Grief is a sacred journey

The Wisdom of Regret: A Lesson in Showing Up

I remember the tense discomfort of my flimsy excuse, but don’t recall just what it was. I remember the relief of avoiding being face-to-face with a dying person. In 1991, I hadn’t learned to sit with death, witness suffering, or wait for the last breath.

I didn’t fly to Florida to say goodbye to Benny who loved my tomato sauce and cherry pie and loved my children as though they were his own grandkids. Benny married Vic’s mom Virginia when he was 54 and Vic was 21. He didn’t try to father Vic even though he didn’t have children of his own.

We were Benny’s family.

Benny snuggling with Anthony

He loved taking Virginia’s grandchildren, his grandchildren of the heart, to the fancy restaurant where he was bartender. He made them Shirley Temples and showed them off. He never said a critical word about either of them—or about me. Quite a contrast to my mother-in-law

Focused on protecting myself from Virginia, I undervalued this sweet patient man. I didn’t know why he put up with Virginia’s rages or didn’t fight back when she turned her wrath on him. Why did he stay with her? Neither Vic nor I could answer that, but I imagine having a family was a part of it. Grandkids and a daughter-in-law who made cherry pie—just for him.

Benny was flashy, New York City Italian style. He wore well-tailored slacks and white sport’s jackets, shoes polished into mirrors, and a watchman’s cap. He loved dancing to the big band sound. His Brooklyn accent said “pauk” instead of park and “dat” instead of that, giving away his cultural roots. His hair was well-trimmed, he smelled of spicy after-shave, and he drove a Cadillac.

David and Anthony spent weeks with their grandparents in the summer. When they were older, Virginia complained about the kid’s hair styles, clothing, anything she perceived as imperfection, but Vic and I knew Benny would protect them. When Virginia criticized, Benny swept them out of her beauty shop and drove them to the beach.

When he visited us in the country, he helped my husband and son build a skateboard ramp. He was sick by then, but after a fall and with a gash on his nose, he climbed back up with his hammer. We couldn’t talk him out of it. He brought special wine and kept out of family arguments. He and Virginia played endless games of poker with the kids he called “my boys.” He gave them their very own set of red, white, and blue chips.

Helping build the skateboard ramp

Anthony, Vic, and Benny

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Benny was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1990. He visited us a few times after the diagnosis. As always, I baked a pie. He was quiet about his illness and didn’t complain other than saying, “I don’t know why I don’t feel better.” Virginia made sure no one answered that question. She refused to upset him with the truth, but I have to hand it to her. She took care of him at home with hospice.

Virginia, Benny, & David

Why didn’t I go to Florida with Vic to say goodbye a month before Benny’s death? Part of it was the gag rule about speaking about his illness and part was Virginia insisting I shouldn’t come, but I was protecting myself. Our teenage sons went with Vic. I did not. I had learned the art of running as a kid. Hide those tears. Pretend nothing is happening.  Don’t mention death.

Didn’t I know better by the time I was 45? I’d witnessed my teacher’s cancer death and said goodbye to him. Benny was mentally clear until his last days, still asking why he wasn’t getting better. I wish I’d told the truth, but I doubt he wanted to hear it.

I spoke with him on the phone many times that last month. He didn’t scold me. That was never his way. He accepted my love at a distance as though it was a precious gift. We talked about pie and the boys.

After his funeral, perched on a rock at the beach, taking in the vast stillness of the Gulf of Mexico, I faced my mistake. I quietly carried my regret even though no one else felt I’d done anything wrong.

Being with Benny would have shown me the gift of death for those who need a way out. I would have learned about compassion and forbearance. I could have held his hand and looked into his kind brown eyes. I could have thanked him for his unending sweetness.

I wish I had another chance.

Thank you, Benny, for your loving acceptance of me as I was. Your sweetness helped me see myself, take in my regret, and know that next time, for the next death, I would be there. No matter what.

***

Do you regret times you didn’t show up for someone and wish you’d overcome your fears or made the effort? I’d love to hear your stories. This was a painful lesson for me, but what a teaching it was. For another article related to Benny, see To Forget and To Remember. For an article about supporting my brother 25 years later, see The Thief: When Cancer Returns.

 

28 Comments
  1. I’d like to think I’d make the effort for those who matter in my life, but none of us can say for sure until it happens. When it comes to my family, it’s hard to say how any of that will play out as they are such an odd bunch of emotionally distant creatures.

