If Only . . .

 In Honorable Closure (HC), Personal Transitions, Resolving Regrets, Tools & Resources, Widow's Notes

Last week’s horrific explosions in Boston, Massuchuttes and West, Texas were painful reminders of our vulnerability as human beings. My heart and mind flew to the victims and their families. As a widow, I know they have a profound road of healing and adaption ahead. Their lives will never be the same and it will take years to mend. Anger and aversion make me wince because I know this could happen to me or the people I love.

Yesterday, CBS Sunday Morning ran a segment about regret and the importance of valuing each and every moment that we share with the people who matter most to us. It’s natural to experience regrets, the haunt of “If Only” as we look back and wonder how things might have been different if only we’d done this or said that, whatever the road not taken was.

Some regrets don’t stand up to scrutiny. Weeks before his death, my husbands oncologist suggested a certain treatment which my husband declined outright, as was his privilege. After his death, I was haunted by the thought, “If only I had persuaded him to give that a try.” It took several months into my grieving process for me to see that I had done the best I could under very difficult circumstances; honoring my husband’s wish was the only thing to do. Most important was coming to the understanding and acceptance that extra treatment would not have changed the outcome.

Resolving regrets is the second step toward Honorable Closure. How do we work through our misgivings so they don’t plague us eternally? First we must be willing to tell the truth about our regrets, confessing them to ourselves (or a trusted friend or mentor) with compassion and humility. CBS interviewed Professor Neal Roese, from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He has studied regret for twenty years and said regrets serve a healthy purpose only if we can draw a useful insight, then move on and focus on the future.

Wallowing in regrets can lead to depression and anxiety. So, it is important to work with them. When things are left undone, they tend to be more powerful because they live in our imagination. Our imagination fills in the blanks and makes up all kinds of stories. Mark Twain illustrated this trap when he said: “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

In my experience mentoring people through Honorable Closure, the most potent regrets center around the things they never said, neglecting to express love, gratitude or extend a genuine apology.

There is a silver lining. It is never too late to express those things, even if a person we love has passed away, contact was lost, or we couldn’t muster the strength before now. A beautiful resource for this is the website “The Things You Would Have Said” created by Jackie Hooper, wouldhavesaid.com. Here you can post an anonymous letter to someone expressing your truest feelings. Taking time to read other letters on the site is an exercise in awareness of how common regrets are, how much they cost us, and the freedom that comes from coming clean and expressing ourselves. I have always encouraged clients to write letters that they might not send as an exercise in freedom and clarity. When it feels right to send the letter, I encourage that. Other times we co-design a process to let the letter go. Posting your letter on a website is another way of letting go and moving on.

Today at 2:50 PM Eastern Time, exactly one week after the first bomb went off, Boston will pause to honor the three that were killed and more than 170 that were wounded and treated in hospitals. As I observe that silence, it will be my wish that all beings directly impacted by this will find peace in their hearts and allow themselves the dignity of their own process to find it.

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