One of the more common words I hear from people impacted by grief is the word regret. I’m told that they have many regrets. Some are for behaviors when their special person was still living. Some are for thoughts that they continue to have, despite knowing they couldn’t have done anything differently. Some are for words that were or weren’t spoken to their special person when they were still alive.
Regret hurts. It hurts emotionally. It hurts psychologically. Regret has been known to keep people from working through grief. It can keep someone stuck in the past, getting lost in thought about what should have been different.
I’m currently supporting a griever who is really struggling with his regret. For the protection of his privacy, I’ll call him Tony. Tony lost his husband to cancer. His husband battled it for 5 years. Tony tells me that during his husband’s illness, there were times that were good, times that were bad, and times that were ugly.
But one of the things that is really hurting Tony is that he has regrets and he’s put himself on the hook for them.
When Tony’s husband was ill, he spent time at home resting and watching TV. Tony would spend time with him, watching programs together, and feeling a sense of quality time between them.
But Tony went through a phase where he avoided his husband. He intentionally did other things to distract himself. He drank.
Now that his husband is no longer living, Tony replays the memories of when his husband used to tell him that he was lonely and that he needed Tony to spend more time with him. Tony now regrets what he did to distract himself. Tony has put himself on the hook for not being as available as what his husband needed him to be.
Tony spends a lot of time with these thoughts of regret. He’s in a lot of pain. He hopes that one day the pain will lessen or even go away.
I find Tony’s experience pretty common. Many people in grief want to go from regret to being okay with what is real. And for many, no matter how many times you tell yourself what’s really real, the mind continues to play memories that make you think you should have done something different.
Here’s a tricky fact about regret. You can regret doing something as much as you can regret having done nothing at all. Regret makes you feel like you’re damned that you did or you’re damned if you didn’t.
Grief related regret tends to be focused on past experiences with your loved one. It’s about wanting or wishing something that happened to now be different. It may be so because the decision created painful consequences or the behavior led to unfavorable results.
In life, t’s easy to think that mistakes can be fixed. You messed up once and you won’t do it again. But after the death of a loved one, it’s easy to believe that nothing can be changed. What happened was wrong and it may be that way forever and it’s now time to pay the consequences.
Death is permanent. It can’t be changed. And this fact often gets tied into regret, causing you to believe that because you feel a certain way about things that happened in the past, you’ll always feel that way, now and in the future. That type of association is a big contributor to why regret feels so painful in grief.
When my Stepfather died, my mom administered CPR for several minutes before the paramedics arrived. My mom knew how to do CPR. She was an RN for more than 20 years. But she couldn’t save Warren. And she regretted it for a long time.
The regret initially caused her a lot of pain in her grief but now she’s doing better. What’s different now is that she knows she did the best she could to try to save him. She also knows that the regret related thoughts in her early grief were not as true as what they first seemed to be.
Why did she have such regretful thoughts if they were never really true?
Most people want to understand their grief. They want to make sense of something so painful and unbearable. If they understand it, maybe it won’t hurt as bad.
I believe that regretful thoughts sometimes happen because your heart misses the connection and then your mind looks for substitute solutions. I think this happens on an unconscious level and there’s very little awareness when it is actually happening. The awareness comes after the regret feels more familiar. Now the mind is convinced that something that was never real should actually have been.
I think this is why my mom regretted not saving Warren’s life. She unconsciously convinced herself that it was possible and that she should have saved him. But after working through her grief, she accepted that it wasn’t as possible as she originally thought.
For grief related regret, the consequence is feeling more shame and punishing yourself for such a devastating loss. As a grief companion, it’s hard to witness this. To be honest, there’s a big part of me that wants to try to fix it and stop someone from being really hard on themself.
But for many, this is part of the grief journey. The regret may be necessary to work through. It may play a significant part in someone’s healing. I wish that I could explain why or that I could help you predict if regret is necessary in your grief, but I can’t. I guess if I were to have a superhuman power, that would be it.
So if you’re wishing that your grief related regret would just go away, I would say, “It’s here, it feels real right now, and something important may come from it. Instead of wanting it to go away, can you give it some space and listen to what it’s trying to tell you?”