    • Jeri, my decision was heavily influenced by my difficult relationship with my husband’s mom. When I was with her husband Benny, she was always there. My husband told her she couldn’t be mean to Benny or they couldn’t visit–but she was and still is a force of nature (getting stronger as a hospice patient and 102 next week). Families can be so difficult. I took the road of avoiding Vic’s mom’s desire for me to stay away and avoiding having to face Benny’s death. I wish I remembered the decision process, but whatever it was, I chose the opposite path since. Life was the teacher.

  2. I regret not showing up in a number of cases, but I believe that making these “mistakes,” is our way of learning. How would we learn not to touch a hot stove unless we get burned.

    Thank you for this lovely post, Elaine. It’s a great reminder for all of us.

    • Thank you, Joan. I love your forgiving take on our “not showing up” mistakes. Yes, I burned myself. Yes, I didn’t do it again.

  3. I hear regret, but I’m not sure you have completely forgiven yourself for what you term as “not showing up.” Still, this is a sweet story of unconditional love, love and acceptance we (I can substitute “I” here too) must learn to show to ourselves.

    Regret? Yes, indeed. I was not present for the deaths of any of my love ones, they in Pennsylvania and me in Florida. I was too involved with babies when Grandma L died. I visited my dad a few weeks before he passed on, but missed the death itself. My mother’s death was totally unexpected. I realize my sister and I could have taken an earlier flight, but did not. In retrospect, I think we expected her to pull through and were in a state of disbelief; she was so “alive” when we visited her just weeks earlier. And Aunt Ruthie – We nieces had been by her side most of the day before she died, but she slyly slipped away after we left the room, each having assured her of our love. Now I wonder if she “planned” it that way. Ha! – that would be just like her.

    Questions for you, Elaine: Virginia had a beauty shop? And there was a Benny? Thank you for filling in the details of your vibrant family story here. One more question: How ever did you get someone to snap that enchanting photo of you on the rock at the beach? Wow!

    • Marian, I’ve forgiven myself as much as we can forgive ourselves for those things we so wish we’d done differently but realize we didn’t know how to react differently at the time. I think of running from my dying father’s hospital room when I was 14 without realizing it was OK to cry. I think of a few other instances where I blew it but learned essential lessons. I agree about self-acceptance–and that this isn’t my strength. It was surprising to have this story rise in memory since I hadn’t thought about Benny for a long time. As Virginia became more forgetful, she’d often tell me she wanted Benny to come and get her. She doesn’t mention him anymore.

      I imagine Aunt Ruthie planned it that way.

      When Vic was pre-school, his mom was a domestic, then a waitress, and finally a beautician with her own little beauty shop. The Petite Salon of Beauty, as I recall, which came after she married Benny. Benny was a widower with a good first marriage, a house he owned, and a Cadillac. He left Virginia a few times (she had a wild temper), but always came back. Virginia has a powerful life story–and a long one. I know most of it and have all her photos, including her playing baseball as a girl, her wedding to Vic’s dad, her dressed in her waitress uniform, and her in the beauty shop. The photo on the beach was taken by Vic. We were softened by grief after Benny’s memorial service, unguarded and grateful for each other. His camera was loaded with black and white film that day. There are more photos of me and I took photos of him, too, some of my favorites. You’ve probably seen a few.

  4. Who really understands grief until we experience it? I don’t fault you, because I didn’t know what to do to help others until grief came and others helped me. It would be a different matter if we knew what to do, and chose to do nothing. You have learned, Elaine, and are doing much to reduce the suffering of others.

    • Thank you, Mark. I didn’t mean to make this piece a confession, but it has that flavor. Part of me knew I should go, but I was relieved to avoid getting close to death. I don’t avoid it anymore, but it’s still hard, especially when I love someone dearly as I did my brother. It’s especially hard when people are intent on avoiding the truth of their own death and we aren’t allowed to mention the elephant in the room. So I’m learning to speak and to not speak.

  5. Dear Elaine, Thank you for writing about your wonderful, sweet man, Benny! You honour him deeply with your devoted article, including the photos you’ve shared. I really enjoyed hearing all about his calming influence and kindly inspiration. It’s been great to discover his simple words and deep wisdom. What remarkable patience and unconditional love he held!

    Do I regret not showing up? Overcome by fear? Do I live in regret? Yes, yes, and yes again. Many times I felt afraid to visit a dying friend and another who took his own life. I couldn’t face her/his pain and suffering. I couldn’t weep with families I wasn’t close to or with those who were the cause. I wish I’d stayed in touch, picked up the phone more often, but I didn’t.

