If only I knew then what I know now
Updated: Mar 7, 2021
A frequent theme in conversations I have with those who are about to say goodbye to someone they love, is that they wish they would have said certain things, or done more together, or the one which resonates with me most, is wishing they didn’t hold on to the anger for so darn long.
Growing up, I always wished my parents were more attentive. Perhaps it was the teenage angst, but I always felt ignored, dismissed and in many ways not very loved. Carrying that with you as you navigate your youth is difficult because you base their behavior toward you, on your own self-worth and that can be damaging.
My parents both died before I turned 30. I was already a mother by then and doing my best to be the kind of parent I wanted, not the kind that I had. And I was angry. I was angry for many years and that is a weight that no one should have to carry. When they died, I didn’t feel that sadness I now see with sons and daughters at bedsides and in some ways, I am envious of that.
I was there when they died, a few years apart from eachother. I was in the room, I watched them take their last breath, but I was fifteen feet away… not holding their hand, not saying goodbye or saying last words that might bring them comfort or bring myself comfort. I sat still, almost numb with no idea what all of this meant or how final death truly was. There was no one there that provided the comfort and support I needed to understand what was happening or help me to feel less lost or alone. This is why I focus so intently on those last moments for the person who walks away... I don't want them to ever feel like I did. I know I can't change their past or how they feel, but at that moment, I can let them know I get it.
Working in hospice, I see a lot of families gathering around the bedside to say their goodbyes and I hear stories of their lives together and the memories they’ve shared. I can’t help but think, if my parents were still alive, would our relationship be different? Would I have let the anger go? Would I have grown up and realized that life was not nearly as horrible as I thought it was? Would they be proud of me and how hard I have worked all these years? Would they think I was a good mother and a good grandmother? Would we have a box full of photos from family gatherings? Would I cry at the bedside when one of them died and think how sad I am that they are gone? I would like to imagine that my answer is yes, to all of the above.
I only have one photo of me with my mom, maybe there are more, I just don’t have them. And I recently found one of me with my dad. I do not have a box full of memories, but I sure wish I did.
I let go of my anger a while ago, but I am reminded at every bedside how long I carried it, and what a heavy weight that was. I know I am not alone. The other side I see at the bedside is the one I was at thirty years ago. I see regret. I see feelings of hurt and anger that was never resolved. And I hear words that should have been said a long time ago, but the anger and the hurt got in the way. I see regret and disappointment. I see many people trying to make up for lost time, scrambling to say one more last word to somehow fix things and make them better. I see a lot of apologies and forgiveness. I can’t help but think about the words I would say if given one more chance to say them.
If only I knew then what I know now.
But I can’t go back, none of us can. I don’t know your situation, but if you are anything like me, I have some advice for you… don’t carry the anger and disappointment around with you any longer. It doesn’t mean you have to forgive, and it may never change anything, but maybe it will help you walk through the rest of your life with less weight holding you down. And if we all moved forward practicing a little more patience and honesty and living a life with less regret, trying to find the light even in the darkest of corners, maybe when that time comes to sit at the bedside of someone we love, the ones where the relationship hasn’t been the best, we can simply thank them for the lessons they taught us and wish them a journey that can bring them peace, which may inadvertently bring us the same.
If things were different, and if my parents were here now, I truly believe that when it would be their time to go, I would be at their bedside, sadly saying goodbye, no longer hurt or angry… and that comforts me.
The reason I fight so fiercely to change the way our culture is about death and dying, is for the patient of course, but also for those who have to say goodbye. After that last breath is taken, that person walks away from the bedside. How they move forward can be done with gentler steps if we walk alongside them, reminding them we are there, taking their hand if they need it... or simply being still and present.
At the end of the day, there are no do-overs, we know this for sure. I like to think that I am now living a life that will result in less regret when I am ready to die. I no longer carry anger, it's just too damn heavy. And when I am sitting with someone who is about to say goodbye, someone who does not have a box full of photos of memories shared with the person who is dying, I simply encourage them to feel whatever they have to feel, say whatever they have to say, and let their take-away be that they said goodbye. Sometimes, that is enough.