Three months ago today, my wife, my high school sweetheart, Jill Rinehart, died suddenly and unexpectedly next to me in the bed. I tried to revive her, but neither I nor the EMS responders who came when I called 911 were able to bring her back.
We had been married thirty-four years, four months, and eighteen days. We had been together “officially” as a couple for over thirty-seven years, and had actually known each other for over 40 years.
I was not prepared to lose her on that day or in that way.
She had been concerned about surgery she was scheduled to have a few days later, and she gave me some indication that she thought something might happen during the surgery or when she was in the hospital. But she didn’t seem too concerned that Friday night. We talked about our plans to get up the next morning and go to breakfast together (as we did every Saturday), and she made all the preparations for the art class she was scheduled to teach. We even discussed the plan for church that Sunday.
Then, against all our expectations, she was gone. I was unprepared, mentally or emotionally, for her loss.
I don’t mind admitting that I was unprepared emotionally. There’s an element of surprise and shock built into all of this, because even though we vow to love and honor and cherish “’til death do us part” we don’t often think much about death parting us. Or, at least in our case, when we talked about it our reasonable assumption was that I would go first. But, even so (or maybe because of that assumption), Jill and I didn’t discuss it in enough detail to say that either one of us was prepared for it. It was always something that we assumed would be “yet to come,” something in the future, something that we had time to prepare for and plan for and deal with.
But in the midst of my unpreparedness, I was surprised by an avalanche of guilt and regret that buried me, and that I’m still digging my way out from under. I did not expect it, and it has choked me and frozen me in my grief.
For instance, I was unprepared for the guilt I would feel: guilt that I was unable to help her adequately the night she died. I may go into more detail about that in a future blog post, but for now suffice it to say that I hate myself, and probably always will, for every second that I hesitated after waking up to what I now know was her last breath.
But in addition to that guilt, that doubt, that self-recrimination — which my doctor and some emergency medical technician friends insist I need not carry — I have encountered powerful regrets for which I was equally unprepared. Unexpected and intractable regrets …
- for times that I grew so comfortable in our marriage and our home life and our relationship that I took her for granted, and didn’t tell her or show her how deeply I loved her and how much she meant to me
- for things I said or did that bothered her, or hurt her
- for things I failed to do or things I didn’t say that could have made her life — or just one day or just one hour of her life — more comfortable or more bearable or happier
- for every opportunity I missed to spend an extra hour with her, whether sitting on the couch or the front porch talking, or walking in the woods or on the beach under the moonlight
- for things I’ve learned about that I didn’t know, that at times during our marriage she was unhappy or dissatisfied or depressed: specifically, for not having clearer vision and more wisdom to see what was wrong and know how to help; for being self-absorbed and ignorant … not uncaring or unconcerned, really, but stupidly blind to her needs
(Jill at Duke Gardens.)
So, yes, I was unprepared for regret in Jill’s passing. Some people have told me that confronting regrets like this is a normal part of grief, and maybe it is — the “unfinished business” of life, as one dear friend put it — but that doesn’t negate the fact that I had never considered it and was not ready to handle it.
I’m not sure I’m ready to handle it even now. But I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter.
If at this point I can offer any caution to you as you navigate in and through your own relationships, it’s this: do what you can, while you can, to let your beloved know how very much they mean to you. Let them know how sorry you are for those things you might have done (or that you meant to do but didn’t), for any ways in which you may have hurt them or neglected them. And let them know how ready you are to forgive them for anything they may have done, even unknowingly, that hurt you.
Keep the slate of your relationship as clean as possible for as long as possible. Erase any negativity from it as often as you can. And, so far as it is in your power to do so, only write on that slate affirmations and encouragement and praise and expressions of love. So that when — not if, but when, and hopefully many years in the future — death parts you, you are not burdened with so many regrets as I have been.
P.S. If you’re interested, you can read Jill’s obituary here.