Have you ever been completely honest with yourself about regret? As in, have you ever indexed all of the things you wish you didn’t say or didn’t do?
What about the things you didn’t say when you had the chance?
I had a notoriously tough childhood. Sexual abuse fed an eating disorder, and then I was raped. I was an angry person, and gratitude seemed to be something for the favored people, the ones with perfect lives. In retrospect, as a forgiving adult, I understand the “why” behind this sentiment.
Years of therapy helped me target turning points in my life which helped to steer me in a healthier direction. One such turning point involved my Aunt Josephine, a woman I only met once, and yet it is the singular defining moment in my childhood that made me question the difference between “good” and “evil” people.
During a particularly dark time in my childhood, I attended a rare family event. While there, Aunt Josephine smiled down at me, with light from the windows shining behind her, casting the shadow of an angel, and gifted me with an enameled daisy chain bracelet, with no expectation of anything in return.
I held onto that bracelet and then regrettably lost it years later in one of my many moves. I became obsessed with finding the bracelet and searched vintage stores, then eBay and Etsy, to no avail. I was obsessed because I wanted to tell her thank you. Thank you for showing me that not all adults are evil and that people are inherently good and want to give with no ulterior motive.
Years went by, 30 years, actually, and the bracelet crossed my mind every few months. I need to write her and tell her thank you, I would think in a fleeting moment, but I never did.
Then I was driving one day when I got the phone call that she had died. I had to pull over because I was overcome with regret. Why the hell did I let 30 years pass without telling someone I was grateful for their influence in my life? It’s something she likely had no recollection of, but that five-minute interaction made me question everything.
This is what regret looks like. It gives you a gnawing feeling that you need to fix something that won’t go away. I couldn’t fix the reality that I never properly thanked Aunt Josephine, but I could start to make an intentional effort to thank the people in my life who make a difference, big and small.
That November, I sat down and started writing thank-you notes. I wrote about 15 that year. Some were for big things, such as, “Thank you for believing in me years ago and helping me discover my path.” Others were small, such as, “Thank you for being so kind on a day when I was struggling and no one else knew about it.” Around the same time that I started writing these thank-you notes, my parents were able to track down an identical version of the daisy chain bracelet I had so desperately been searching for.
This was a few years ago, and it has quickly become my favorite Thanksgiving tradition. This past year, however, made evident the importance of tradition in my life and the importance of expressing my gratitude. Last November, I had a stack of about 10 cards. I don’t remember who all was in that stack, but I remember one in particular was addressed to a close acquaintance of mine whose advice and opinions had been influential in certain decisions I had made in the previous year. We briefly had a conversation about the card the next time we spoke, and the reason I send them out. He told me it inspired him to make a more conscious effort to thank people in his life.
Four months later, I spoke to him on a Friday afternoon. At the end of the conversation, I asked him how everything was going in his personal life, since the conversation up until that point was professional. He said, “You know, for the first time in a really long time, I can say that I’m really good and really grateful. I’m happy at work, the wife is good, and the kids are happy. And they all know I am thankful for them.”
The next day, he was in a car accident and died later in the week from his injuries.
I really struggled, and still struggle, with the reasoning of the universe. Why does bad stuff happen?
Later that week, for probably the 10th time, I was discussing this with my husband. He finally stopped me. “He was happy, he knew he was loved, and I think he probably died without regret,” my husband said.
He was right. And I didn’t wait until this Thanksgiving to write thank-you notes. I started writing them furiously shortly after that conversation. I won’t miss out on another opportunity to tell someone thank you for being a positive light in my life.
As much as this exercise helps me to be mindful and keep me grounded in gratitude, what if the person you’re thanking needs to hear what you have to say? That what you do and say actually matters, no matter how tiny the gesture? And that, in turn, through your gesture of gratitude, helps them?
I implore you to put your gratitude out into your world. Days of gratitude on social media are a start, but personal thank-yous and direct expressions of gratitude are what will keep away the regret for words left unsaid.