My dad is filled with regret for things in the past

I wish he could just let go and enjoy his retirement.

By Cary Tennis
March 2, 2006 4:36PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I have debated writing this letter for quite some time not because I haven't wanted to write, but because I suspect that this is a problem over which I have no control.

My father, who is very dear to me, is drowning in guilt over something that happened over 30 years ago and I fear he will take this guilt to the grave instead of letting it go so that he can enjoy his golden years. You see, he separated from his first wife, leaving his three school-age children (my half-siblings) with their mother, and eventually married my mother, to whom he is still happily married.


However, during the painful transition out of his first marriage, he made my oldest half-brother a promise he couldn't keep: He promised his teenage son that he could come live with him. My father came through the divorce badly from a financial perspective (as was the norm in the '70s, I guess) and it took him and my mother a year or so to get settled in a place that might be suitable for a teenager to live. By then, my mother was pregnant with me and she and my father decided that it would be best if they gave their new marriage and family the best possible start and did not ask my oldest half-brother, or either of my other two half-siblings, to come live with them.

I am not close to my oldest half-brother and was a tiny infant at the time, so I have no idea what effect this had on him other than guessing that he was disappointed and hurt. He went on to get a girl pregnant, get married at age 18, get arrested, get sent to jail, etc., and only now that he is in his 40s has he pulled himself back together, although he is almost certainly a functioning alcoholic. I do, however, know exactly what effect this all has had on my father: He is wracked with guilt.

My other two half-siblings are close with my father. And, although they likely suffered as much as my oldest brother, my father is not consumed by guilt when it comes to them because he did not promise them he would take them with him.


My father is close to all of his children and has been equally supportive of all of us as long as I can remember. But it pains me to watch him suffer in his guilt, especially because he is finally retired and living in his dream retirement home and I fear he won't be able to fully enjoy his retired life because of the guilt that plagues him from the past. My mother and sister and I have discussed this guilt quite a bit and all agree that it is tearing him up (any discussion of my oldest brother's troubles brings a pained look to my father's face and he'll go off to brood for hours or days), but we are at a loss as to how to approach him about it.

While wonderful and loving, he is also a typical man of his generation -- one who doesn't believe that crying or showing emotion is manly and one who is loath to discuss his feelings about much of anything beyond what he might like for dinner or about his most recent round of golf. And yet his pain is obvious, as is his inability to address this topic with my brother. He has related bits and pieces of this story to me over the years and has expressed regret over not keeping his promise. He has not, on the other hand, come out and said he still feels guilty or that it bothers him, although it obviously does.

I suspect that if he ever did broach the subject with my brother, my brother would tell him not to worry about it -- it does not seem that my brother has held onto his grudge all these years. Unfortunately, I'm neither close enough to my brother to bring up this topic, nor comfortable doing so considering my role in the whole drama.


Is there anything I can do to ease my father's pain and guilt? Is there any solution that I've just overlooked? Therapy is completely out of the question -- my father would have none of it.

Daughter of Drowning Dad

Dear Daughter of Drowning Dad,

When, in the opening of this letter, you say you suspect this is a problem over which you have no control, you express the essential issue. But let's refine it. It's not that you have no control. It's that your control is clearly limited. In choosing what to do, you must recognize those limits. You eliminate all the things you would like to do if only you were God. Then, being human, you do the one small, true thing.


I think the one small, true thing you can do is speak what you feel to your father. What you feel is not in dispute. You know what you feel. What he does with that is up to him. In this case, what you can tell your father is not that he needn't obsess about what he did, or that your brother is doing fine, or that what happened in the past doesn't matter. You don't know any of those things for sure. Those things are wishes. Maybe he does need to obsess about what he did. Maybe your brother is not doing fine. Maybe in fact your father is correct in believing that his broken promise harmed his son. You need to operate within the bounds of what you know. The one small, true thing you can say without equivocation is that you yourself are saddened because you believe your father is unhappy about the past. You are sad to think that he will not be able to enjoy his retirement because of his regrets. You wish that he could let the past go and be happy. These things are, without a doubt, true. And these are things you can say to your father.

Again, what he does with that is up to him.

What else might ease some of your pain? Perhaps it would ease your pain to meditate on the beauty of your father's regret and pain. Beneath the pain, I suspect, is a father's great love. Rather than false, it is genuine. Everything that is genuine is beautiful to some degree -- more beautiful, certainly, than things that are false. So that if your father were to greet you with a false smile, a contrived, silly grin, if he were to laugh off his errors, would you not be a little offended? Would that not seem, though perhaps easier to bear, certainly less beautiful and true? So rather than seeing your father's intense regret as a flaw, something to be easily swept away, try seeing it as, on the contrary, essential to who he is -- a sign, perhaps, of his understanding that we can always do better. Perhaps you are accustomed to thinking that he does not have to be so hard on himself. But maybe he does need to be that hard on himself. Maybe that's how he got through it all, by being that hard on himself. Rather than simply being stuck in regret, it may be that, having reached retirement, your father is undergoing a period of painful clarification, of sorting out, of weighing and refining.


Whatever it is, as a process that your dad is going through, it is beyond your control. What is within your control is this: You can tell your dad what you know to be true -- what you feel, what you wish for, what you observe.

That, I think, is the one small, true thing you can do.

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