I’ve been thinking about the difference between guilt and regret. I just read a book on grief in which the author, a psychotherapist, speaks of a client who’s just lost a beloved parent. The author says she and her client cried together for all the daughters who did their best – and it wasn’t good enough. To some extent, that’s inevitable. When people are very old, they’re going to die and you can’t change that. But it’s hard not to wonder whether you could have done better during the time before they died.
Last year I spent several months walking round a pile of shoe boxes full of old black and white photos that were piled up by the coffee table in the living room. They still are, as a matter of fact. Since New Year, I’ve begun to sort them out. I’ve got as far as sorting the snaps into mum’s family, dad’s family, our nuclear family and unknowns. Now, I’ve started to fix the photos in some old-style photo albums that probably belonged originally to my aunts. I’ve done Mum when she was young; Dad when he was young; Mum and Dad when they were newly courting or newly wed.
In certain cultures, people don’t like having their photo taken: they say it steals their soul, and on some level, I can see why they believe that because photographs do seem to still retain some substance of the person. That’s why it’s so hard to throw them away, even when I don’t know who the people are.
I look at photos of me as a little girl. It’s not me as I am now but in some sense, it is me. Clearly, I’m grown up, I no longer look like that, but internally there’s part of me that’s still that same little kid.
In their early photos, both my parents look so young and so hopeful. And presumably, inside, they never stopped being those people. I feel sad that I never knew those internal aspects of my parents. They must have been there but, for whatever reason, were covered up.
I look back to the time near the end of their lives when I spent more time with them than I had since childhood. I don’t think, practically, I could have done more than I did to help them, but perhaps I could have been more understanding, even kinder. I could’ve tried to meet and get to know those internal people. Thinking about it, I see there were clues. I saw flashes of mum as a young, adventurous girl; dad as a charmer, a bit of a lad.
Most people have to compromise, have to come to terms with the fact that life Isn’t going to turn out how they’d hoped it would. Perhaps they become bitter and battered, or feel to some extent short-changed by life. If I’d understood when I was growing up, that many of my parents’ actions stemmed from that original hope which had perhaps turned to disappointment or resentment, wouldn’t that have made a difference? Mum said to me once: your father was very proud of you, you do know that don’t you? And I had to tell her, no I didn’t know. He never showed it. Had I known, that would have made a huge difference to me. His inability to express that pride, for whatever reason, is something lost that can never be replaced.
So, I think it’s not so much guilt that I feel but regret that things could’ve been different in the past but they weren’t. Because, in the end, they both made choices to behave as they did. I suppose that’s also true.
As far as the more recent past goes, being stuck here during Lockdown has given me an insight into much of Mum’s behaviour. I’ve understood more about the ploys she used to keep herself going. But I didn’t understand that they were ploys. I thought they were a denial of real life. Now I see that the way she spent the day looking forward to watching a TV programme that evening was her way of coping with a life that was becoming increasingly constricted and limited.
There’s other stuff, about which, in retrospect, I could’ve been more empathetic. It wouldn’t have made any difference in the long run but I would’ve better understood Mum’s behaviour and not got so irritated or perhaps been able to facilitate stuff. I feel bad thinking of how she must’ve felt having to move into the Care Home but I really couldn’t have carried on as her f/t carer. I wish things could’ve been different but, they weren’t. However, I don’t need to feel guilty about that. I can only regret that it was the case. It’s a sorrowful feeling, yes. But it’s a feeling from which you can move on. You can only do what you can do, after all.
And finally, XinNian KuaiLe to everyone. Hope the Chinese Year of the Ox will be an auspicious year for us all!