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Living Well & Dying Well: Some Reflections on Regret, Grief and Procrastination

Regrets over things undone in the grieving process: life lessons

I'm writing from Toronto while attending the 5th biennial international conference on personal meaning. The theme this year is "Living well & dying well: New frontiers of positive psychology, therapy and spiritual care." I just left a session focused on models of death anxiety and death acceptance. Interestingly, the topic of procrastination arose in a consideration of grief.

Dr. Grafton T. Eliason, co-editor of Existential and Spiritual Issues in Death Attitudes, presented a paper entitled, "Death anxiety, coping mechanisms and the tale of the grateful dead." In the course of his discussion of coping with death and counseling individuals who are grieving, Dr. Eliason noted two kinds of regrets that people express in their grief over the loss of a loved one: regrets of commission and omission. The second regret, the things we omitted doing while our loved one was alive, captured my interest. Regrets of omission are so often the result of procrastination.

I asked Dr. Eliason, "What is the nature of these regrets of omission?" adding, "Are these: 1) Things people really intended to do, but never did (i.e., procrastination)?; 2) Generalized possibilities of what they could have done?; 3) Cultural scripts of what they think they should have done, what would have been nice to do?; or 4) Internalized expectations about what the loved one might have wanted them to do?

His answer didn't surprise me. He said that all four types were part of the regrets he'd seen in his practice. So, I pushed on a little further and asked which type of regret seemed most problematic. As I expected given the guilt associated with procrastination, regret over the things these grieving people really intended to do but didn't was most problematic. The regrets of omission related to our procrastination were most troubling in the grieving process.

The chair of the paper session, Dr. Adrian Tomer (and lead editor of the volume noted above) added that, in his experience, this type of unfulfilled intended action truly was the most problematic aspect of bereavement. While it may be possible to forgive oneself for an act of commission, as we all make mistakes, realizing too late in life that you simply failed to take action when you could have, is unbearable in many instances.

Dr. Tomer nodded in agreement when I replied, "I can understand this, as the real existential dilemma in these regrets of omission is that we had failed to recognize until too late our own agency in life to act according to our values."

For those of you who have read my earlier blog entries about existentialism and procrastination (see "The anguish of procrastination" and "Bad Faith"), you'll clearly see the connections here. Procrastination isn't simply a matter of "all-nighters" on school assignments, work projects or our taxes. Procrastination is, quite often, a failure to grasp our own agency in life. It's a life of inauthentic engagement, or lack of engagement, which can bring with it these deep regrets of omission.

The conversations at this conference do provide the "antidote" for this possible inauthentic existence. It's the process of meaning-making. It's the continual process of validating a sense of coherence through the story of our lives. A story that is told with our active agency in pursuing goals which are relevant and meaningful to us.

I noted at the outset of my blog today that this conference is entitled, "Living well & Dying well." The issues raised in relation to death and bereavement speak to issues of living well. This is particularly true of the notion of "courage" that Paul Tillich challenged us with in his most influential book, "The Courage to Be". This courage to be "in spite of" not feeling capable, of not feeling accepted or acceptable, in spite of circumstances that undermine our own belief in everything, is truly what is needed to live well. Living well in this sense means an authentic existence, one aligned with your own moral compass, values and aspirations. This living well is one that draws on a deep sense of agency, purpose and meaning that provides coherence to life on a day-to-day basis.

My experiences here at the conference have underscored the deep significance that procrastination can have in the regrets of omission in our lives. As I listen to research papers and therapists talk about death and the grieving process, I leave each session more convinced of the importance of dealing with procrastination as a symptom of an existential malaise; a malaise that can only be addressed by our deep commitment to authoring the stories of our lives.

Blogger's note: It's been a month since my last posting! I had expected a two-week holiday as noted in late June, but the return to work and then conference travel have kept me away from my writing. Even my wife has been surprised (and somewhat pleased) that I have been away from my blogging for this long. Well, I'm back (although a short holiday at the beginning of August may reduce the number of posts in August as well).

Part of my travel this past week included a trip to New York to do some "filming" with the History Channel for an upcoming documentary on the "Seven Deadly Sins." I'll write soon with some of my reflections on procrastination, sloth and sin. ☺