My father was a palliative nurse who worked into his late seventies, the later years as a volunteer. At the end of his service, his work was mainly sitting with the terminally ill and letting them talk. The urgency of this time, he said, was palpable. The days of exchanging pleasantries about the weather or complaining about the increase in the petrol prices were gone. His patients needed to talk about their lives. What had worked, what had not and more importantly about their regrets.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the biggest ones were not working harder for the big promotion or buying the top of the range BMW when they had a chance.
It seems that most people regretted things they hadn’t done when it came to people, especially family, a big one being sacrificing time with family for trying to be indispensable at work. This led to children growing up too quickly and moving away claiming to have been emotionally neglected. They, ( the children), were determined not to make the same mistakes and to make sure they always attended their children’s school plays, prize giving, football matches. My father told me about the tears that were shed for those lost times and the permanent tainting of relationships.
Others regretted allowing the one person they really loved to get away or staying in a relationship that had died long before because it was easier or it was what other people expected. That was another thing. Doing what others expected; university choice, career, marriage, children, following the belief and value system of the family. Follow your dreams and if others don’t like it, tough, was their message.
Having children or not having them is something we decide at the time. Sometimes that choice is taken away from us but that isn’t regret by our own hand. Being afraid to try something new and reach beyond our comfort zone is another regret the dying express. ‘I thought something bad would happen to me, my family, my business… or I didn’t want to take the risk.’ The excuses at the time are plausible but as life ebbs to a close, the fears are put into perspective.
My new year always starts on my birthday. Today. It’s a time I reflect on the things I’ve been too scared to try and the goals for the coming year which are getting fewer as I get older. Like anybody, I have regrets. Here’s a few of them:-
- I wish I’d chosen a different course of study
- I wish I hadn’t stayed with an abusive husband for so long.
- I wish I’d dealt with my resulting depression and anxiety much earlier instead of trying to treat it myself.
- I wish I’d made more of an effort to have a social life to prepare me for the empty nest.
- I wish I’d learned to relax and I wish I’d kept my mouth shut more.
- I wish I’d not fallen out with my brother after my father’s death.
Regret is a powerful moral emotion because it implies a lot of self-criticism. I should have/have not done something. With it comes shame and sadness. Even bitterness.
We end up berating ourselves for a decision that seemed right at the time. On their death bed, my father’s patients weren’t looking to confess or seek forgiveness. Sharing these deep feelings with someone who wouldn’t judge them was all that mattered. It was in the purging that relief was found.
The decisions I’ve made have brought me to this point in my life. Is it better or worse than it might have been had I made different decisions? That’s a nonsense question. We are where we are as a former client of mine used to say and I am content with where I am.
End of life is about acceptance. We did our best with the tools and knowledge we had at the time so let it go. If you can do something to change things then I say do it now. Even if you have to swallow your pride. You don’t know how long you have and as my Dad used to say, don’t let the sun set on your quarrels.