Wednesday, August 8, 2012
I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about both of our parents' battles with cancer, his mom and my dad. Both were diagnosed at an age when they appeared to be in the prime of their lives, on the cusp of retirement, in seemingly good health. My friend's mom was a long-time smoker but at his insistence had quit smoking a few months before she was diagnosed with the lung cancer that took her life a short time later. As he was talking about her illness, he told me that he will always wonder if by encouraging his mom to quit smoking he had somehow caused her to get cancer. He said he knew it wasn't really rational to think that but that he couldn't shake the thought that somehow the thing that had changed in her life before the diagnosis was made was not fortuitous, that there was a link. I think in the greater scheme of things, human beings tend to want to believe that cancer (or anything else) happens for a reason, that where there's an effect, there must be a cause. That's what our logical minds often tell us, and it's our way of allowing ourselves to feel like we have some sort of control over, well, anything, when in many cases we just don't. No matter what the case is, no matter what the cause - if any - cancer is always unfair, and that's really the bottom line.
Hearing my friend say that he felt on some level responsible for his mother's death made me think about the way that in any death, in any circumstance, there is always room to wonder: what could I have done differently, how could the outcome have been avoided, WHERE DID I LOSE CONTROL?
That conversation also started me thinking about the difference between guilt and regret, two emotions that are different from each other yet are often confused, especially when people are grieving. In my opinion, the term "guilt" is frequently misused; the term actually refers to something that one feels he shouldn't have done because it was wrong. In many ways, guilt can be a disabling affliction, just like Cancer. And, also like Cancer, guilt is something that can happen to anyone at any time, no matter the circumstances.
Regret, on the other hand, is what is felt when when something has happened that has resulted in a loss or a missed opportunity, despite the fact that the person had no control over the result. Regret occurs when there were circumstances beyond one's control; in short, regret can arise when one makes a mistake. The difference is that what was done in the case of regret wasn't wrong, even though what happened as a result was undesired.
Many times I've heard people say they feel guilty when a loved one gets cancer, even when that loved one becomes a "Survivor." I've heard people say they feel guilty for not doing more or for not being there for a friend or family member who has Cancer. What they more likely mean in both cases is that they regret what happened, even though it wasn't an outcome of their actions.
I know personally how cumbersome it is to harbor feelings of guilt and/or regret; it is, in a word, awful. But the most awful thing of all is when the person who is sick feels guilty: They may feel guilty that those who are caring for them are missing work and other things, they may worry about the money involved in the treatment of Cancer, they may feel that they are a burden on others. They may wonder if they did something to have caused the Cancer or if they didn't do what they should have done to prevent it. One of my friends who battled Cancer years ago once told me that while she was sick she felt guilty for feeling jealous of people she knew who were healthy, and she said that after she was done with treatment she felt guilty for getting better when so many with Cancer don't. And although "regret" is the better word to use here, we tend to say "guilt" much more often.
Why does that distinction matter? Maybe because feeling guilty is, in a sense, blaming ourselves for something that was in no way under our control and/or for something that occurred as a result of an innocent action. If someone is justifiably guilty for something, they should take responsibility for what they did and then make an effort to make amends whenever possible. Inaccurately labeling regret as guilt can serve as a huge barrier in the grief process; when one feels responsible for a loss when in fact that person had only the best intentions and had no control over what ended up going wrong, it's easy for him or her to get "stuck" because their perception of what happened isn't based in reality.
All of this reminds me of the concept of the movie “Sliding Doors” (If you haven’t seen it I recommend that you do **Caution: not for kids!**), which is that it is possible for even a small decision to forever change the course of a life. Surely the vast majority of adults have done some things in their past that they wished they’d done differently. And when someone you love dies of a terminal illness (or maybe when they die from ANYTHING), it doesn't seem like it would be that unusual to feel at least a little bit of regret, and in some cases some guilt may play a role as well.
Looking back to the time when my dad was sick, part of me wonders – and will always wonder – if I did enough. If I could’ve done more. If I should’ve played something differently. And if I had, would it have made a difference?
Sometimes I think about the Sliding Doors concept, about different ways that things might or might not have been done as we tried to cope with his illness. I guess technically mixed in with that wondering are some blame and some anger, both of which I feel are completely justifiably directed towards the health care professionals who in my opinion didn't do what they should have done. (More on that later ... ) But I also find myself thinking about what-ifs from other time periods in my dad's life - both from before he got sick and whenever I imagine how things would be if he were still here, either having been miraculously cured or still fighting.
As I've mentioned, my dad was involved in lots of accidents during his life, most of which occurred out on the road during his physical pursuits. Although I can't for the life of me figure out why I do this, I sometimes think about how things would have been had he sustained an injury with long-term effects in one of these accidents. I always thought Dad had somehow ended up with nine lives (Maybe that's why he considered himself a cat person more than a dog person.) Now I am left to wonder if he did but I somehow lost count along the way. To some people, I guess it might seem like my family should have discouraged him from doing things like the running and the biking and the adventure races that sometimes resulted in serious injuries for him, but we always protected and defended his right to continue despite the risks because he loved it and, to be really honest, maybe because we caught a little bit of his "I'm too lucky for anything really bad to ever happen" fever along the way.
When Dad talked about people he knew whom he thought had "gone downhill" over the years, he always said he hoped that didn't happen to him. In fact, I distinctly remember several times hearing him say that he hoped when his time came that he went out running. In a way, I guess he got his wish.
Why is it that "If games" are so common with grief: If only _____, things would be different. If I'd encouraged him to go to the doctor. If we'd found out sooner. If we'd chosen a different hospital or different doctors. I guess it's because whenever our minds create these alternative scenarios, we can imagine an alternate reality to the one that we just don’t want to accept. These counterfactuals allow us to hide the truth, to conceal the reality of pain, if only for a little while.