Life is filled with missed opportunities, wrong turns, and mistakes, so regret, on the face of it, seems as if it is a rational response to disappointment.
But is it?
Do we use it as a guide to move us forward in a more positive way? Or do we use regret to turn the spotlight back on ourselves in a selfish, self-serving way?
We have suffered disappointment, yes, maybe as a result of some deliberate act on our part, maybe as a result of some misfortune that befell us, but can regret help turn things around?
Sorrow and grief are natural human functions, but how do they serve us? Regret is a shortcut to deeper sorrow. If we dwell on what went wrong, we’ll surely fall into a state of melancholy. We’ll kick ourselves and tell ourselves how foolish we were. What were we thinking?
Why do we dwell on our mistakes? Why beat ourselves up for something that has passed, something we can no longer do anything about? It is gone, why not let it go?
How can we be sure it was a mistake, especially since so many of our actions are directed by our hearts, not our heads? Why would we believe that if we’d taken another course of action, the outcome would have served us better?
It all comes down to outcome. Once we expect things to turn out a certain way, we set ourselves up for disappointment. So, maybe the question shouldn’t be, Is regret rational?, but rather, Are outcomes irrational? Should we expect anything at all?
On the one-year anniversary of our son’s suicide, my wife took an overdose of prescription drugs. I found her in agony and distress when I came home to check on her. During the morning, I’d called her several times because I knew how hard this day was going to be for her, but she never answered. Concerned and anxious about her wellbeing, at the first opportunity, I rushed home. I found her on the edge of the bed, rigid, in a state of severe distress, her eyes rolled back in her head.
I dialed 911 and the EMTs responded with amazing speed. I stood by helpless as they worked on her. In the rush of EMTs and firemen, a police officer escorted me out of the bedroom and into the living room, not only to ask me certain questions, but to see if he might calm me down.
In the rush, one of the EMTs asked if there were any prescription drugs in the house? I told him my wife had been prescribed both an anti-depression and an anti-anxiety drug, but I couldn’t recall the name of either. During a frantic search of the medicine cabinet, I found no prescription bottles, and a search of the wastebaskets turned up nothing.
The EMTs were able to stabilize her and rush her to the emergency room. A few minutes after the ambulance left, my brother, who I’d called sometime during the rush of events (I think the police officer asked if there was someone I could call), took me to the emergency room. After asking the woman at the front desk about my wife, I paced around the waiting room, returning to the desk every few minutes to ask again. She told me that she had no record of her, but in the case of an emergency, it takes time to collect information.
After my third or fourth visit to the front desk, the woman finally left the front desk to go back to check on my wife’s status, returning shortly to inform me that, yes, my wife was there, and she was doing fine. I could go back to see her now.
When I walked into the room, my wife was sitting up in bed answering a doctor’s questions. There were a couple of nurses in the room. My wife was shaky, but alive. I went to her side and took from her unsteady hands the large cup of water and held the straw to her lips. She sipped the water in between questions. From a plate on the rolling table in front of her, I fed her slices of an orange someone had carefully prepared and left for her.
I had not been present for all the questions and answers, but from what I’d heard, my wife seemed fully aware of what she’d done and where she was now. I learned from answers to the doctor’s questions that my wife had crushed up several pills and swallowed the powder. She’d thrown the prescription bottles into the dumpster, which explained why I couldn’t find them in the house. But when had she crushed the pills? Earlier today, yesterday, or maybe weeks before?
After the doctor wrapped up her questions to my wife, she explained to me that my wife was out of danger, but that because her kidney and liver functions weren’t quite where they’d like to see them, they needed to get fluids into her. Although they expected a full recovery, they wanted to keep her a couple of days to make sure she was getting plenty of nourishment, and until they saw improvement in her kidney and liver functions.
The doctor told me they would be moving her up to intermediate care on the fifth floor. It’d take an hour or so before she was settled in and allowed visitors.
What do you need? I asked my wife. Toothbrush, hairbrush, slippers, pajamas, a book; things she’d need for a couple of days stay in the hospital.
I should have stayed longer. They were rushing me out to get her ready to move upstairs. Through all the questions and answers, I never had the chance to talk to my wife, never had the chance to ask her how she was doing? Was she all right? Where was her heart?
Had she returned to me, or was her heart still with our son?
She seemed relieved, as if maybe during the short time in her overdosed agony, she’d connected with our son.
Or maybe she’d fulfilled her motherly duties. She’d always told me that she needed to be with our son. I would always ask her what that meant? I missed him too. But this is what we had left. Together, we needed to find a way to go on.
One of my most precious memories is how she smiled at me when I first walked into the emergency room. I hold this smile close to my heart.
I went home and packed her bag, going through her things with great love and care, thankful that she was alive.
I’d have time to talk to her once I got back to the hospital. We’d hold hands and I’d be able to give her a proper kiss, stroke her hair, and tell her how frightened I was, tell her how much I loved her and how much I’d miss her if she ever decided to go away again.
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But I never got that chance. I never got to tell her how much I loved her because when I got back to the hospital and found my way up to the fifth floor and into her room, she was unconscious. I touched her cold forehead and asked the nurse what had happened?
She looked at me – bewildered. I tried to explain to her that downstairs, in the emergency room, my wife had been awake and aware. The nurse bent over her and tried to wake her up by tugging on her gown and calling her name. No response.
Before either of us really had a chance to realize what was happening, my wife had a violent seizure. Another nurse had come into the room, and as my wife shook wildly for two minutes, the two nurses stood by. Afterward, I overheard them as they considered having ativan on hand in case she should have another seizure.