    These days (with the wisdom of regret, so apt!) I offer prayers, send love, ask for their spirits (including my ancestors) to elevate and heal. Much like yourself, these earlier experiences with death taught me to not turn away. Instead they gave me the strength to turn towards the archetypal Death Mother and confront my own deep fears. Blessings always, Deborah.

    • So beautifully said, Deborah. Benny wasn’t a student of philosophy or a religious person, but he was kind. I think of the Dalai Lama saying, “Kindness is my religion.” Benny had that down.

      I like how you distinguish various ways we can help the dying from calling or sending letters to offering prayers and healing visualizations. A favorite of mine is a pot of soup for the family and for the one who’s sick if they’re eating. The Death Mother is a powerful teacher. She’s been mine for many years. A little voice in me asks, “Don’t you want to write about something else?” Apparently not yet. In my Artemis explorations, I’m now thinking about my relationship to that goddess’s seeming cruelty and decisive, deadly action against transgression. She’s another aspect of the Death Mother. And my mythology class is studying Kali, so we’re deep in the underworld soup.

  6. Elaine, reading this brought tears to my eyes. I remember when my ex-father-in-law was sick with a short time to live. I had been visiting him regularly, but when he heard that my sister was flat on her back with back pain, he told me to take care of her and not to worry about him. I was a single mother and working full-time, so I took his advice and tended to my sister. Thus, I didn’t get to say goodbye to him.

    Just because someone gives us permission to stay away at those difficult times doesn’t mean we should.

    • I agree, Lynne. I completely understand your choice and see why you made it. Perhaps dealing with what was right in front of you? I had permission, but wish I hadn’t acted on it. I wish I’d acted from my heart. After Benny died, Vic’s mom was softened in a way I hadn’t seen before. Vic and I invited her home to our house and had the sweetest and calmest visit we’d ever had. Her fierceness returned by the next time I saw her, but I’m glad I was there for her in those grieving days.

  7. I too have felt fearful about showing up in the face of a friend’s family death or illness until a long time ago when a dear friend whose mother died, said I was the one person she wanted to see. I had kept away because I felt that family was more important at that time and I would be intruding but I also know now, retrospectively, that I was considering myself first and my timidity got in the way. When I get into that headspace now, I always remind myself that it’s NOT about me, it’s about them. Show up – thanks Elaine –

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Susan. Many of us seem to have those ignoble moments that changed our future behavior and made us face our fears. I agree. It’s about them. That’s a hard lesson in an ego-worshiping world.

  8. The beginning of this story resonated at first as my father died suddenly in Florida in 1991 while on vacation and I wasn’t there. I was to visit him 2 days later.
    Also, I was similar to you most of my life when it came to having a hard time being around someone who is dying. I think it’s my empathetic nature, and my nature of always wanting to make something or someone better. In those situations I feel powerless and feel inadequate with what my words could mean to someone there was no hope for recovery. I will say, I never went to see my mother when she was in her final days, and much of the way you describe Virginia reminds me of my mother, I was always uncomfortable being around her. My lack of tolerance for verbal abuse could never dissipate. Sure, I beat myself up emotionally after she died but it was my writing that got me through it.
    Wonderful post Elaine. 🙂

    • Debby, I know you’ve had rough losses without sweet resolutions or death bed forgiveness. It’s always a challenge to be with the dying and face our own mortality, but I know I can be with the dying now, hold hands, and let them lead the conversation. It’s hardest for me when that person or the family wants to deny what’s happening and cuts off real heart communication by doing that. I’ve had many powerful and illuminating conversations with people who confronted death head-on and wanted to talk about their experience, their hopes, and their regrets. There is usually lots of gratitude, too. If we won’t speak of the obvious death in the room, then none of the deeper communication can happen. Yes, it’s our writing that gets us through. It amazed me that, in all these years, I’d never written about Benny. In some ways, we weren’t close, but he was a constant in my life and especially my kid’s lives until his death. And there was always the pie.

      • I loved this part Elaine, “If we won’t speak of the obvious death in the room, then none of the deeper communication can happen.” I will remember that. <3

        • Vic was so clear about this, Debby. It meant we never had to pretend everything was all right and we could deal with how hard things were and support each other. Because he understood I was having a hard time, too, he could support me with love and gratitude and kindness while I supported him.