There are some common ways regret can show up in someone’s life. Karyn Arnold over at Grief In Common provided a great summary for many of these ways. I’ll highlight a few but to find the full list, they’re listed here.
Grief related regret is common for people who feel they took many things for granted with the person who died. They run through memories, judging themselves for not being as present, being moody, emotionally unavailable, etc. They then punish themselves with thoughts of negativity or even self-hatred. Thus, causing the pain to feel more intense.
For a loss that feels traumatic, people often judge themselves for not being able to do more. They regret not trying harder to get someone help for some type of addiction. They struggle with regret because in hindsight, they had more control over the actions (or lack of) in helping, trying harder, getting help, etc.
Grief related regret can be something left unsaid or a decision made near the end that they wish they could change, or a situation unresolved. After a loss these regrets can haunt us endlessly.
Thank you Karyn.
At this point, I want to shift gears a bit. I’ve shared what grief related regret is and how it may be seen or felt. Let’s now explore what regret does to a person who is grieving.
This was mentioned a little bit earlier, but sadly, regret can cause someone to feel shame. Putting yourself on the hook for something related to your loss can convince you you’ve done a very bad thing. Staying in that mind frame is more known as guilt. Once you start identifying yourself as wrong or bad, that’s shame. Some examples of shame are “I was a terrible husband, I deserve this suffering, or he died because of me.”
I witness a lot of people being really hard on themselves in their grief, and unfortunately, I frequently hear many grievers shame themselves. I’ll be sure to write another article on shame in grief but I did want to mention it here as part of what regret can become if unmanaged or not worked through.
Grief related regret can also lead to a deeper sense of sadness. It’s okay to feel sad in grief. But too much could lead to depression. The difference between grief and depression is an important topic and that will be another article but let me just state one thing about the difference here. If you’re grieving and wondering if you’re depressed, check in with yourself about your feelings of self worth. If your self-esteem feels very low, you may want to reach out to a mental health professional for help.
Grief related regret has also been known to make people very anxious. Repeated thoughts with the perception of a different choice keeps you in your head wishing for a different outcome. Anxiety in grief is common. The mind does imagine things that are painful after a loss. There’s a good book titled Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief written by Claire Bidwell-Smith that is worth reading if you’re feeling a lot of anxiety in your grief.
The last thing I’ll mention about what grief related regret can do to you is that it can create a bias in decision making going forward. The bias is tough though because it’s a bias towards making poor choices. If you hang on to regrets in your grief for too long, you can set yourself up for future disappointments and painful outcomes. Your mind may keep punishing yourself, tricking you into these types of decisions.
That’s a vicious cycle to be in. It’s hard when you’re making choices that punish yourself without being fully aware of them. Grief related regret may be a part of what influences these types of choices and decisions.
Here’s a brief story from a griever who hung on to regret and how it made his life more difficult.
My father passed three years ago. We had our ups and downs, but in his last year I couldn’t talk to him. His meds made him a terror to be around. He got really mean and threatening.
I got so angry I told him to go “Choke” on his pills and that we’re better off without him.
Problem is that a couple weeks after my outburst, he died.
I felt awful that he died and that I had said such angry things. I thought a million times about apologizing but I never did. Now I regret not telling him I was sorry. I wanted to tell him that I never meant what I said.
My anger got the best of me and my father died thinking that I wanted him dead. That thought runs through my head every day.
Instead of looking out for him, I acted out in anger. I know he wasn’t trying to do wrong in the end. Now I believe I failed him. I don’t know how to forgive myself.
In Dave’s story, he hung onto his regret for a very long time. He ended up sabotaging himself and got fired from his job. Dave convinced himself he was an angry and bad person. His temper flared at work and he was let go.
Grief related regrets may lead to self punishment and self sabotage for what is most of the time false beliefs that you should have known better or there was another option at the time you were making the decision.
You run the event in your head over and over again, telling yourself you made the wrong choice. Your mind creates punishment by telling you that you have to pay the consequences now. You have to suffer because of the poor choice you made in the past.
Too often we tend to take the thing we regret and then use it to label and define ourselves. Hanging onto the regret for too long will take you to a dark place and complicate grief, so let’s now explore what can be done to let go of or work through grief related regret.