She did. The ativan injection calmed her down in fifteen seconds.
A doctor (a different doctor than the one from the emergency room) came in and asked the nurses about my wife. They told him about the two seizures and asked him if they should get more ativan. He seemed unsure, finally telling them that he didn’t see how it would hurt to have it on hand.
And then she had another seizure, even more violent than the first two. Another nurse appeared, it seemed to me as if from nowhere, and as she was bending over my wife, she yelled, she didn’t have a pulse.
All hell broke loose. I was rushed out of the room, a crash cart was rushed in.
I sat in the corridor for what seemed like an eternity. Someone, I’m not sure who, finally came out and sat down next to me. She told me that they were able to revive my wife. She had had a cardiac arrest. They weren’t sure about the extent of the damage. She was on a ventilator and, as soon as she was stable, they would be moving her down to intensive care. I should go home, it would be an hour or more.
No sooner had I walked into the house, the phone rang. It was the hospital. My wife had had another cardiac arrest, I needed to get back to the hospital as soon as possible. I rushed back, dazed and panicked.
Nothing seemed real.
I rushed to the intensive care unit. They buzzed me in. Someone at the desk said that they were still working on my wife and it would be a while before I could see her. I saw a nurse come out of her room and I asked about my wife. He told me what was going on. She was stable, but on a ventilator, they didn’t know the severity of the damage.
Ventilator? They’d told me that downstairs, but it hadn’t registered in my brain. My wife didn’t want to be kept alive on a ventilator. She’d always kidded with me that she wanted DNR tattooed across her chest.
Do Not Resuscitate. All the questions asked of my wife in the emergency room, this never came up.
I told the nurse that it was not my wife’s wish to be kept alive mechanically. He looked at me. This changed everything. He needed to inform the ICU doctor, and the doctor, at the first opportunity, would want to talk to me. Would I mind waiting in the consultation room?
After fifteen minutes, maybe more, he came in. We shook hands. He told me how sorry he was and what they had done and what they were continuing to do. They had no way of knowing how significant the damage was. My wife had already suffered some damage to her liver and kidneys, although they didn’t think this was permanent, but her two cardiac arrests, on the other hand, since she’d been without oxygen for several minutes, had caused irreversible brain damage.
He presented me with three options: 1) Continue on their present course, which included the ventilator and every other treatment to keep her alive, and hope for the best; 2) Keep her on the ventilator, but put a “do not resuscitate” order in place in case she should suffer another cardiac arrest; 3) Remove her from the ventilator, in which case she would die. He couldn’t be sure how long it would take. Her heart was strong, but without the ventilator to pump air into her lungs, since the signal from her brain to her lungs was weak, her lungs would eventually stop.
She would die.
I thanked him and he left. I called my mother-in-law, who I’d called earlier to tell her what had happened, to give her this latest information and ask her what she thought. Naturally, she was upset and confused. She couldn’t let go of her daughter, not like this, but yet, what was to be done? She needed to talk to her sons, my wife’s brothers, she’d get back to me.
After an hour, I hadn’t heard back from her so I called her back. I had made up my mind. I was going to have her taken off the ventilator. If she wanted to come out, I would wait for her to get here. She said she didn’t know, she couldn’t think clearly. I told her I knew how hard it was, but it was my decision. Besides, it was what my wife wanted.
I hung up, stepped out of the room, and walked to the desk, I needed to talk to the doctor.
I sat by my wife’s side, stroked her hair, talked to her. For hours. It wasn’t how I’d pictured it when I’d left the hospital earlier in the day to pack her a bag. It was just a couple day’s stay in the hospital. And then we’d be home again.
It wasn’t how I’d pictured anything.
I held her hand as the day slowly faded into night, and through the night into the quiet, dark morning. Inside the bright room filled with the hum of so many machines, I was alone.
Except for the ICU nurse who took such good care of me. She brought me coffee, touching my hand. Every half-hour she’d shine a small flashlight into my wife’s eyes. Fixed and dilated. No brain activity.
Through the night, I held my wife’s hand, I told her how things were going to be different now, how much we’d suffered ever since our son left, how much I loved her, but never once told her how much I’d miss her because, at the time, even though I felt an endless emptiness in my heart, I didn’t know how much I would miss her.
That would come later. After a day. A week. A year. Every day it strikes harder.
This brings me back to the question…
Regrets? Are they rational? Yes, some of them. We need a way to stay connected with our sorrow. Life has meaning. The loss of life also has meaning. We make mistakes. We are human. We turn corners, sometimes wrong corners.
We get lost. But it’s important that we stay connected in very real ways to things we encounter along the way, even when we are lost and alone. Regrets are signposts. They direct us back to our humanness, back to ourselves, back to our vulnerabilities.
What if I’d never left for work that morning, but, instead, had chosen to stay home with my wife? I knew how fragile she was, both in her heart and mind.
My regrets lie not in my decision to go to work that morning, but rather they lie in my decision to leave the emergency room, without taking the time, precious time, to talk to my wife when I had the opportunity.
The hell with the hospital’s desire to get her ready to move upstairs, I needed to talk to my wife. I needed to tell her how relieved I was that she was still here. She wouldn’t be here for long. I didn’t know that at the time, but it is always the way with life. Gone before we know it. I needed to tell my wife how much I loved her. Then. Right there and then.
Now, I live with the regret that I didn’t take the time when I had it.