When a Wrong Can’t Be Righted: How to Deal With Regret

“Regret can be your worst enemy or your best friend. You get to decide which.” ~Martha Beck

I was lucky enough to grow up with a pretty great mom.

She put herself through nursing school as a single parent, still made it to every field trip and dance recital, and somehow always made my brother and me feel like the best thing since sliced bread (even when we were acting like moldy and ungrateful fruitcakes).

She knew our deepest secrets, our friends, and who we were capable of being—even when we didn’t know ourselves. As I grew older my mom and I had a journal that we would pass back and forth. In it we shared our thoughts and feelings, stories, and fears, as if we didn’t live in the same house and across the hall from each other.

She was my best friend and my “person,” my closest confidante and biggest supporter—but there was, of course, an inevitable down side.

Like anyone who doesn’t know what they have, I often took her for granted.

With age came independence, “worldliness,” and too-cool-for-school-ness. My relationship with my mother took a back seat to friends, romance, and my early-twenties aspirations of moving to LA and becoming rich and famous. (In reality I became an assistant to someone rich and famous, which was exactly close enough to send my self-esteem into a tailspin.)

On trips home I was mostly concerned with seeing friends and popping into old hangouts; she’d be there when I got home, I figured, and she understood… right?

I was young and gregarious, and had more important things to do than spend quality time with my mother. Even after moving back to town I didn’t see her much; the years had seen her fall into a deep depression, and it was one that vividly echoed a growing disappointment in my own life—her pain seemed to only compound mine.

As I began to work on getting my own life back on track, I relegated time with my mother to every other Sunday and holidays, holding her (and our relationship) at arm’s length. What seemed at the time to be self-care and boundaries was also a mixture of avoidance and burden—but I didn’t truly know this until a Tuesday afternoon one day in November.

She’d called me the night before and I’d ignored it; she was lonely and called me a lot, and I’d decided that I couldn’t always stop what I was doing to answer. But the next day I got a call at work from my brother, telling me to come home at once. When I got there I found that she’d died in her sleep the night before.

I checked the voicemail that she’d left me. In it she’d asked me to come over and see a movie with her.

The guilt caved me in.

The following weeks and months were a blur. I was beside myself with grief, regret, and the illogical thinking that can come with loss: Maybe if I’d come over that night she wouldn’t have died. Maybe if I’d been around more, called more, or been a better daughter, maybe that would have changed things.

I recounted my failings and knew there had been many—there usually are, once death takes away the possible tomorrows that you thought you had. Losing her was one thing, but the cloud of regret that hung over my head was entirely different and all encompassing.

It lasted for quite a while.

I didn’t wake up one day and realize that I wasn’t to blame for her death, although I knew how illogical that thought was to others. I also never woke up and felt that the way I acted toward her was entirely right; though fallible and human, I’d consciously been an absentee daughter for quite a while.

But, what did this guilt mean for the rest of my life? Did it mean making myself sick with the never ending replay of all I’d done wrong, or constantly reliving all of the choices I wish I hadn’t made?

As time went on it became apparent that I could literally spend the rest of my life punishing myself. It felt almost fair to carry the weight of regret everywhere that I went. After some time, however, I began to wonder who I was carrying it for.

Was the regret for her, homage to my mother that I could never really repay? Was it for myself, a masochistic comfort that I felt in never truly forgiving my past?

As I contemplated these ideas in the periphery of my mind, I began to take notice of how others repair the damage stemming from guilt and regret.

In recovery communities, when you wrong someone (and realize it) you seek to make it right. You revisit the ill behavior of your past, and (unless it’s going to harm another) you approach the person and ask how to repair things. It may be that financial amends are necessary, it might be taking a restorative action, or it may be that you’re asked to simply leave those you’ve hurt alone—but an effort is made to right the wrong.

And if a wrong can’t possibly be righted (because of death, for example) you make something that’s called a “living amends.”

Another way to look at this is “paying it forward.” Maybe the person that you harmed is gone, but if they were still here, what would you do to make it right? Is there something that you can do for someone else, or another cause, or in memoriam of the person toward whom you committed the harm? Are there things about the way you live that you can change—things you would have implemented with said person, if you’d had the chance?

The idea of a “living amends” intrigued me. Although I knew it couldn’t actually change my past actions, it could definitely change the way that I felt about the future. And anything was better than sitting under a lead blanket of guilt every time I stopped moving long enough to think.

I realized that a huge regret I felt with my mom was the complete disregard I’d had for her time. I came to visit when I felt like it, left when it was good for me, and flaked if I couldn’t “handle” her that day.

