Dying With No Regret Is Trending and That’s Not a Good Thing
Last semester, I took a course on “Life After Death” at my college, the University of Birmingham. I’m a theology and religion student and, on the first day, my classmates and I discussed the idea of a good death. My peers, it turned out, thought that a good death means dying without regrets. Perhaps if I had taken the class three years earlier, I might have agreed with them. But I didn’t and for me everything is different. My father died last year, and when he died, he was filled with regrets: about the family he was leaving behind and about the futures he would never get to see. I was shocked to realize that people think that a “good death” is dying without regrets and horrified to learn that this is a common idea.
The idea that you can die well is an ancient one. The Greeks and Romans believed that dying well was about being manly, acting with honor, and defending one’s city or homeland. For religious people dying well often meant making one’s peace with God, but our ideas about what it means to die well are constantly shifting. Today, as Geoffrey Walters has argued in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, a good death is usually seen as a death that is “free from physical pain.”
A growing number of people, however, are interested in dying without unfinished business. A 2008 study of patients dying of lung cancer concluded that in Western society a good death is “Dying free of regret.” Many self-help books offer this advice and encourage readers to “read about how [they] can live and die without regret.” Numerous websites and books have lists of ways to die without regrets and extol the merits of leaving a tombstone that reads “No Regrets!”
Interestingly, public interest in regret in the West is very recent and first emerged in the early 1980s. In her book Regret: The Persistence of the Possible psychologist Janet Landman defines regret as a “painful cognitive/affective state of feeling sorry for losses, transgressions, shortcomings, or mistakes” that is linked to other emotions like guilt, fear, and embarrassment, but is still seen as distinctive. While some regret stems from our own bad decisions, some regrets are due to factors beyond our control.
This is something that those who work in Death Studies acknowledge. In outlining their theory of regret, Erika Timmer, Gerben J. Westerhof, and Freya Dittmann-Kholi note that some regrets relate to “hard times…and…[a lack of ] educational opportunities.” Things, in other words, that are out of our hands. Others argue that there are only two kinds of end-of-life regret: those that relate to our past and those that relate to our unlived futures. When we die, and especially if we die young as my father did, we have regrets about future hopes and dreams that will “no longer be available” to us. While some end-of-life anxiety arises from our fears about what happens in the afterlife, a significant proportion is about the lives we did not live and about “not achieving goals that matter to [us] before [we] die.”
A central example of end-of-life regret about the future are regrets about the milestones that we will miss out on. My father, for example, regretted not being able to go to his daughters’ weddings. He never saw me finish university, meet the love of my life, or get a “real” job. His death was a tragedy for him and for all of us, but was it a “bad death”? Did he “fail” life’s last hurdle by just not living long enough? I cannot believe that.
The assumption in many popular understandings about dying without regrets is that regret is a negative emotion that we can avoid if we only try hard enough. But is this true? A growing body of literature suggests that it is not.
Psychologist Robert Kastenbaum has written that regret’s purpose is to help people “learn from past mistakes [that] we would not want to make again.” Regrets guide people, they teach people to learn from their past mistakes. If humans did not experience the growth that comes through regret, they and those around them would suffer. As Landman has argued, regret is just “an inevitable, natural or ‘normal’ part of living.” The reason for this is that we cannot have our cake and eat it too: we cannot explore every opportunity, every career path, or every romantic relationship. Regret is simply “a direct consequence of… the capacity to conceive multiple alternatives.”
“Stigmatizing regret ignores the many meaningful and positive ways that regrets shape our lives. ”
The experience of regret is also gendered. Women, for example, report experiencing more relationship-related regret than men. This may well be because of the social expectations placed upon women. There’s something wrong with a society that socializes one gender to experience more regret and then condemns them for feeling that emotion. But, as Neal Roese, the author of the book If Only: How to Turn Regret Into an Opportunity, has written, regret isn’t just inevitable; it can be a positive part of our lives.
The inevitability of regret is suggested by scientific studies about end-of-life care. In their 2005 study, Timmer, Westerhof, and Dittmann-Kohli found that 82 percent of the 3,917 participants they surveyed “recalled a cause for regret.” This is an enormously high percentage but may actually be artificially low. Some participants may have denied experiencing regret out of pride and as a form of psychological self-preservation (as has been observed during the coronavirus pandemic among those patients who chose not to be vaccinated). Other participants may have taken advantage of the opportunities that a terminal diagnosis affords people. As the authors of the study write, a “person faced with a potentially fatal illness will have recourse to… [reorder their] priorities.” Imminent death might push someone to reconcile with family or complete the “unfinished business.” In these situations, regret encourages individuals to be kinder to the people around them and to right their wrongs. Regret, in other words, is a good thing.
What we need to recognize, though, is that not everyone has the time to right their wrongs and that regrets about the future cannot necessarily be fixed. A person struck by a car has no time to address their regrets or say their goodbyes. A person who dies younger than they expected will struggle to eliminate regrets about missed milestones and leaving their loved ones.
What all of this means, then, is that the fetishizing of “dying without regrets” is inequitable. It harms those who die young and their families. Stigmatizing the experience of end-of-life regret needlessly adds to the emotional burdens of those who are dying and those who love them. More importantly, stigmatizing regret ignores the many meaningful and positive ways that regrets shape our lives. If we did not experience regret, we could not experience emotional growth or empathize with the pains of others; we would not be human.
Emma Payne is a second-year student in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham, U.K. You can follow her on Twitter @Emma_Payne123
Source: Culled From The Daily Beast.