Content Alert: This post contains reference to drug addiction and death by overdose.

Note: Client names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Joe’s Story

Joe regretted what he did. When his father was at end-of-life, hospitalized with multiple organ failure, Joe decided it was time to “put the past aside before it was too late” and forgive his father for a lifetime of physical, verbal and emotional abuse. However as he stood by his father’s bedside, rather than speaking the words of forgiveness he had rehearsed, Joe found himself “reigning anger and hatred down upon Dad.”

“It seemed like out of nowhere you f-ing this and you f-ing came out of my mouth. Once I started I couldn’t stop,” Joe said. As his anger cooled Joe thought “now I can say I forgive you” but before he had a chance, his father took a gasping breathe and suddenly died.

“When I saw he was dead, I fell to the ground ashamed and so full of regret that this was our end together,” said Joe. “My God what kind of person does such a thing? What kind of person am I to do such a thing?”

Jill’s Story

Jill regretted what she didn’t do. Born when her father was already in his 60s, Jill and her father found it hard to “navigate the multi-generational gap” between them. Through the prism of that gap, Jill found herself constantly defensive, angry and lashing out when “Dad told me I was a lowlife, not feminine because I have tattoos and body piercings. So when he put me down one too many times I walked away,” said Jill.

For three years father and daughter didn’t speak. When family friends and relatives let Jill know her father was dying, she put off visiting him.

“I guess I didn’t believe it, or didn’t want to believe it,” Jill said. “Or maybe I just thought we still had time to make up. How could I be so stupid?”

At her mother’s urging Jill finally went to visit her father when he was “in the hospital yet again with something wrong.” Within minutes of her arrival Jill’s unconscious father died.

Jill said, “I feel such sad regret that we never made up before he died. Neither of us could ever find a way to say sorry or let things go or just be. Now I don’t know what to do with all of the words stuck inside me I wish I had said but never did.”

Dan’s Story

Dan regretted both what he did and didn’t do. Dan’s eldest son had a history of substance abuse. “First alcohol, then anything he could put up his nose. And finally - it turns out - fentanyl.”

At first Dan and his wife invested “a lot of time, energy and money” into helping their son “get clean.”

“I regret it now but because we gave him help we thought we had the right to tell him about his moral weakness, his failings against God – which is what we saw as the root cause of his addictions,” said Dan, a deeply religious man.

When “giving him all the help in the world” didn’t work, Dan and his wife decided that “cutting him off would bring him around.” Shortly after this decision was made, their son overdosed on fentanyl.

“He died alone. Alone! I feel such guilt, such regret that we stopped seeing him,” said Dan. “But what else should we have done? I still don’t know.”

What Is Regret and Why Is it so Painful?

To regret is to feel sad, repentant or disappointed about actions you did or were unable to do – actions you perceive to be wrong or not in alignment with your best possible self. It is the sense of having failed at being your best self that can make regret so painful.

Emotions that often accompany regret include guilt, shame, and remorse; these emotions arise as you try to emotionally process and make sense of why you did not or could not make a different decision – one that would have had a more favorable outcome or less painful consequences.

It's Never Too Late to Heal Regret

After a loved one dies, regret can lead you to believe that now it’s too late (too late to make amends, too late to make peace), a belief that when left unaddressed can be a source of great pain, complicating and prolonging the grieving process. The key to healing regret then is not to avoid the pain of what was or wasn’t said or done but rather to deal with regret as part of your grief-healing journey.

Processing and Healing Regret

Processing and healing regret requires:

1. Coming to understand the circumstances and hurts that led to actions or inactions that you now regret and that now complicate your grieving process.

Whatever led to the actions or inactions you now regret was planted in the soil of a painful experience or shared history – one full of unhealed hurt. For Joe it was a lifetime of physical, emotional and verbal abuse. For Jill it was years of name-calling filtered through the megaphone of her father’s raised voice. For Dan it was a decade spent feeling helpless and hopeless regarding what was the best thing to do or not do for his son.

Unhealed hurts usually don’t express themselves in pretty, ordered and rational ways; unhealed hurts usually do what Joe’s did – express themselves at the least opportune time. And unhealed hurts avoid contact with the source of hurt so as to avoid more hurt as Jill’s did. And unhealed hurts can draw a hard line and give up in despair as Dan’s did.

Examining and understanding the circumstances and hurts that led to your regrettable actions or inactions can facilitate compassion for yourself -and eventual compassion for your loved one. Although the death of a loved one isn’t usually talked about as a potential growth experience it often can be – and that is certainly true when regret is present: when healed regret can help you to clarify what you value, reframe painful life experiences as learning experiences, learn to forgive yourself, and facilitate more beneficial ways of dealing with future pains and hurts.

2. Processing regret and other uncomfortable regret-related emotions.
There are no good or bad, right or wrong emotions – all emotions are informative. The pain of regret informs you that what you did or didn’t do wasn’t in alignment with your best intentions and self, that some sort of inner reconciliation needs to happen, that amends to your loved one need to be made – even if they are no longer on earth.