I knew that something I could do moving forward would be to show up more consistently in other relationships: make commitments and keep them, respect the time of loved ones, and show with my actions how I felt in my heart.

I also realized that I don’t want to be the kind of person who avoids another’s pain just because it’s difficult for me to bear. Depression is a heavy load to carry, and sitting with a loved one while they’re hurting can be uncomfortable—but sometimes it’s in simply witnessing another’s pain that you can help lighten it.

Boundaries are important, and some of those I drew were necessary, but some were just convenient. I now try to show up even if that’s all I can do, because I know how it feels when another does that for me.

I began to honor her in small ways financially when I could: donating to animal welfare causes that she’d loved, reaching out to my estranged brother, and becoming politically active in ways that I’d never really considered before—all things that would have made her proud.

The tears still came and the past remained unchanged, but as I lived my way to the person she knew I could be, I felt the clouds begin to part and the edges of my grief soften.

As I forged this path of “living amends” I found that it applied to other aspects of my past as well—unchangeable missteps that had kept me wrapped in a blanket of regret began to unfurl into opportunities.

Rather than filling journals with the saga of self-flagellation (which is as ugly as it sounds) I began to ask, “Where can I make this right?” If a wrong (or a relationship) couldn’t be tangibly “righted” there were always other ways that I could live my way toward an amends.

I now look at it as actively applying the lessons that mistakes have taught me—searching for how to make my future actions match the hard-won realizations about who I want to be.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not Mother Teresa, and I don’t wake up each day guided by a strictly altruistic force that leads to a perfect and pious life. (Although that would be nice, I’m still pretty human and a work in progress.)

What I have found, however, is a path of self-forgiveness: ideas, actions, and direction for the moments when I feel myself living in the cave of “if only” and regret.

Although that cave is a familiar place to be, there’s far too much life to be lived in the world outside of it.

About Melissa Pennel

Melissa Pennel is a coffee drinker, over thinker, and empowerment coach in Northern California. Find more of her writing on her blog. Catch up with Melissa on Instagram, Facebook, or on her website.

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  • daxman

    like the article. it give me chills. I think we all as humans go through the regret thing when it comes to the passing of some one close to us. I believe it is just human nature especially if u r an overthinker, a quality i also precess. but as a man of god I have to believe that a bigger and better plan was in store for the person who passed. also I bet, well in my case i know, when we all sit down we will see that we did a lot more for the deceased person than we think we did. the idea but continuing their legacy through other acts of kindness is agreat idea

  • Debrael EarthAngel

    To the author, Melissa Pennel…as a very good mom like yours was, who had a similar past relationship with her daughter, and who now has an adult daughter behaving in similar very ways…can you give me any insight on anything I could do or say–without playing any guilt or other head games–to *lovingly* (1.) Help her understand the profound pain she’s causing me, and (2.) Help bring her closer to me again? (we live in the same town, and her circumstances aren’t like yours were, she has plenty of time). Thanks

  • DB Hoster

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I have been living in a cave of regret for something similar for around a decade now. I’ve never found any words that I could relate to that have helped me process the emotions surrounding it. I guess we are all humans, having a human experience. Some even believe that we are born programmed to learn certain lessons, and that nothing is coincidence. We can’t know anything for sure, but we can choose to learn lessons, and to have good intentions toward other people, and those are the things that make the world a much better place for everyone. Thanks again for your honesty, and your light, it helps.

  • aggie

    Thank you Melissa. It’s amazing how words like yours sometimes have a way of finding us when we need them. I’ve been dealing with regret over a loss that is the result of a decision I made a month ago that cannot be changed. It seemed like the right thing at the time, but my heart has been broken since. I’ve been through the self-flagellation, lessons learned and endless rumination, and am trying desperately to move forward and heal, since the only one hurting now is me. I do believe Living Amends is the path to that, and will work to get started today.

  • Me

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I also lost my mom suddenly, and I’ve been beating myself up, too. I’m trying to get past the regrets so that I can get on with the work of missing her. Your honesty really helps!

  • Melissa Pennel

    I’m so sorry about your loss. It’s definitely an ongoing process of healing, but practicing this has really helped me forgive myself. Sending big hugs, and please feel free to reach out if you’d like resources on a loss like that. There are many online support groups, books, and practices which I’ve found to be surprisingly comforting. xo

  • Melissa Pennel

    Aggie– I’m so glad that my words found you at the right moment…I am always grateful when that happens for me. I hope that you can come to peace with your decision soon, even if it feels heartbreaking now. Something else that helps me is remembering…we did the best we could with the information we had. Even if it was only a month ago- you made the decision that was right for you. As Maya Angelou said “I did then, what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

  • Melissa Pennel

    DB– I agree. “We are all humans, having a human experience.” It’s imperfect, and filled with pitfalls, and moments that (in retrospect) can make us cringe. I think it’s fully okay to feel regret AND learn from something. To forgive ourselves for doing the best we knew how to do…or even for falling short. I hope that you can love yourself out of that cave– because just from what you’ve shared I can see that you have a whole lot of light to share. The world needs voices like yours.

