Thursday, January 20, 2011

I WISH I HAD - Part 1 (Should Have, Could Have)

How many times have we been in a conversation with someone and thought aftwards, “I wish I had told her she did a great job!”, “I wish I had told him I loved him,” or “I wish I had said I was sorry.”

How many times have we been so angry with someone that we let nasty, hurtful words spew from our mouths? Or we refuse to speak to them for days, weeks, or months on end?

How times have we owed someone money and were a little late in paying them back? How many times have we told someone we would do something, but haven’t gotten to “it” yet?

How many times have we thought about someone and wished we had sent them a card or email, just to let them know we were thinking of them?

Most of the time: we know we have another chance to tell the person what we were thinking - whether it’s in-person or via phone call, email or a letter; we eventually say we’re sorry for the unkind words and make amends; we pay the person back, even if we’re a little late; we get around to doing what we had told the other person we would do.

But, what happens if that time never comes? What do we do with the guilt we have because, before we can let a loved one know what we were thinking or do what we said we would do, they pass away.

In both this blog entry and the next, I will be sharing my biggest "regrets". I am doing this, not to get sympathy or to have others feel sorry for me, but to remind you that struggling with regrets is part of the grieving process and part of life. As we learn from our regrets, we become better friends, parents, siblings, and spouses.

It is very easy to start beating ourselves up with “would have”, “should have”, “could have” thoughts. After Austin’s accident some of his friends commented, “He stopped over the other day and wanted me to go out with him, but I was too tired. I should have gone.” “He called to see if I wanted to go wake-boarding, and I never called him back. I should have.” “He called me last month and I got so busy I didn’t have chance to get back to him.”

In the weeks following Austin’s death there were two “should have’s” that haunted me and would wake me up in the middle of the night. They were not horrible things, just ones I wish I had done, but now can never do. And, they would not be a big deal, if he was still alive.

“With the dawning of each new day, life provides the unsolicited opportunity for us to regret something we’ve done or didn’t do. Although life gives us that opportunity, we personally get to establish what we consider to be regrettable. Regrettably, we sometimes consider things regrettable that are literally beyond our control. Let's consider death as an example. We can't control the death of someone we love, yet after their death we almost intuitively search for something to regret." - Leonard N. Smith, "Living Without Regrets After a Loved One Dies"


My husband and I had an agreement with Austin, regarding his college tuition. He had to pay for his college courses up front. We would reimburse him for any courses he received an 80 or higher in. Over Memorial Day week-end Austin’s grades were posted; we owed him for a couple of his classes. However, I had “floated” him an advance for part of his last semester, so I needed to calculate the difference between what we owed him and what he had borrowed. Before I could do this, two things needed to happen: (1) Austin needed to let me know how much each course cost;  (2) I needed to pull the paper where I had recorded the "loan" balance.

I have a basket I keep all my bills in, along with Austin’s “loan info”. I looked through the basket several times to find the “paper”, but it was not there. I paid all the bills in the basket and still did not find the "loan paper". I checked in a couple of other folders I thought it might have been stuck in; I still could not find it. Where in the world did it go? I called Austin, letting him know I was looking for it and asking him if he recalled what the loan amount was. I also asked if he had figured out how much the courses had cost. He could not remember what he owed us and had not checked on the cost yet.

While we were working on gathering the info to "balance the account," I sent Austin some money to help tie him over. We’d settle up as soon as I found my “notes” and he let me know the cost of the courses. A couple of times, in June, the thought would cross my mind, “Where the heck could that paper be?” I would check a couple more places, but still never found it.

Then, June 24th happened. We returned to Massachusetts on Saturday, July 3rd and on Monday I sat down to pay bills. There it was, right where I had looked numerous times! The paper I had been scouring high and low for. The paper with the amount Austin had “borrowed”. I hopped on FLCC’s website to determine how much the courses had cost. If my calculations were correct, I still owed Austin a small amount. My heart sank and tears sprang to my eyes. Austin had owed the bursar’s office a small balance. He couldn't pick up his diploma and transcript until he was paid up. If only I had realized, back in June, that Austin had money coming from us. I could have paid him and he would have been able to hold that diploma in his hands. The one he had worked so hard to earn. (He didn't enjoy school, never has, but he stuck with it, because he knew he needed to.) The day after Austin died, my husband and I picked up the diploma from the Registrar’s. I cried when they handed it to me, because I felt I let Austin down. He never had the opportunity to see the diploma.

It gets worse. A few days after the "loan" balance discovery, I came across Austin's Savings Bonds. I looked on the Internet to see if any had matured. As I looked at the chart, my heart sank and a panicky feeling started to overtake me. If I was reading it correctly, almost half the bonds had matured…. That couldn’t be right. I swore I had checked on them just a year earlier, and none had matured. As soon as I could, I took them to my bank to see if any had actually matured. It ended up that I was reading the table incorrectly and only two had matured, just a year earlier. What I thought was just a year ago had actually been two years – time seems to run together – I must be getting old!

Even though it was a small amount of money, I felt so guilty, thinking, “If only I had checked into it when he asked me a few months ago… he wouldn’t have been so tight on money.” Austin had asked me about the bond, a few months earlier, and I had told him they hadn’t matured yet - I didn't think they had.  I said I would hold onto them until they did, so he wouldn’t lose them…. Every time I would think about owing Austin money I would get short of breath, tears would roll down my face, and I would feel sick to my stomach. I knew Austin was tight on money and I could have done something about it. Even though I had sent money to help him through a couple tight spots (when he didn’t get as many hours at work or during the couple weeks he was transitioning between jobs), my guilt would stop me in my tracks and make me want to scream out, “I’m so sorry Austin!”

But then, another thought hit me, “What if I hadn’t sent him the money when he needed a little help to ‘hold him over’? He wouldn’t have had the money to register and insure the motorcycle. He wouldn’t have been riding it on June 24th at 7am, when a truck was pulling across his lane just as he was cresting the hill. He would still be here with us."

Almost as soon as that thought came, another one joined in, “Austin would have found a way to get that bike on the road; because, that’s how Austin was. When he really wanted something, he was relentless until he got it. It doesn’t matter that you gave him the money. The bike would have still been on the road and he would have still been riding it to work that fateful morning.”

If Austin had not had his accident and he was still with us, my reaction would have been very different to the above situations: instead of feeling guilty, I would have been excited; instead of being sad I would have been happy. When I found out that I still owed Austin money from his courses, I would have called him immediately, saying, “Guess what?! This is your lucky day! I just realized we still owe you money from school. I’m sending the check out today.” I can almost hear Austin thinking how he was going to spend the money. It would have been a very, very good day.

A couple days later, I would call him again, telling him it was his lucky week, that I had just realized a couple of his Savings Bonds had matured. To which he would have responded, with a chuckle in his voice, “That’s awesome!” Once again, it would have been a very, very good day.

Funny, how one split second can change the way we look at life’s events…
“Regardless of how caring and attentive we were to the deceased and their needs, we still impulsively look for things we’ve failed to do…. Believe me when I tell you, you can always find something to regret; and most of the time it’s for things you didn’t do.” – Leonard N. Smith “Living Without Regrets After a Loved One Dies”
What something are you beating yourself up over... something you didn’t do... something you wish you had or hadn't said? Be easy on yourself… think of all the things you did do… and then continue to do them!

"...I shall live with them. I shall accept my regrets as part of my life... But I will not endlessly gaze at them. I shall allow the memories to prod me into doing better with those still living." - Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
In my next blog entry I will share with you my Regret #2.

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