My mother’s birthday is tomorrow. She died about two years ago. I thought I had been mourning her death in a pretty healthy way, moving through stages of grief appropriately. I felt that I was moving forward towards wholeness. I thought the worst was pretty much behind me.
I think I was wrong.
Those of you who have been traveling with me know that, when my mother died, I experienced a wide variety of emotions. I tried to feel each one instead of pushing it aside so I would not create a dark prison of grief within myself. It has been a difficult, painful process, but also satisfying in that I feel like I’ve mourned with a certain amount of courage and integrity.
The one thing I thought I was spared during my mourning was the problem of regret. When my mother died, I felt fairly satisfied with my role in her last years. I believed I had done my best. I thought I was able to let go of any self-loathing about what I “coulda shoulda” done.
Once again, I think I was wrong.
It seems I do have regrets. Big ones. But I think I have just been too afraid to face them. They are menacing. They are terrifying. They are threatening to start building that prison of grief. It might be time to show them the light of day.
I first became aware of the regrets around Mother’s Day this year. Some of you may remember my story about the day I stopped holding my mom’s hand and vacated the room when family came to visit her roommate (http://www.terrilabonte.com/2019/05/hug-a-mom-today). I think that memory opened the door to my regrets. I have been regretting that day ever since. I’ve been regretting it so much, it hurts. I regret that I didn’t just stay in the room and hold her hand when the other people came. I regret that I didn’t hold her hand more often.
There are other regrets, as well. Sometimes, I even regret things that I was absolutely convinced were the right thing to do when I did them. For instance, I regret not being with my mom when she passed. I was always sure my mom did not want me there when she died. Now, I wonder. It would have been difficult to tell when the time was coming, admittedly. She had been slowly leaving me for so long, it was hard to know when the door was finally going to close. I had been through the “it may be just a few days” phase several times. Apart from staying at the nursing facility full time for several weeks or months, there would have been no way to know the critical moment. During those last few days, which I didn’t know were going to be the last few days, the hospice nurses thought she might be getting close. She died in the very early hours on a Saturday morning. When I saw her on Friday, she drank a whole can of Ensure… after not eating anything for days. My hospice angel said that it seemed that maybe she wasn’t ready to go yet. Less than twelve hours later, she was gone.
In some ways, that chain of events should reassure me that my mother’s intent was to die without me there. On some level, she may have been trying to fool me into believing I could go home because it wasn’t time, even though she knew it was. It doesn’t really matter whether I am right or wrong about the way I interpret her actions. I still regret not being there.
I regret that I was not able to figure out what my mother was trying to say a lot of the time. I tried so hard, but I failed much of the time. I resorted to trying to interpret her nonverbal cues and I will never know how good a job I did of that. I am sad because I don’t know if I advocated for her properly because I wasn’t sure what she wanted or needed.
Then there is the biggest, most shameful regret. I regret that I did not have her at home with me. I regret that she lived in a nursing home. I know there are a lot of good reasons she was there. She was bedridden. She needed extensive wound treatment and medical comfort care. She was incontinent. Her cognitive and communicative abilities were impaired. She needed twenty-four hour a day assistance with activities of daily living. It was good that she had a network of loving people who genuinely cared for her and attended to her needs. I was with her just about every day, but, if she had been at home, it would have been only me with her. She always responded well to the caregivers who visited her room and made her laugh. I’m not sure I was up to making her laugh, much less taking care of all her needs. I don’t think I honestly could have taken care of her at home. Let’s be truthful. It was all I could do to make it through that time when there was a whole team of people caring for her. Still, I regret it bitterly. I feel like I should have been able to care for her at home.
Truth be told, I have hit a rough patch. I am in a bit of a dark place. I have woken up crying several times over the last few nights. In the shower this morning, I couldn’t draw a deep breath. My heart felt ready to explode. There was a dead heaviness in the center of my abdomen. All I wanted to do was scream, as if by pushing sound violently out of myself, I could also dispatch the pain. It is even hard to write this because it hurts so much to realize how much more I wish I was.
As I said, I have been struggling with these feelings of regret for several months now. I work hard to manage them. I’ve found a few strategies that seem to help make things easier to endure.
First, there is prayer. I have found that laying my grief and my regrets at God’s feet is the best way to unburden myself from it. Not only that, but prayer has helped me find other ways of dealing with the regret. For one thing, I know that my mother is in Heaven. Her heart holds no regrets. She experiences only joy and love. She has long since forgiven me for every weakness, failing, and misstep. Secondly, instead of wallowing in my regrets, I try to invest that energy in doing ordinary things with extraordinary love for the people I still encounter in this world. It is sweetly satisfying to use a little of the love I have for my mother to brighten someone else’s life. It is part of her legacy to me.
Still, all my strategies don’t always work. Some days, I run smack into one of those grief prison walls and I just give up. It hurts. Today is one of those days.
Have you experienced feelings of regret after the death of a loved one? How do you manage those feelings? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a regret-free day!