My Biggest Regret and What I Learned From It.
Would you put yourself in the live-with-no-regrets category? Regrets are for the weak and wobbly who cannot simply move on / get over it. Or do you perceive regrets as having value and serving as a reminder to improve our choices? I don’t believe they are mutually exclusive; there is no need to cripple yourself with regrets, but just brushing them aside deprives us of an opportunity to grow.
Take a minute and think about one thing you regret. It might be something you have done, or maybe it’s something you left undone. It might be major; it might be something minor.
So, what are you doing with that regret? Are you pushing it deep into the cobwebby corner of your mind, or are you using it to help you make better, more careful decisions?
My biggest regret is not working harder to get to know my wonderful parents. When I was born, my mum and dad were considered “older parents.” Nowadays, describing a 38-year-old couple as older would be laughable, but, to me, they seemed much older than my friends’ parents. Although I had a halcyon upbringing, I was the last of the siblings and eager to get away from home in Johannesburg. At 17 years old, I headed almost 900miles away to attend the University of Cape Town. The January to December academic year allowed few visits home, and when I was there, I was always rushing off to work or socialize. After my post-grad studies, I remained in Cape Town and only saw my parents once or twice a year.
They were born and raised in Scotland, and both fought in the Second World War. My dad was in the Royal Navy on the sloop, HMS Fleetwood and my mother was in The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF.) She worked in the radar control system as a balloon plotter. Her job—along with hundreds of other women—involved raising and lowering the barrage balloons. These colossal balloons, tethered to the ground, created a severe collision risk to incoming enemy aircraft. The women plotters, pioneers of their time, provided a vital service during the Battle of Britain, and later in guiding night-fighter airplanes against German bombers.
Sadly, this is all I know about their time during the war. I’m sure they tried to share some of their memories, but was I even listening? I know more about WWII from the countless novels I’ve read than from my actual parents. Our conversations were always about happy day to day things. Why did it never occur to me to ask about such a pivotal time in their lives, or about their early years in Scotland or their incredibly brave move to South Africa? They were private people, so maybe they didn’t share, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t ask. It just never occurred to me.
This regret lodged itself in my heart in late 2011 and again in 2012 when they each passed away. My son, desperately ill, needed me, and I could not leave him to attend their funerals in South Africa. Slowly, I realized I could never ask them all the questions that flooded my mind.
What did I do? I vowed never to let that happen again. I don’t wait for my adult children to ask questions. I try to weave information into general stories. And if either even hints at being curious about an aspect of family life, I jump in. With extended family and friends, I make a point of being curious, and I try to find out more than just the obvious, superficial facts.
The regret lingers, but it is easier to swallow, knowing it is helping me make better, more careful decisions.
The reason I wanted to touch on this subject now came after an email from a friend, someone I’ve known since primary school. It reminded me how regrets so often revolve around things we have not done rather than the things we have done. Yes, we all take actions that we later regret, but for me, it’s the tragic sorrow of loss, the things undone, unsaid, unheard that truly hurt.
My old friend’s letter opened with a date several weeks before she actually emailed it. She was happy to share that her older brother had finally set a retirement date. I knew him so well from my childhood, even though he always had his head deep in a book. A hugely successful surgeon, he worked his whole life never taking a vacation, living a hectic life somewhat disconnected from his own family. Work was everything, but to keep his wife happy, he had always promised that one day when he retired, they would travel to every corner of the world. His wife always had a folder open stuffed with research. Their adult children and grandchildren were often factored into trips. For years, on the rare quiet night, they pored over glossy brochures, polished itineraries, and watched travel videos. Their first trip, a world cruise, was booked for one month after his last day. My friend wrote with such happiness for them and all the adventures that awaited.
The email skipped some lines before it restarted with the date she’d sent it. His heart attack was sudden and lethal. Just seven days after he had stepped out of the operating room, he dropped down dead while washing his car.
I haven’t seen him in over 30 years, but I sat stunned—all that loss.
Since then, I’ve read several studies that show people worldwide share an oddly overlapping list of common regrets. I won’t go into them, it serves no purpose here, but it can’t hurt to think a bit about what we’ve each left undone or unsaid. Maybe now is the time to do or say those things.