I was watching one of my favorite TV shows the other day, A Million Little Things, and as often happens, how they dealt with the concept we’d been discussing in a support group that same week resonated with me. In the episode I was watching (and warning, spoiler alert!!), Rome Howard, a character played by Romany Malco, spoke at his mother’s funeral. He later discussed with his father, the one remaining parent, that he’d been able to speak without regret about his mother, because they had said everything they needed to say, and that his relationship with his father wasn’t on the same footing.
And this seemed to me to be an excellent application or outcome of the concept of grief versus regret. This fictional character was grieving the loss of his mother and would grieve the loss of his father, if that situation presented itself, but the difference he realized was that he would have regrets if his father died, while not having any at the death of his mother.
Why would this be?
Let’s take two steps back and look at definitions.
First, the definition of grief, is usually along these lines: “deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement.” I’ve written before about Disenfranchised Grief, a particular type of grief those of us living with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) often struggle with since we only know others online or in a particular context and then struggle differently when that person we are connected with dies. In other words, grief is the feeling that is caused by a loss of some kind; or a reaction to specific events that have occurred beyond our control or regardless of our ability to control. Grief is a reaction to something tangible.
Second, the definition of regret, although seeming to be close to the definition of grief, is typically defined along these lines: “a feeling of sadness or disappointment, which is caused by something that has happened or something that you have done or not done.” Regret, in this definition, can be caused by a situation outside of your control, but can also be caused by something you have done or not done. Regret is a reaction to something left undone, something unsaid, something that should have been differently. Regret, different from Grief, is something we can address while we are still alive.
In the example above, Rome noticed that he and his mother had no remaining issues to be resolved, that they had exchanged and expressed love in the best way they knew how and thus he was able to deal with his grief without regret; however, he noticed that he didn’t have the same clarity in his relationship with his father, that if his father were to die, he would feel both grief and regret. In the show, Rome and his father committed to having those conversations, to clearing the air, and moving towards a place of no regrets.
As those of us living while dying deal with the ramifications of facing our death daily while also attempting to live look towards the end, it is a subject that comes up: how do we truly live? How to live while dying without regret? How do we grieve the losses and lay the foundation for our families to grieve well?
I can’t claim to have “THE” answers; at the same time, here are some ideas that resonate with me and many others I’ve talked to:
- To live a life without regret is to live in the moment — to focus on NOW as more important than BEFORE or NEXT.
- To live a life without regret is to have the conversations you’ve always bit your tongue and avoided, in love and courage.
- To live a life without regret is to express the things you’ve always wanted to those around you and then take steps to meet your needs.
- To live a life without regret is to connect or reconnect with those people who you love and have either lost contact with or have damaged contact.
- To live a life without regret is to examine your actions through the lens of your values/priorities and act accordingly.
- To live a life without regret is to do the things that you’ve always wanted to do and not put them off and off and off.
There is no perfect life or perfect death, there is only us flawed humans trying to figure this life thing out and making mistakes along the way. If we have a goal of living and dying without regrets and view decisions through this lens, it can help to crystalize what’s most important and what needs to be done first. As is often said, no one says on their deathbed that they wished they’d worked more — what many regret is making the decisions that keep them at the office and not spend important time with their families and friends.
My first thought when I was told that the breast cancer had spread and that my life expectancy would be severely truncated was that I had not yet had sufficient time with my kids. No amount of time is truly enough when it comes to children or other loved ones, but I do not regret that I don’t have an office or the pressures of running a law firm or even practicing law the way I’d done for decades. I do not regret walking away from a job so that I could spend the time I have with my boys.
And now it’s your turn — what is it that you haven’t done or need to do in order to leave this world without regrets? And then, what will you do about it?