I am so excited to announce back a guest that we’ve had on before and that is Helen Keeling-Neal. She’s a licensed mental health counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, and a nationally certified counselor with a private practice in my hometown of Winter Park, Florida, as well. Helen is on the board of us here at Growth through Grief. We just welcomed her to the board. And she’s here to help guide our practice on all things concerning the mind. Prior to her work in mental health. Helen was a Creative, serving as an adjunct professor at the University of Central Florida radio and television production, director of My Art Studio, a children’s art studio, and president of a multimedia agency Emerge Media. And Helen has personal experience with grief and loss herself as a widow. Her husband passed away when her children were only four and six years old.
And we’re here to discuss today how to deal with regrets in your relationship. Helen, welcome.
Helen Keeling-Neal 1:39
Thank you. Thanks for having me on again, Tom.
So many of us have some regrets, honestly, about our partner, our relationship., No relationship is perfect. I don’t know if yours was, mine certainly was not.
I absolutely loved my wife, but for many of us, through the disease and through the struggle. things were less than ideal. We were dealing with a lot of stuff, many of us, and that definitely put a strain on the relationship.
I know many of the widowers that I’ve talked to, some of them, there were words that were left unsaid between them and their late wife. For others, there were perhaps angry words, or things they said that they regretted,
What’s the psychology behind regret? Why do we feel the way we do in the regretting process? Yeah.
So sometimes the regret is based in that little bit of guilt you racked up, a retrospective of guilt looking back and wishing it had been different.
So we have so many opportunities to regret when you lose someone… when someone passes on. And I think there’s different forms of it. There’s the regret that you didn’t do certain activities together, or the regret of calling them an idiot for not putting the hose away, or something really minor.
And then there’s the regret of perhaps not spending quality time together, or the regret of an emotion. I think that’s probably one of the hardest ones, regretting feeling angry.
The hard part too is that with other people, if you’ve got a regret like that, you have the chance to change it, because they are still with us. For example, if I said something wrong to you one day, maybe at the coffee shop, and, you know, the next day, I could wake up and say Tom, you idiot, you know, go and apologize to Helen, and you can make things right again. And I think that’s probably the biggest thing, is we don’t have a way to make it right with our loss.
I think the way to counteract regret is to lean in with loving acceptance. Because there isn’t a do-over here, there isn’t an apology that can be made. But there can be emotional process work where one can own the regret,
I was thinking about this with my husband. The times I was annoyed that he was late home from work. These things that, having lost someone, wouldn’t even register for me in the same way as they did in that relationship. I didn’t know at the time that someone being late is just not a big deal.
Helen, it was definitely that way for me. So one of the big regrets that I have with Judy, is that during the periods of recovery – when she was sick, there was everything we could do just to get her back healthy again. But we’ve got a couple of these amazing periods where she recovered, and things went back to, quote unquote, normal, right? Normal in that, I went back to work, went back out on the road, wasn’t spending a lot of time home, and I had to attend to that as we had a business, we had 20 people working for us, sometimes 30. And there were a lot of mouths to feed, and I had to go and do those things.
But now looking back, I’m like, Well, if I knew we only had a year, if we only had two good years, would I really have done that? Would I have? Or would I have just put it all on hold and said, “You know what, that can wait, this time is precious”.
And so that is definitely a big regret I have. We can all look back and say, you would have could have, but that’s what I do. I do it and say, Wow, I had some precious time here. There were a couple of trips that we really wanted to take, one to Spain in particular Helen that we just never did get to do. Because we took those times of healthiness in the disease, ebb and flow. We took it for granted. I took it for granted.
Yeah, and I think there’s a compound grief on that. Tom, you have to grieve that lost time, not taking advantage of it. It’s another form of grief. along with grief on the loss of your wife.
So knowing that, and knowing what one of my regrets are, how would you recommend I reconcile that? So how do we cast that regret, maybe not aside, because I think you need to recognize it, as you said, you kind of have to confront it, but how do we overcome it so that it doesn’t keep coming up as a as a negative thought that could potentially hold us back in our healing process,
Right, that eats away at you, sort of gnaws at you?
Well, you know, I’m a big fan of EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. So that’s a really great way to work on the regret, and work on it from a very deep manner, to release that negative belief.
You have stored that, as the regret might be in that statement of “I didn’t do the right thing”. Or “I should have done better”, or “I’m not good enough”. Those kinds of negative beliefs.
And so using EMDR as a technique to release those can be very helpful.
