On Death, Grief, and Regret

There are a number of reasons you should read Derek Thompson’s terrific piece on losing his mother to pancreatic cancer, but one thing that stood out is the way he’s able to describe how the fear of your reaction to losing something can enhance the awful process of actually losing it. In the end, despite being such a self-professed mama’s boy that he “made people with perfectly adequate mother-son bonds think, there is a boy who needs more friends in life,” Thompson got through it.

Then, in the weeks after she died, something strange happened. I did not plunge. Life did not stop. Instead, I felt something so unspeakably strange, so blasphemous, that I wondered if I could talk or write about it, at all. I felt okay.

In fact, his experience was not all that uncommon. Thompson’s story is interspersed with a good roundup of research on grief — research that suggests crippling grief is the exception rather than the rule.

Ten percent of us experience “chronic” and relentless grief that demands counseling. Another third or so plunges into deep sadness and gradually begins recovery. But most of us—”between 50 and 60 percent,” Bonanno said—quickly appear to be fine, despite day-to-day fluctuations. Scientists used to consider these patients tragic actors, shoving their feelings into the core of their bodies, where they would only explode with volcanic violence in dreadful ways later in life. But this, Bonanno says, might be the biggest myth of all. “If you think you’re doing okay,” he said, “then you’re doing okay.”

Something else that struck me about Thompson’s story is that nowhere in the 3,000+ words is there the faintest hint of regret about anything. No second guessing anything he did or the way he spent his time.

I once had a professor who said a better way to think about regret was to view it as a type of desire — specifically, the desire to have done something differently. Thus regret could viewed as the desire to have spent more time with somebody, or the desire to have treated somebody with more kindness. When somebody dies all the regrets regarding your relationship, and thus all these desires, are instantly transformed into desires that can never be fulfilled. It wouldn’t surprise me if the emotional toll of all these unmet desires exacerbates the grieving process.

Perhaps Thompson’s lifelong adoration of his mother left him with no second guessing, no regrets, and no permanently unfulfilled desires. Perhaps that’s what helped him into the fortunate 60% of grievers who are able to move on with their lives. And perhaps the lesson of Thompson’s experience is to provide an addendum to the oft-cited piece of life advice: Don’t just live each day like it’s your last, live each day like it’s somebody else’s last.

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