glad I went.

      I love thinking of the positive memories you’re creating with the children of your family–with no regrets. Except sometimes grandma needs a nap or time out. 😉

  13. Thank you Elaine for this beautiful post. Your brother was a fine looking man aside from being a good man. Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again too few too mention – the words of a song, ‘I’ll do it my way’.
    Always in retrospect there will be regrets. Not making that phone call, not reaching out to the other, not turning the soil when it was crying out to be tilled, not spending enough time in nature, not making the time for solitude. This teaches us though, to make that phone call, reach out to the other. Many times we don’t for whatever reason, forgetting that many times it’s not about ‘me’ it’s about the other – your post has brought me up short, reminding me also to check out those uneasy feelings in my gut which can’t be rationally explained.

    • Thank you, Susan. When I see your comment, I realize how behind I am in reading your blogs. I have treats waiting for me.

      I agree that regrets are part of a full life. Sometimes we don’t know what we might have done differently until we look back. This kind of introspection–as long as I don’t hammer myself with guilt–guides me. I’m a feeling/sensation type in Jungian terms, so those uneasy irrational feelings often help me understand or learn a new perspective. In time, I discovered that those uneasy feelings are my friends.

  14. Both a moving and thought-provoking piece, Elaine. We’re often told in life that we shouldn’t have regrets, and I understand that we can’t go back and change the past. However, you’re right in that regrets hold valuable lessons. The next time these feelings creep in, I’ll remember this post and search for the message I can take forward with me. As for you and Jim, I’m so glad you were able to rebuild your relationship and find that closeness again. That connection is a true blessing.

    • Ann, you nailed the best thing about this particular regret. Jim and I found a new place to be in close heart connection. I wouldn’t have known that was possible unless I tried. Would it have been possible earlier? Who knows?

      We’re so busy trying not to beat ourselves up with guilt that we sometimes forget to imagine how we could have handled things a little better and how we might handle a similar situation the next time. Often, if we’re living a conscious life, we have new tools all the time. It’s always wonderful to hear from you. Thank you.

  15. I agree with your take on regrets. Letting go of them is some of the toughest and most important work we can do. It clears our lives of the detritus that keeps us up at night. Without it we’d not have wisdom.

    • Thanks for your wise comment, Joan. Without understanding my regrets, I’m not able to let go of them. That’s my particular psychological style and probably not true for everyone. I love watching the energy grow around your book. Such a beautiful cover and title. You’re on your way!

  16. Let’s hear it for regrets, acknowledged, shared, and then let go. I too have wondered about the high value placed on “no regrets” when it masks the desire to push away the nagging feelings in the body that clue us in to work that needs to be done.

    I’m glad you could address those feelings and that your brother was able to say in the end that he needed you, Elaine. Both of you lost so much so early.

    Onward!

    • South Africa did lots of healing from that perspective, Shirley. Maybe those uneasy feelings are trying to teach us something.

      My brother and I touched hearts for many years. I know how lucky I am. Losing things seems to be part of life, at least my life. Helping Vic’s mom is on the front burner now–a continuous struggle as she falls more, wanders more, and becomes more lost in this life. She still lives in her own apartment with lots of help from health aides and me, but that may not be possible much longer. With her, I won’t have a single regret.

  17. Thanks for another thoughtful posting. You continue to teach me things I don’t ordinarily think about. Now you’ve got me wondering about how grief and regret are related or intertwined. Grief seems to have a certain finality attached to it whereas regret if captured early enough my leave avenues for action. Hope you are doing okay. Keep the writing coming!

    • Thank you for commenting, dear friend Dennis. I had few if any regrets after Vic’s death, other than impossible things like regret I couldn’t keep him alive. So, in that case, little regret and buckets of grief. Sometimes it seems to be buckets of regret with little grief. I agree that regret can bring corrective action, so if we take the long, long view, we’ll know the right action at a later time.

  18. What a wonderful post, Elaine. What you write about befriending regret and learning from it reminds me of what Anselm Grün, a well-known German Benedictine priest once said about depression: Depression isn’t an enemy, but fine lady knocking at your door. And she won’t go away until you invite her in for tea and listen to what she has to say.

    You listened to what your regret was trying to say, and that was good.

    But I also wonder if Jim’s not saying much about himself was his trying to create some distance. If so, that needs to be respected too. You know him best and can judge that far better than I.

    He sounds like a wonderful person — someone dedicated to the public good who never had the need to call attention to himself.

    • I love the “fine lady coming for tea,” Ann Marie. Yes, let’s invite her in and see what she has to say.

      Jim was stoic and disciplined. He seemed surprised by his accomplishments. Still, in moments of weakness or fear, even a hero wants to be comforted and heard. I agree he distanced himself and hid his feelings by insisting he was just fine–even when he wasn’t. It’s a kind of self-protection we all understand. When he and I were alone, I asked questions and listened carefully and then asked more. I was surprised by how open he was and how much he said about his inner experience. I don’t know if others asked him. Not as far as I know. It seemed to be a relief when I arrived at the door.

  19. Thanks Elaine for once again baring your soul. It gives your readers pause. Me included.

    Regret is complicated. For me regret shines an artificial, intense life on past events that probably would never have been done differently due to the circumstances, age and experience.Now that I am older and wiser, I try not to act or speak without carefully considering the consequences. It took great tongue biting when my mother was in her final years. I did not realize the onset of her dimentia right away . I assumed her actions were more ramped up bad behavior. But I vowed not to have any ” do-overs” in the next stage of my life so I stayed silent,but suffered. Comforting now that she is gone , perhaps. But there was pain on the front end of the process.

    Thanks for your honesty. We all do the best we can.
    Kim

    • Thanks for your comment, Kim. I agree that regret shines an artificial light on a past that is certainly unchangeable now and was likely unchangeable then. Being who I am, I explore the unsettled feelings that arise and learn from them. I know you do that, too. I had few regrets when Vic died, other than wishing I weren’t so human in my reactions a few times and had been more saintly. None of those “regrets” carried any weight or kept me awake at night. With my brother, I was faced with our thirty year gap at his memorial service. The sorrow of losing him now mixed with the sorrow of not knowing him then. It reminded me to reach out to those who have drifted away because we live far apart or we’re too busy or…

      I get it with your mother and the difficulty of figuring things out when dementia is beginning but still vague. My mother was distant but not negative. My mother-in-law was the difficult one and I lost my temper plenty of times, but I’ve surely paid my karmic debt by now.

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