But I think self-forgiveness is huge here. The understanding that you didn’t know what the timeframe is and were in survival mode a lot of the time, and your couple-ship was in survival mode. That was very, very difficult.
She was really ill, there was contention around that…there’s always contention with illness, because of the amount of stress. So self-forgiveness is really important, bringing a compassionate lens to the fact that, if you did have to do this over again you would do it differently. But we don’t know what we don’t know, until we know.
Now, Helen, that brings me to the second regret that I have,
You didn’t know that, again, I was gonna get on the couch and be psychoanalyzed by this session, but we might as well put it out there because I know that a lot of people have the same kind of issues. And I don’t mind sharing and revealing some of this, if you don’t mind, trying to have me as a quote unquote, virtual patient. To get me some advice that hopefully will help others.
So the other big regret I have and this one is a little bit more complex, but I know one which other people have had to go through, is that through the sickness process, we definitely started to resent each other. And it’s harsh to say that, so let me say again: Love, I think deep down, she loved me, I loved her. We were together through it all. And we were there for each other through it.
However, I could see in certain instances and things she said I think she did that she resented that I went on living in a lot of ways the life that I had before, and that she couldn’t do those things any longer. We had a strong partnership in the business, and she was a big part of that. Through the sickness she really couldn’t do many of the things she did before in that partnership. So for example, when it came time for me to publish a book, I would normally have had her do the editing and do the artwork and everything else with it. And I think she resented that I was able to do that and had to do it with other partners who were part of the business, but not with her. And I don’t think she ever really got over that, and did resent that quite a bit.
And vice versa. There were things that I resented in her again, not to seem harsh with it. But when someone’s going through a disease like this, they’re not the same person that they were before. Judy had a brain tumor that was on her pituitary gland, responsible for serotonin and melatonin. And it was a mid-brain disease, and it impacted her emotions greatly. She was not the same person she was physically either.
There were times where I would think in the back of my head, well, I’m married to a 70 or 80 year old and I’m young, early 50s, and really active. And it was hard not to have those feelings of resentment there.
So that co-resentment definitely led to me now looking back at it saying, Wow, I regret the resentment – that we didn’t go to therapy on that. I regret that we didn’t set the relationship now with new expectations, not coming in with those old expectations of “I’m your partner, and I’m going to be able to do everything I did before and contribute to the business”, or “I’m 50 years old, and I want to go climb a mountain, I want to go running, I want to go on a whitewater rafting trip, and you can’t do those things with me anymore”.
So what I’m hearing is that you lost your person before you lost your person. And she, in a way, lost her person. Before she left. In the sense of the partnership that you had was combined, and work and parenting and being together and the illness separated that for you guys. And it changed everything.
I had a client last week who was telling me a quote, and this is just going to be a paraphrase from Brene Brown. And she was talking about resentment. And how “resentment isn’t anger, it’s envy”.
So just as your wife envied your ability to continue on and be healthy, I’m sure you envied others who had a partner that could do the youthful things you wanted to do. And it’s complex.
But all of those feelings, hers and yours are very normal, and really appropriate. It just leaves you afterwards with this sense of sadness and regret.
Helen, I think you’re hitting on it, which is the first thing we need to do is kind of step back and rely on Grace, Grace is the word that comes to mind.
That is so funny. I wrote that word down earlier. Yeah.
Talk about that a little bit and why that’s so important. Grace.
You know, grace is a term that we’re used to using in spiritual worlds, right.
But to me, Grace represents giving someone including oneself the space to be human, to err, to make mistakes, and know that they’re still a good person.
And in your example, that really you were doing the best that you could at that moment in time. And so was she.
I completely agree in that,, because the struggle was real through that time. Yes, we were trying to do the best: she was trying to hang on for the kids and for me, and for everything that she stood for. And, I was trying to hold it all together as well. And in the end it wasn’t a graceful time, as you’re watching this disease and loss unfold,
It’s ugly. It’s, it’s really ugly.
Anyone who’s been through it. I know many of our brothers suffer from PTSD from some of that ugliness that is there.
Yes. It’s really quite awful in the end stages, right? Visually, what you see your loved one going through or hearing the pain, just really, really impactful.
But coming out of that, I think we can claim that grace again, find that grace to give room in our hearts to say, you know, Yes I wasn’t perfect, but we’re human. And I think until you can start to give yourself that grace, you really haven’t created that healing space.
