“Where are you?” I heard my husband’s aggravated voice from the bedroom. Even though I knew his life was about to end, I remained in the quiet hospice lounge across the hall, taking pleasure in the silence and away from his constant demands. His impending death and the strain of the last weeks was taking its toll. I felt helpless and inadequate. Somehow he believed I could keep death away if I just did the right thing, whatever that was. He was anxious and frightened. After a debilitating stroke, he had fought valiantly to regain some mobility. Now Parkinson’s disease was claiming his last days, but he did not want to give up the life he loved. After almost fifty years of marriage, seeing him so distressed was heartbreaking and exhausting. I needed a few moments alone to regain my strength and courage.
His voice came again, “Jeannine, Jeannine.” This time I reluctantly got up and returned to his side, but his frustrations did not cease. I wanted to talk about the love we had shared and what our life together meant to me and also the spiritual hope we, as Christians, have of a new and better life. But talking only seemed to irritate him more, especially talk about God’s promises. “I don’t want to hear it,” he snapped several times. Nothing I said comforted him.
In the days following his death I had repeated questions. How could I have ignored him even for a few minutes, and why couldn't I comfort him? When I knew he was dying, why were his constant requests so annoying? How could I be so callous and impatient? During my twenty years as an ordained minister I had been with many families when a loved one slipped away, and I knew I brought comfort. Why could I not help the man I loved, and why had any allusion to a future life and the faith we shared irritated him? We always worked together in the church he loved. Why was he so frightened in those last days? I even wondered if he had a genuine faith.
My remorse was a burden hanging over me like a dark thundercloud. I realized I could not turn back the clock, but I relived my failures and repeated my faults to anyone willing to listen. I prayed the same prayer of confession over and over. But the guilt and regrets continued. I knew what I would say to others. Don’t be so hard on yourself. God is merciful and forgiving. Every time I served communion I repeated the Scripture’s promises assuring forgiveness in 1 John 1:9. “But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we have done wrong.” Yet I did not apply God’s promise to myself. Instead I continued to hold on to my guilt, as if a price must be paid. I exacted the price through self-condemnation and rehashing my failings over and over. Long ago I learned guilt is a common emotion when we lose a loved one. Now I was experiencing it firsthand.
Yet knowing this, I could not let go of thinking how I should have acted differently. I spent much time with God in prayer, meditation, and some good devotional readings. One of the benefits of prayer is God’s comfort. The epiphany came when I finally came to understand I had imposed on myself a special set of rules, rules I would never impose on anyone else. My rules did not allow me to accept the kindness and mercy I believed God offers to all. My rules told me I must pay a price, and I exacted the price through self-condemnation. I did not let my slate be wiped clean. Indiscriminately rehashing my faults was akin to slandering my own reputation, and defamation of anyone’s character, even our own, is displeasing to God and a sin.
As this spiritual insight dawned on me, I realized I must let go of all those regrets I was browbeating myself with and believe God’s promises. I also recognized some of my guilt was a false guilt, because there was no logical reason to hold on to what God had forgiven or to impose such harsh standards on myself. I fully believed God was gracious and merciful, ever ready to pardon all who ask for it. If I believed this, then it was time for me to accept the forgiveness God offered and release myself from the burden of guilt.
Yes! I wish I could have comforted my husband in his last days and helped him find peace. But I know he never expected me to be perfect or to do the impossible. If his mind was clear he would not have been so angry and demanding. I also discovered in those last hours heavy drugs were administered. They clouded his thinking and hope of a new life after death. To recognize his anger and fear of death were not coming from the person I loved helped me find comfort and peace.
The road through grief is a journey, but regrets are speed bumps to recovery. Rehashing what we wish could be changed, both verbally and mentally, will only delay healing. As these thoughts of “if only I had done this or that” surface (and surface they will) one must make a conscious effort to replace them with happier memories. As we fix our minds on the good and treasured memories, those thoughts will eventually bring healing, and we will find peace and be able to hope again.
Getting our thoughts in order is a bonus not just for those who are grieving. Toxic thoughts will harm our behavior and our relationships with others and with God. Interrupting those thoughts will bring new joy. In Philippians 4:8, Paul tells us, “From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.” In other words, think on the good things. As I was able to fill my mind with the good times my husband and I shared, I was able to let go of the regrets and to have peace and hope for the future.
Jeannine Brenner is a retired, ordained United Methodist pastor with two married daughters, five grandchildren, and three great grandchildren. Prior to the ministry, she was the teacher/director of a preschool program for families with special needs funded by the church and community.