Mind Matters -- March 2003
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

Resolving Regrets

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      As I have grown older, the biggest challenges for me have been the deaths of my parents. When my father died, it wasn't so bad. He had lung cancer and lived for many months after the diagnosis, so we had time to talk and patch some things up. When my mother died almost six years before him, it was much worse. Her death was unexpected and I never had a chance to prepare for it. I still cry easily when I think about how I treated her right before she died. I was mad at her and had cut off communications because of some nasty things she said about my husband. Should I still be feeling bad? What can I do now? Signed: Not Healing in Federal Way.

    Dear Not Healing:

      Thank you so much for writing! This situation happens to many of us. Conflicts and hurt feelings can get us into making choices or saying things that we may really regret later. As you have experienced, we can get caught off guard with a sudden death, and end up feeling like we were so petty and so stupid.

      Even when we don't have many regrets, grieving can be complex. Since our mainstream American culture is very "results oriented," we often put a timeline on the grieving process that is much shorter than it should be. In reality, it is impossible to predict how any one person will respond to a particular loss. However, one thing is clear: unresolved feelings add to the stress levels in our lives and make us more irritable, inflexible, depressed and prone to fatigue.

      It is never too late to take care of unfinished emotional business with a deceased loved one. The most useful techniques for this are writing letters, writing dialogues, and speaking dialogues. Although there is not enough space in this column to describe these therapies in detail, I can give you some starting points and resources.

      A letter to your mother will give you a chance to privately express your feelings. The process will allow you to verbalize, reflect, revise, and rework your words to say exactly what you really need to say.

      Here are some questions to help guide you: What experiences have you been through since your mother died? What do you miss? What do you regret? What is still unfinished in your relationship? What do you appreciate about your mother? What do you want to carry on? Each time you review what you have written, ask yourself: Was I open and honest? Did I express my love and appreciation? Did I write about the unfinished emotions and feelings in our relationship? Do I still feel regrets? Are any resentments still bothering me? Have I asked for forgiveness? Have I given forgiveness? It is important to take your time and not to worry about how long the letter might become. Revise it until you feel it is right. Check www.AlexandraKennedy.com for more information about writing and doing dialogues.

      Finally, I am often asked "What do I do with the letter after it says everything I want it to say? Do I just hold onto it?" Since this is such a personal and private process, I recommend that you destroy such a letter in a meaningful way. For instance, a ritual such as burning the letter and scattering its ashes in the wind can be a way of completing the dialogue process and putting the regrets to a final rest. -- Dr. Ron.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. Read our Disclaimer.

        Thank You for Stopping By!

      Have a great day!

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