Yeah, exactly. You know, my husband had been in rehab for drug treatment. About three weeks before he went into the hospital, he came out of rehab, and I was pissed. I was so mad.
And he was undiagnosed. So we didn’t know that liver cancer was going on. And when we went to the hospital because he was having trouble breathing, and we’d been together to the gastroenterologist a week before he went into the hospital, who just dismissed him and saidwe need to do a scope.
We didn’t know he was in severe liver failure right there and then. So he went into the hospital and they were trying to prescribe him pain medications. And I’m going, “he’s an addict. No, he’s an addict”. And the doctor looked at me, and he said, This is not the time for that.
But I didn’t know that he was dying. He was dying right there. That he was in end stage liver failure. And we didn’t know. And, you know, it took me years to stop being upset with myself for being upset with him.
So, as we look at this, you and I are two examples here. Our relationships were not perfect right? I think that we’re always expected to portray these relationships we had with our late spouses as if they are perfect.
Yeah, especially after someone passes, after someone dies, there’s that putting them up on a pedestal kind of pressure.
But I don’t know about you. I was still angry. I was angry for a long time. And my anger changed. And it shifted, because anger changes from anger, in part for me with David because of how he had abused his body with drugs and alcohol, because it contributed to his death, and then anger that he was gone. I was having to deal with everything by myself, and anger at the financials, and all these different feelings.
Of course, underneath the anger was just a desperate sadness about the loss. We all have issues in relationships, I don’t know one relationship that hasn’t had issues. And that’s normal. That’s the human condition. That’s the partnering condition. And so we’re left with dealing after the loss of the person with the issues that were in the relationship, even maybe before they were ill, or whatever was going on before. And now the loss of that person too.
And in some ways, not being able to share some of the regrets we might have, because we’re trying to portray the relationship as if it was perfect, and not wanting to talk about maybe some of the things that we regretted, that we’re still hanging on to, or the fight that you had, or the issues and onflict that was still going on toward the end.
I’ll never forget, my eldest daughter was about maybe nine. So this was three years after David had died. And she was up one night, and she was just having a really hard time. She was really angry. She was really upset.
She said to me, and she burst into tears, as she said it, she said, I’m so angry at daddy for dying. I’m gonna get emotional here. And then she said, but I feel so terrible about myself, for being angry at him for dying.
This little nine year old who’s experiencing that kind of conflict. And I’m sure that you’ve experienced that conflict, I’ve experienced that conflict. I still experience it every once in a while, and a moment when I’m like, you know, I’ve got to deal with everything with my kids all the time, everything all the time, by myself. But that dichotomy of feeling is really hard. And the truth is, we can feel both at once.
So at nine year old, she’s capturing that child inside of us that’s experiencing these things, right. It’s there for the nine year old, and it is there for us as adults. So how do we in a stepwise way take this regret and heal through it? What do you recommend is the steps that we can take hold on to, and it’s helped us to get through this?
I think it’s really important to talk about the really difficult things because we don’t talk about how angry we are at them, or how resentful we are, or how we might have yelled at them after they went through chemo, or because you are so upset.
And I had a friend who got so angry because she just changed her husband’s diaper again, and he had another accident and she just lost it. Because of that, because she was so overwhelmed and so stressed, and just, you know, felt terrible about it, we have to talk about these things. We have to talk about them because it’s normal. And everybody does it. And we don’t have to glorify them in this glow of Oh, yes, there are dearly departed angelic people, when the struggle was so real. We have to be able to say the dark things that we said or did to somebody in safety,
Who’s going to care for us this way, no matter what it is, and just sit with us and witness that sorrow. And that darkness however it is, and say, it makes sense. I understand. You are not a bad person because of it.
And I think Helen, a therapist could be that. Thank you for listening to my story today and being for me that person in this moment.
It could be a fellow brother, who might have the same regrets, the same issues or similar things, I’m sure. They might have different regrets, but they’re still manifesting in a very similar way.
It could be a dear friend, male or female that you can share with.
And I do think that talking about it, cognitive behavioral therapy of talking about these, challenges and getting them out there. I think that’s the first step in the healing process?
Yeah, definitely. Because we tend to not to have perspective when they’re inside our heads, just taking up so much space, and just going around and around and around.
But the second we verbalize them We get to externalize it, or look at it more practically. Okay, I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept for three days. They were so Ill. I was trying to run a business, you were trying to run a business, to sustain 20 employees. Right? Of course, I was angry. Of course, I was upset.