Reframing what you tell yourself
To feel better about grief related regret involving an action, you have to believe you never actually made a bad choice. You made the best choice possible, considering all the information, circumstances, and everything happening at the time. You have to let yourself off the hook and trust/believe that you did the best you could with what you had.
Reframing will take time. It’s a discipline because at first it may feel like your reframe isn’t true. It may be hard to believe so it will require a lot of repetition. It may be helpful to write it down and place it somewhere so you can look at it throughout the day and repeat it as many times as possible.
If you are familiar with using affirmations, this reframe technique is very similar. Keep at it and trust that the more you engage, the more the feeling will hold. You’ll reach a point where regret won’t hurt as much and you’ll believe you did the best you could.
Many grievers I know apologize to their loved one. They say they’re sorry, internally and aloud. Many people use their voice to apologize. Many people write letters. Many people apologize in their thoughts. Any way you can say you’re sorry is helpful. It helps you feel more into your emotions, giving them space to run their course.
You may benefit from apologizing over and over again. That’s okay too. One recommendation for apologizing is to be very specific. Saying that you’re sorry for everything may be more harmful in your grief. Saying that you’re sorry for specific things you said or did can help to better understand the bigger picture, help you reframe events, restore emotions for your healing, put things into perspective, and even provide a permission to forgive yourself.
Forgiving yourself is a process. It’s hard and requires a lot of patience. But I think that anyone experiencing grief related regret is also going through the process of self forgiveness, whether it’s conscious or not.
The process itself involves a shift in perspective just enough to be kind, gentle, and compassionate to yourself. The process also involves finding or returning to a place of loving yourself. That’s also hard to do, regardless of what your grief experience is.
There are complex models of forgiveness- with the self and others. Forgiveness in grief will likely be another article in the future but there are a couple things worth noting here.
Forgiveness can be perceived as a feeling but it’s actually a choice. Semantically, when you say “I can’t forgive myself” you’re arguably saying “I won’t forgive myself.” That’s a tough truth and it’s hard to hear.
But it makes sense to feel this way when you’re grieving. Grief is complex and the regret is an important piece to the healing process. If you can have compassion for yourself, it will help with your forgiveness.
Another tip for forgiveness is to repeat the facts to yourself. This may be more helpful if you write things down but try to think of things that you did to love and care for your special person too. The facts will help you accept the reality of the bigger picture.
Acceptance is also an important part to forgiveness. Acceptance is listed as one of the stages of grief but it’s also a decision you make when you are looking to forgive yourself. My hope is that you look at the facts, you apologize, and you decide to forgive yourself and let yourself off the hook.
Over the years, I have had to forgive myself for some of my grief related regrets. My stepfather battled cancer for 8 years despite receiving a prognosis of just a year to live. In those 8 years, there were countless visits to the hospital.
What I regretted was that I lived so far away and that I was unable to do more than what I could. After Warren died, I struggled with the memories of the times we talked on the phone during his illness. When I replayed those memories, I told myself I could have done a lot more than what I did.
I also regretted not being a better listener to my mom. She was right there alongside him throughout his time battling cancer. She went through a process of immense anticipatory grief. At the time, I wasn’t as skilled in my grief companioning work. I would think about her grief and what she would say to me on the phone and then tell myself I could have helped more by saying less, listening more, and being more empathetic.
Over time, I worked through my regrets and felt a sense of healing by reframing a lot of my thoughts and revisiting the facts from my experience. I did live over 2000 miles away. I did several fundraiser events to help pay for his medical bills. I did call frequently and listen to the best of my ability.
The more I replayed the facts of the greater experience and the reality that I did do the best I could, the more I forgave myself and didn’t feel as much regret. It wasn’t easy. It was a process. But I did work though it and I trust that you can too.
To sum things up on grief related regret, we went over what it means, how it impacts your grief, and some things you can do to work through regret to let it go / move through it. Grief related regret hurts and I hope you treat yourself with kindness as you work through it all.
If you’re in a place of needing extra support, please reach out at griefrefuge.com. I’m honored to help in whatever way I can.