  • Melissa Pennel

    Daxman- Thanks for sharing these kind words. I agree that regret is an easy place to go when we lose someone…especially someone that we love a lot. I also agree that there is likely a far bigger plan at play…so much bigger than my small human mind could understand. This idea doesn’t relieve us of responsibility, but it does leave room for us to be human, and not truly understand what role we were to play in another’s life. For now we do our best…and learn what we can. Thanks again for sharing your perspective

  • Melissa Pennel

    Debrael, I’m so sorry that you’re on the receiving end of what feels like a poor relationship now. I’ve been searching for words or advice to offer you, but ultimately I can only speak from my own experience…I don’t know you (or your daughter) well enough to responsibly advise you on the next steps to take.
    If I could offer any advice, from this uninformed and distant perspective…it would be to simply love your daughter, and yourself…in all of your relationship’s imperfections. It might be helpful to talk to a professional about healing the pain that you feel, and work through the issues that may have arisen between you and your daughter.
    I hope that you’re able to mend the divide that has arisen, but I also hope that if you took anything from this piece, it’s that things are not always as they appear.
    We are all on our own journeys, self seeking as they may seem, and ultimately trying to love each other in a complicated and confusing world. People make mistakes, even people who love each other a lot.

  • Cate

    What a brave and beautiful post — this goes in my folder of Tiny Buddha keepers! I’m a fan of the accountable, intentional “amends” approach used in recovery communities but had never heard of “living amends” for situations in which the harmed party is dead or otherwise not accessible. It’s a wonderful, rich, meaningful idea. Thank you for your courage in traveling this path and your eloquence in sharing it. You have helped me.

  • Sandra

    Melissa, if I could fully hug you right now, I would. Thank you for sharing your story. I wish you joy and peace .

  • LouAnn

    Great read ….. i wish you well

  • Sofia Reddy

    Hi Melissa, your article brought tears to my eyes. It really makes me think how relationships are so complicated. I’m in the process of trying to reconnect with my young son and to try to maintain a healthy connection with him ultimately knowing I also have to let him go and let him grow. I need to find a way for me to be OK with that and nourish my other relationships as well. I really appreciate you sharing your path towards healing, and you’re right (in one of your comments) that it is unique for each of us. I think what makes it the hardest is that we can love someone with all of our heart and at the same time we also need our space and independence. We all need opportunities to individuate in healthy ways, and sometimes with families there is that clinging that happens. That can be really tough. I hope all the beautiful memories you shared with your mother end up being prominent as you continue to work through your healing journey.

  • Melissa Pennel

    Sofia, thank you for your kind and thoughtful reply. There are indeed many layers to our relationships…especially those within a family. We stumble toward balance between freedom, expression, and selfishness…especially as the “children” in the dynamic. I hope that you’re able to connect with your son, and I also really respect that you’re working on nourishing yourself, your relationships, and “letting go” of what you can. Best of luck on your journey, and I truly appreciate you sharing your perspective.

  • Melissa Pennel

    Cate- thank you, that means so much to hear. xo

  • Jane Copeland

    Hi, Melissa: Thank you so much for this article and for sharing your pain and your journey. I lost my brother last year and like you, did not take what turned out to be his final phone call. I was in a restaurant. It was noisy, busy, I was with friends. I called him from my car the minute I left the restaurant but in that hour, he had slipped into unconsciousness from which he would not waken. I have lived with that pain and regret ever since. Your idea of living amends gives me a path to follow, not only in my relationship with my remaining family and with my friends, but also for myself. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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  • disqus_5rICh6NsCH

    Earthangel, I feel your pain. My daughter is 19, left 2 weeks after graduating high school, and has been very cryptic in what she chooses to share with me. The only thing I can offer you is to remember, we are the adults, and even though we may want them to reach out to us, we must continue to seek them out until they grow up and then seek us out. Once they leave the nest, a more effective role to take on with our children is to act as consultants, at their request of course. I now see mine about once a week or once every 2 weeks. Better than what it was… hugs to you… @i90chick

  • Melissa Pennel

    Jane, I’m so sorry about the recent loss of your brother. Thanks for taking the time to share how this impacted you, and I’m so glad that you’re able to apply this idea to your own healing. <3