  9. I recall a visit to a great aunt who (we all) believed she was dying. She held my hand and said she had no regrets and I felt sad for her. I think a life with no regrets is a life not fully lived. Of course we will have regrets, both those of doing and those of not doing. (and those of the doing are easier, I think, to forgive ourselves for). But we learn from them, as you have certainly done. I loved learning about Benny. And your knack for cherry pie. Thank you, Elaine. (This has inspired me to write about my regrets; never too late to learn from them again).

    • Thanks for taking time to comment, Janet. I’m grateful I don’t have a long list of “untended” regrets to deal with. I’m a bit of a guilt tripper, or so my sons and close friends say, so I tend to stew over regrets. I’ve written about many of them, but hadn’t written about Benny before. It surprised me to have these memories show up in Technicolor and it was good to talk with my sons about their experiences with Benny and his death. Never too late to learn our lessons.

  10. This is s beautiful, honest, heartfelt piece Elaine. It brought me right back to the recent death of my mother. The pain is enormous and I can actually feel your pain in and through your beautiful words. Thank you. You give me the opportunity to few death and mourning from a new perspective.

    • I’m sorry you’re in the midst of the grief of losing your mom. I always come back to the words in my TEDx talk: “Love and grief are a package deal.” We love them. We want them in our lives. We wish they were here and maybe we wish we had more time or could say a few more things. In time, we learn they don’t go away, but take up residence in our hearts. I imagine you have powerful stories to write about your mom. We all need to know that grief hurts and is also a teacher.

  11. I loved reading about Benny, Elaine. That was me too, not showing up, being afraid of anything to do with death or illness. I never understood why people went to funerals. You should spend time with people BEFORE they die, I used to say. But I was scared of people who were very sick or dying. I never attended sick beds or funerals. Until my father died. And then my daughter. And that’s when I learned how much it means to the bereaved to be surrounded by caring. It warmed my wretched heart to see all the people whose lives were touched by the ones I loved.

    • I’ve learned so much about myself, my limitations, and my strengths by sitting (or not sitting) with the dying. The lessons with Virginia go on and on and on. She was admitted as a hospice patient, but is much stronger than she was 6 weeks ago. Who could imagine this? She’ll be 102 next week. I’m exhausted with this, but she still has lots of vitality. And on we go…

  12. This is such a moving post, my friend…
    As Finite Human Beings we still haven´t come to terms with Death (we´d probably never do)… But there are some Cultures that are used to treat Death in amore accepting way. I am thinking of Mexicans and their “Día de Los Muertos”, which is a sort of festive celebration and tribute too all those who have passed away.
    I´ve noted my dad´s defensive attitude toward death, since he was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer last year. Luckily for us, his illness is treatable … and possibly he wil live with it for many years, in a chronic way. Hence it is not even an imminent cause of death. But back to the point, I can not mention him movies related to Crime, or anything associated with Crimes, Death, etc… without noticing the fear in his face.
    I am sure all the memories you shared Benny were enough, dear Elaine.
    I am sending you love across the miles.

    • Aquileana, I know that Benny was never upset with me, so never had to forgive me. I had to forgive myself and be grateful to him for the teaching he gave me.

      I imagine many Latin cultures do better with dealing with Death than we do in the United States. Those powerful festivals! I learned the most about dealing with death in India where death and funerals are part of public life for paupers and rich. I’m sorry to hear about your dad’s illness and his fear. It’s quite a job to look our mortality in the eye. If we’re fortunate, we know how much we can learn by looking rather than turning away. I’ll be interested to see how you respond to your dad and his fear. Will you look the other way and help him protect himself or will you find a way to guide him toward looking at mortality? So much will depend on his reactions as this unfolds. You know so much through mythology if he could just see a little through the windows of your Soul. With love and gratitude and healing hope, Elaine

      • Thanks so much dear Elaine… Your words are so meaningful!.
        I am thinking what you said as to my dad… and yes, I could try a different approach. I will consider in depth your advice! …Thing is my dad´s dad passed away when he was a kid. And the whole experience has been traumatic to him. I belive his “fears” could link back to those sad moments. And multiply themselves these days given his illness. Sending love across the miles. <3

        • I hope I didn’t give too much advice, Aquileana. I have no idea what’s right for your dad or for you. I know that facing the fears of mortality can bring us close to each other, but sometimes the childhood or adult wounds are too deep and scary. Some come to a straight-forward look after a long time of wrestling. Some never get there–my 102 year old mother-in-law, for example. Sending love to you and hopes that your dad has a gentle time with this big health change.

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