I’ve been thinking a lot about regrets lately. We all have them, but what we do with them directly impacts our level of happiness. It is very easy to look back and focus on the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” of the situation. I have found that kind of thinking leads us to spiral downward into regret, self-blame and depression. Rather than healing, it leads to feeling worse and being stuck in grief.
The reality is regretting a past behavior, decision, relationship, etc. keeps us looking at the past. As there are no true do-overs we can not go back and undo it, but we can take steps to change our present and future.
So what does this mean for those of us who are grieving? From my experience it means that we have a few choices:
1) Ignore the regret and pain or pretend it isn’t there. With either, we carry it around with us and watch as it rears it’s ugly head in painful or destructive ways.
2) Ruminate on the regrets, beat ourselves up and stay stuck in the pain and grief.
3) We can practice forgiveness of ourselves and others.
I have many regrets. For a while, I lived using the second option above. I got really good at it; I could ruminate night and day! But it just caused more pain and didn’t change the past. I thought holding on to pain and regret was the only way I could keep the good stuff close as well.
Thankfully, I had a very wise friend who pointed out my misconception. The good memories weren’t going anywhere. They were mine to keep. All the regrets and pain that I was drowning in actually made it harder to remember the good feelings and memories. Letting go of the pain didn’t mean I was letting go of the person I had lost!
Another lesson came a few years later. It’s a phrase I use frequently with myself and others: “I did the best I could with what I had at the time”. The heart of the message is that forgiving ourselves and others doesn’t mean we are “ok” with what happened. It means that we accept that we did our best…THEN – Not our best now with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.
The final stage of grief is acceptance which is profoundly different from approval. And this is true whether you’re grieving the loss of a person or a pet, the loss of a relationship or identity, or the loss of safety following a trauma. We don’t have to like our present circumstances, but acceptance means we stop fighting against the truth. Acceptance means that we offer ourselves forgiveness for our regrets and know that we did, indeed, do the best we could at the time with what we had.
Chris Adams Hill, LCSW