Like millions of people around the world, I’ve recently lost close family members. My father and my eldest sister.
After a life largely defined by the absence of grief, pain and suffering, I was devastated by this unaccustomed feeling of loss.
Although they were both indescribably dear to me, we only saw one another once, maybe twice yearly. This may sound unfeeling, but after the initial shock and intense pain, I was surprised with how little it impacted my everyday life. It was almost as if they were still there, as if I could still call and hear their voices whenever I wanted. The realisation would then hit me like a punch to the stomach, leaving me breathless.
I can’t even begin to fathom what it must be like to lose a spouse or child, the devastation it must cause, or how people continue after. I pray that I may be spared this agony.
All this made me think about loss in general and how we deal with it. Losing friends and family members, jobs, lifestyles, losing an identity, losing a relationship, losing hope.
I’ve mostly seen intense loss from the outside. I’ve seen people go through the “prescribed” stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and eventually, in some but not all cases, acceptance. I’ve also seen individuals get stuck somewhere in the middle, trying to make sense and stumbling along the way to healing. The question is, why can some push through and end up scarred, but whole, while others completely crumble and are forever broken by their loss and grief.
Grief is intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death. Although grieving is awful, it is a necessary part of healing. Once the pain of grieving has slightly dulled, the sadness and sorrow become part of your being. I am no expert, but this is what I’ve noticed. The individuals who struggle the most are the ones who experience continued feelings of regret. The dictionary defines regret as: To feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over something that one has done or failed to do.
The cliché goes that, more often than not, regret is caused by not doing something. Not visiting or calling enough, not answering your phone, not going on that trip, not telling someone how much they mean to you.
To have no regrets does not mean that you think that absolutely everything you’ve done and everything that happened to you is perfect. True regret applies when we don’t learn from our mistakes. When we stay so focused on what could have been, that we can’t move forward to live our life fully.
I often ask myself when faced with a difficult decision: “Will I regret doing this?” or “Will I regret not doing this?”.
We are all individuals, working through our own loss, pain and regret in our own way. No one can tell anybody else how to cope when the unthinkable happens.
In the end it is not about what we go through, but how we choose to deal with our loss, grief, heartbreak and regrets. Choosing to consciously look for things to be thankful for. Searching for little chunks of joy in the midst of suffering and grieving. Consciously trying to take one small step a day in the direction of healing.
So I will continue to live my life, taking risks, following my gut, and trying my best. I will try to love much and unconditionally. With the grace of God, I will forgive easily. I will remind myself to plug into the eternal source of joy when my own runs out.
And if I am faced with the unthinkable, I will take my time to mourn, to grieve, to savour the good memories, reflect on them, learn from them, and try to move on without regrets.
Louise van Heerden is a wife and mother of four young women. She is determined to fill the approaching empty nest with friends, coffee, food, art and lots of long walks on the beaches of St Helena Bay where she is lucky enough to be living.