Cynthia Occelli knew that something was wrong with her husband—his headaches were just too persistent to be benign. Yet, after a visit to his doctor resulted in a convincing diagnosis of tension headaches, she and her husband went home.
The aneurism struck the very next day.
It wiped out Occelli's husband's short-term memory, leaving his recollections of life with her, "garbled and incomplete—like Swiss cheese."
The experience of caring for a husband who had suddenly become as dependent on her as her children tested Occelli in ways she never expected.
"There is no harder job in the world than caregiving," says Occelli, a life coach and author of the book, "Resurrecting Venus." "It's almost too bizarre to comprehend."
Could've, should've, would've…
Along with guilt and sadness, feelings of regret often fuel the fire that consumes many a caregiver's spirit.
Occelli uses the word "searing" to describe the remorse she used to feel when looking back on the day she and her husband walked out of the doctor's office, unaware that their lives would be upended just a few hours later. "I knew something was wrong—but his doctor was so definitive," she says.
But, regret isn't limited to life and death circumstances—it comes in many shapes and sizes—and often strikes hardest when we reach middle-age.
We look back and begin to lament the paths not taken, the relationships not pursued, the careers left abandoned because we were called to become mothers, fathers and caregivers.
"We get to a certain point where we wake up one day and think, ‘I should have accomplished something by now—but I haven't,'" says Alex Lickerman, M.D., author of "The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing An Indestructible Self."
According to Lickerman, those who find themselves sandwiched between the care duties of two different generations—young children and aging parents—are particularly prone to powerful feelings of regret.
Finding rebirth in remorse
It was Occelli's experience in the neurological ICU where her husband was receiving treatment that helped her put out the destructive inferno of remorse that threatened to engulf her.
Getting to know the families of other patients in the ward and watching them come and go as their loved ones passed gave her an enlightened view of the brief nature of life. "The number one wish of people in there [the neurological ICU] is that they had more time to live and be true to themselves," she says. "I knew that's what I wanted, and the experience was a call to take it seriously. It gave me a sense of urgency and helped me find my path a lot quicker."
She and Lickerman offer a few strategies for shaking off regret and re-discovering your life path:
- Embrace your humanity: "When you feel regret, give yourself a pat on the back—it means you're emotionally normal," Occelli says. Only sociopaths are free from remorseful sentiments and accepting your emotions—no matter what they may be—is the first step to dealing with them effectively. It does no good to ignore your thoughts, or stuff your feelings.
- Recognize and challenge unproductive thoughts: People prone to regret often look back on their lives and see unrealized potential and unfulfilled dreams. But, it's impossible to prove that the life you left un-lived would be better than the one you have today. Every life path has its potholes. Studies have shown that human happiness is not determined by circumstances themselves as much as by how we interpret and respond to those circumstances. Instead of ruminating about the past, Occelli suggests channeling your imagination into dreams of a better future.
- Ask the right questions: Instead of the quintessential regret-er's lament, ‘What if…,' Lickerman suggests asking yourself: How can I find joy in the circumstances that I'm in? Some situations will require you to search a bit harder for that silver lining, and the good won't always outweigh the bad, but making the effort can be extremely beneficial, even for those mired in great tragedy. Research has shown that even parents who lose a young child are eventually able to recognize ways in which the event has helped them grow—whether by causing their love for their other children to deepen, or by strengthening their resolve to face life's challenges. The key, according to Lickerman, is waiting to seek out the benefit in a bad situation at the right time. Give yourself time to grieve and adjust to your life's "new normal" before questing after the good.
- Re-connect with yourself: Take time each day to consider your passions. While she was taking care of her husband, Occelli discovered the benefits of journaling. Some of her darker thoughts and experiences will always remain private, but many of her entries became the seeds of future blog posts and chapters in her book. Re-connecting with her true self and discovering what her talents were, even in the midst of dealing with great pain, gave her strength to persevere. "Finding the good in ourselves while we're living in darkness is a very powerful way to stay connected to the light," she says. "Uncovering what makes our life fulfilling is the best healer."
- Search for support, not a crutch: One of the faulty assumptions that fuels regret is the idea that our happiness is dependent on outside influences. Relying totally external elements for fulfillment is a recipe for chronic heartache. This includes other people. Occelli says that she eventually sought out support online from a group of women who were taking care of loved ones with similar brain injuries. But such support, while certainly beneficial, was not a cure-all. "No two traumatic brain injuries are the same—we were all dealing with different problems. The greatest asset was being able to stand in the storm together," she says. Indeed, Lickerman points out that the first step towards lasting happiness begins within. It's a good idea to reach out to others for support and encouragement, but it's equally important to cultivate a strong internal self.
The quest to rid yourself of remorse won't be without its challenges—partly because regret is such a natural, ingrained emotion. Setbacks are inevitable and at times it will appear as though your best years are relegated to faded photo albums and weathered diary pages.
But, keeping alive the hope for a brighter tomorrow can make you a stronger, more compassionate human being.
"It'll be a challenge, but hold the door open to what is possible," Occelli urges. "You don't have to jump on the Pollyanna band-wagon—just don't let the spark go out."