By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D., Executive Director, Colony Retirement Homes
“The man who insists upon seeing with perfect clearness before he decides, never decides. Accept life, and you must accept regret.” — Henri Frederic Amiel
Up until recently, my only true regret was that I did not go with my father to the vets the day he put our childhood dog down. I was not too distraught; I was being lazy. I may not have been much comfort to the dog, but it would have been nice to be with my father. I regret choosing to sleep in.
Now, I am sad to report that I can add a regret to this list. My uncle just passed. He was the last of the three siblings and he had the most intact memory. When he died, I lost the opportunity learn more of my family’s history. I wasn’t being lazy or cavalier. I knew he was dying, but I thought I had time. Oddly, this regret is less strong than the first.
Turns out, I am not alone. Researchers have found that when we have more options, regret is a stronger consequence of making choices. I did not actively choose to ignore my uncle, but we did not know he had so little time. I missed time with him, but it was neglect, not active choice, on my part. Research also indicates that regret is stronger in Western cultures where there is more individual choice in life.
This made me wonder how regret plays out in the elderly. I see a lot of families with rifts between members and even more who just have lost touch. Maybe some of these connections can be reestablished, mended, and made whole, and in some cases, maybe these connections should remain broken forever.
According to Bronnie Ware, an Australian blogger who worked in hospice care, the five most common regrets shared by people nearing death were:
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
“I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
“I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
“I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
Regret does offer us helpful information about how we want to live our lives moving forward. I would be curious to hear from our readers how regret and choice interact in their later years. If you, like many, feel “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends,” then what is stopping you from reconnecting? Have some ties been cut on purpose? Do you regret making that choice? Were there people with whom you just lost touch? Do you regret not yet making the effort to reconnect? Can you let go of regrets that cannot be changed?
As noted in the Alcoholics Anonymous credo, wisdom is knowing that I cannot turn back time and be with my father, but also recognizing that I never want to be that lazy again. Here is hoping that you can let your regrets help you make the most of your remaining years.