Yeah. And so talking about it kind of takes it from here (pointing to the bottom of the head, in the back), right where it’s running around in your head and you have deep feelings attached to it. The emotions from the reptilian brain., Fight, fight, freeze or fawn that occurs. Verbalizing it puts it here (pointing to the front of the head) into your frontal lobe and then you can externalize it from your emotions, so you can then have some perspective, an outside in perspective that you can now observe it, and move it around, say, “Okay, why did they feel that way?”, and begin reconciling it right?
And calm. The emotional component really sets the stage. Shed the tears, or whatever feeling is connected with it.
You won’t have that perspective, like that observer perspective right away. As you said, there will be that emotional reaction. Maybe the first time you say it out loud, then the second time, but I think by kind of the fourth, fifth, sixth time, and it may take that many sharings, The time to get it out there, to gain that kind of outside in perspective.
Right? Agreed. And I was just thinking about that.
That’s the very first time I’ve told that story about my daughter. So that runs true to what you’ve just said, telling it and having the emotions come up. I could tell it now, without it having the same effect. But it’s the first time I’d ever told that piece and so the emotions flowed.
And then again, EMDR can help with this too. There’s other techniques as well, ART, all kinds of things. A lot of people use writing as a way to process and to express and put it out there.
And if you have a spiritual connection, if you have a connection with God or a higher power, and have that kind of understanding in your life, some kinds of faith or spiritual practices, those can be really, really useful because the common theme in all spiritual practices is forgiveness. And that includes self-forgiveness, too.
And Grace as well. No matter what we do, no matter what, God still loves us.
Forgiveness. Let’s talk about that a little bit.
One of the biggest ways that I was able to heal through the regret was talking about it, talking about the resentment that I felt with a couple of folks, a therapist being one and then some brothers as well. So talking about the issues helped.
But the bigger help was a walk in the woods. A pastor friend of mine had a retreat program, and as part of the retreat, we had to get our hurts out and write them down. So we journaled our hurts. And then for every hurt, we aligned and asked for forgiveness for it. And sometimes it was external people who had hurt us, so I forgive you so and so for doing X, Y, and Z to me. The ones that most people had a little bit more of a challenge with, were these ones where they had to forgive themselves or ask God for forgiveness of those sins. These are issues that we still hold on to.
And the walk in the woods, the first part of it was just going through that list. For me, it was putting it up to God. For others, it could be just more self-forgiveness if you’re less spiritual. But I do think that putting it up to a higher power and saying, God, please forgive me for the resentment that I held, and for feeling this way about my late wife, and for not being as graceful to her as I should have been through the journey and as forgiving to her for the disease that had ravaged her.
And so going through that process and saying it out loud while I was walking through the woods. Thank goodness, there were miles around me, acres and acres around me. There was no one there. But I was speaking loudly to God so He could hear. And I do think there’s something powerful about not just asking for forgiveness in your head. Bu externalizing it and putting it out there.
Yeah, I agree. That sounds wonderful. That sounds like you were clearing out from the depths of your soul. All that you’ve been hanging on to for so long, and doing it in nature, which we know is really healing, and then in connection with your higher power God. So you know, you’re being heard, and then receiving grace.
And that trip culminated, which we will talk about in a later session, with some pretty amazing insights that He was able to give me at the end. This let me know that not only was it healing for me to be able to verbalize those things and ask for forgiveness, but that he was listening to so much more. And the power of that spiritual moment really was a turning point in my life and an incredible healing process.
So, Helen, What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to leave our widowers with today, about regret?
Well, I would say go for a walk in the woods at this point, Tom, I think that’s the best advice.
And second, it’s sharing in safe spaces with safe people in truth. And that’s the way to release it.
Yeah. And whether that’s to God above or a therapist, a widower brother, or dear friend, I think that’s the key is, you don’t have to go through this alone.
And don’t think that you have to have that relationship be perfect. No, it wasn’t perfect when she was here. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You want to be respectful. You want to be adoring and graceful, just like you would be normally, but we don’t have to put them on a pedestal, because that isn’t necessarily truthful and doesn’t help in the healing process.
So I agree. Get it out there to someone trusted, share, and then ask for forgiveness. And give yourself grace.
Yep, that’s it.
Excellent. Helen, thank you so much. We’ll put contact information in case anyone wants to reach out to Helen about some of the therapies she mentioned. And we will have Helen back to discuss many more topics. We’ve got a list of them that Helen and I were talking about. And we really want to get some of this out there for you all to to help in our sharing. Thank you, Helen.