As we age, many of us are thinking back on our lives and trying to heal some of the issues that have hindered us. We are examining our pasts and asking, “What remains incomplete in my life?” Resentments not forgiven, people we have hurt and who have hurt us who need to be forgiven (including ourselves), experiences of loss we haven’t fully grieved, the disempowering stories we have told ourselves all our lives and the guilt about things we wish we hadn’t done are some of these matters.
We are trying to refocus these and surrender to the reality of where we are now. These experiences of wounding can limit our energy, close our hearts and restrict the inspiration we want for these last years of our lives.
The top five regrets of dying people, according to one survey, are:
Living life for what others expected, instead of being true to themselves.
Wishing they hadn’t worked so hard.
Not expressing their feelings more.
Wishing they had stayed better in touch with friends.
Not being happier and having more fun.
Looking at our past and trying to heal it can be difficult work, but we want to die well with no regrets or guilt. We want to leave this life in peace, without the emotional baggage we all carry. We are also trying to embrace this new time in our lives as an elder with clear energy. It can be a time of tremendous potential growth with a new sense of meaning, purpose and direction.
Regrets seem to be grounded in the past. We regret missed opportunities; we regret making unwise decisions; we regret not loving someone more before they died; or, spending too much time unwisely, or not forming better habits, or spending too much money, or not writing the novel we wanted to and on and on.
We regret these choices and compare them to some ideal path we think we should have taken. We can’t change these choices, so we criticize and judge ourselves over and over. Instead, what if we could see these choices and actions as guideposts along the way, and realize we did the best we could at the time? With some examination, I can see now that difficulties often moved me to the next stage of my life, the next opening, the next pathway on my life travels.
Our individual lives all include being good and bad, making mistakes, doing both generous and selfish things, being honest and dishonest. We are all of it, and I think the trick is to look at it with compassion, try to heal what we can, find satisfaction in what we have done and move on to how to make these last years as rich and full of joy as we can. These experiences are what we are made of and perhaps lead to wisdom in growing old.
Reviewing, working through and letting go of any regret we may have opens us to our authentic selves. If we can really be with our present reality, it can clear the way for us to grow into our next, aging selves. Cleaning up regrets can also enable us to be free of fear, anxiety and a possible sense of failure or incompleteness and to find peace as we die.
Grace and freedom at the end is what we’re all looking for. If not now, when?
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.