What does it mean to process regret? It means to let yourself fully feel regret without avoiding or wallowing in regret. Processing complicated feelings such as regret is best done by sharing those feelings with a trusted friend or grief professional. A grief support professional especially can help you learn to sit with and move through difficult emotions (and any accompanying memories) as they arise. A grief support professional can also help bring greater awareness to where you are in the flow of grief: yes you started out feeling anguish and shame but now you feel greater inner ease and understanding.

Dan found emotional healing by joining a grief support group for family members who had lost a loved one to opioid addiction. Surrounded by people who had experienced the same sort of loss and had traveled a road of anguish and despair that echoed his own, Dan was able to fully embrace without self-judgment the depths of guilt and remorse he felt about thinking addiction was a moral failing – and the fact he had shared that belief with his son.

I took both Joe and Jill through HeartMath techniques that helped them deal skillfully with regret and other difficult emotions as they arose. The techniques provided both Joe and Jill greater resilience in dealing with the pain of loss and the pain of regret.

3. Making amends and establishing a new relationship with your loved one.
It is never too late to make amends for regrettable actions or inactions or establish a more loving connection – even after someone has died.

For Joe, Jill and Dan, making amends was partly found in writing an unqualified letter of apology.

Joe expressed to his father the regret and sorrow he felt over the words he had spoken to him as he lay dying (without trying to justify his actions). Joe thought “owning” shame would “make things worse” but instead he found it freed him from being stuck in thinking what he had done was unforgiveable.

“It sounds weird,” Joe said. “But writing the letter helped me go from thinking I was a horrible person to someone who was redeemable.”

An artist who sculptured in wood, Joe eventually found further healing by talking to his father as he worked; talking to his father became a way of establishing a peaceful and positive relationship with his father – something that had always been elusive.

“This sounds weird too, but I finally have a good relationship with Dad,” Joe said. “He was the one who first turned me onto wood-working and now I can talk to him about that and other things as I work.”

As time passed, Jill was able to remember “the good stuff about Dad” and so wrote him a letter of gratitude thanking him for the great pizza he made, how he had instilled values of curiosity and education, and how she now realized that she was “the most important thing in the world to him, even though I didn’t get it at the time.” Jill eventually burned the letter “letting it go up to Dad so he could see how much I really do miss him now.” Jill eventually put pictures of her and her father together in the hallway of her apartment to “remind myself that it wasn’t all bad and that Dad lives in me still.”

Dan wrote a letter to his son asking for forgiveness for “abandoning him”; at the end of the letter he thanked his son for helping him to have greater understanding of human frailties – including his own. Long walks in nature talking to his son – and God – helped Dan feel a positive connection to both his son and himself.

“Because of my son’s death I’ve become less rigid in my thinking that I know without question what God wants of us. Who am I to say?” said Dan. “I do know that God gave me – us – our son as a gift. I couldn’t always see that when he was alive but I see that now.”

4. Doing some sort of sort of self-forgiveness process when you are ready.

Self-forgiveness Is Essential to Healing Regret

There is nothing that is not forgivable. Being human is hard. Feeling as if you should have or could have done more, better, or something different when confronted with difficult people, decisions and circumstances is part of every life’s learning journey. When the loss of a loved one is shadowed by regret, self-forgiveness is necessary for establishing a healthy continuing bond or relationship with your loved one (if you so choose) and moving forward with life.

Seeking professional grief support can be highly beneficial in navigating self-forgiveness. In my spiritual counseling practice I guide my clients through a modified version of the 5 Steps of Self-forgiveness found in the book, Unconditional Forgiveness, by Mary Hayes Grieco, Director of the Midwest Institute for Forgiveness Training in Minneapolis. The five self- forgiveness steps can be briefly outlined as:

  1. Prepare yourself. Decide to stop carrying around a painful issue against yourself.
  2. Express your feelings exactly as they are inside of you. No matter how messy, whiny or unpretty, allow your full misery and pain to surface – remember there is nothing you can say or do that is unforgiveable.
  3. Lift above the emotional level to connect with your Higher Self /Best/ Authentic Self. This is done by first seeing the good in yourself and stating examples of that goodness.
  4. Grant yourself forgiveness from this higher level. This is done by viewing your earthly personality and situation from a more universal and expansive perspective – that whatever you did was done out of hurt or frustration regarding a lack of understanding of other choices that were open to you.
  5. As your personal earthly self give thanks for the forgiveness and take in your new perspective.

I took both Joe and Jill through the process of self-forgiveness; both Joe and Jill followed the self-forgiveness process with a process for forgiving others also found in the book, Unconditional Forgiveness. More on forgiveness can be found on the blog post Grief and Forgiveness: Finishing Unfinished Business.

Additional Resources

The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu
The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren and

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