The Moments that Matter: Looking at life in hindsight

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

I didn’t have a meaningful moment with my mother before she died. Well, that’s not true, my life with her was filled with significant moments. I guess what I mean is that I never had the Hollywood Moment that, in the movies, is part and parcel of death from a terminal illness.

My mother never sat in her bed, calm and alert, resigned to her death, and ready to receive her family. We never shared a moment where we both knew and accepted she was dying. I never told her that she had been the perfect mother, and she never told me she was proud of me and that I was going to be okay.

For a long time, I’ve fixated on the moments I did have at the end of my mother’s life and mourned the ones I didn’t. Logically, I know this is foolish. When I test this idea of a “meaningful moment” at the end of life against reality, I see that it should be looked upon as a rarity as opposed to the norm. How could a Hollywood Moment ever be assumed when so many people die in ways that make it impossible?

Screw Hollywood. If I must compare life to a narrative (and apparently, I must), I’d say it’s more like a good book that you never want to finish. When you do, you realize there was no way the ending could have ever lived up to all the great stuff in the middle. So instead of relishing the ending, you flip back through to reread your favorite parts and relive the moments that, in hindsight, were significant themes, turning points, and revelations.

In life, we’re not very good at predicting which moments will matter later on. It’s only after the story ends that we’re able to see the significance of certain events. We assume big moments like milestones, beginnings, and ends will be the most important. When in truth, many of the moments that give us pause – either because they cause us the most pain or because they are the dearest – quietly happen somewhere in the middle.

complicated kindness

Sometimes the moments that feel significant after a loved one’s death become ‘stuck points’ in our grief. In this context, stuck points might be the thoughts and memories that remain distressing over time and which a person continues to struggle with in an ongoing way. 

Technically ‘stuck points’ aren’t emotions, they’re thoughts that result in distressing emotion. For example, a person might have the thought, “I should have done more to save my loved one,” and as a result, they feel guilt. These points can derive from big obvious events, and they can also revolve around moments that are surprising, small, and seemingly mundane.

Famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote about the “decisive moment” in his book Images à la sauvette.  He said,

There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment…The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression…Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

He was speaking about composing photographs, of course. Still, I think the idea of the decisive moment has relevance in thinking about how we reflect upon our loved one’s lives and our relationships with them. When we know how things end — when we know what people did and did not say and do, and the things that did and did not matter in the end — it’s easy to say “That was a decisive moment. A moment that mattered, a moment when something changed, a moment when someone could have said or done something differently, and now the moment is gone.”

I think maybe this is why the absence of a meaningful moment at the end of my mother’s life bothers me so much. Because I allowed so many other decisive moments to go by. I didn’t pay close attention to the moments that were significant. Nor did I initiate a meaningful moment with my mother by saying or doing anything other than nothing.

Life is full of moments that matter – moments of clarity, truth, perfection, and connection; moments that signify turning points, missed opportunity, fate, and luck. It’s too late for us to change the past we shared with our loved ones who’ve died. What we can do is look back on our relationships in the same way we would flip back through a good book. Slowly relishing all our favorite parts and feeling compassionate towards our actions, knowing that, when they happened, we did not have the benefit of hindsight.

shel silverstein


Let’s be grief friends.

We post a new article to What’s Your Grief about once a week. Subscribe to stay up to date on all our posts.

Related Blog Posts

Related Blog Posts

See More

13 Comments on "The Moments that Matter: Looking at life in hindsight"

Click here to leave a Comment
  1. Micki  August 12, 2021 at 6:22 pm Reply

    My son died by suicide in October of 2018. There is so much wrong with what preceded this action that it is impossible to fully process it. The pain & confusion will accompany all of our family & many of his friends for the rest of our lives. He was such a blessing to so many, what happened has a sense of tragic unreality despite being paradoxically true. The last shared moment being his having already decided his course & hugging my husband & I goodbye one last time without our knowing the causal events or having any suspicion of their outcome.

  2. Linda Davis  March 5, 2020 at 1:18 pm Reply

    Catching my breath, again, after reading so many painful stories! I’m caught up in my pain, and the pain of others! I did a, grief recovery session, that included doing a, beginning to end, recall of my time spent, in this case, with my deceased daughter. Highlights of good times and bad. Marking the good times, was easy, but, dealing with the, not so good, times, was extremely difficult for me. I was flooded with guilt, for saying anything negative about my girl. There was a point to all of this, that I may still be wrestling with, which was about giving and receiving, forgiveness! My daughter’s and my relationship, was one of, that she was married and living life as she chose, and that she loved me, but, her life didn’t need to always include me. She would always be there, if I called and needed her, but, otherwise life would go on. It took some time, but, I accepted this. When she became ill, I was thrown back into her life, quite willingly, for me. Cancer! It brought a mother and daughter together, again! She went through her treatments, surgery and more treatments, with her two grown girls and her mom, by her side, every step of the way! We were all filled with Hope of a bright future ahead. I was given a gift of time spent with someone I loved, that wasn’t expected! It wasn’t until the day, my daughter wasn’t quite right, and from her hospital bed, she uttered these words, while looking straight into my eyes, it’s terminal! My world, crashed at that very moment, but, didn’t stop. It couldn’t. She would need our love and support, more than ever. Every moment would matter now, and it did, but, there would come the day, when these were the only moments I could think about, almost 24/7. So, engraved in my mind, are all the moments leading up to the death of my beautiful girl. I was not okay. When I did the, grief recovery project, I was forced (in a way) to remember beyond what took her away, to the happy times, but, also the not so happy times. It’s coming up to three years, Mar. 16, 2020, and I still do a play by play recall of those 11 months that she became ill and died. I do remember our special moments, although, they seem, all too few now! Maybe it’s taking, our lives, for granted, that becomes the real problem, after losing someone we love. I never thought I would lose my son or my daughter. It’s something, we fear, but, don’t really think it will happen. I don’t know if it’s still grief, that is keeping my memory of my daughter dying (at home) so vivid, but, there they are, every day and night! My son died in April of 2001, and the 9 11 attacks, brought so much grief, on top of my own grief, that I did not know how to even breathe right anymore, followed by my brother’s death, that same year, in Dec. If there was help out there, I didn’t know about it! So much sorrow, too much sorrow, that year! Then March 2017, happened, and my very soul is struggling to survive!

  3. Catherine Ford-Barbiero  June 22, 2018 at 12:34 pm Reply

    My Mother and I were No Contact (NC) at the time of her death – her choice, due to the fact that I would no longer put up with her narcissistic actions and all the back biting she did concerning me. My older sister had to take over her caregiving then — we never discussed it – just like we never discussed what would happen if Dad passed before Mom — I knew (after having moved back to my home town to enjoy them while I still had them in my life) if Dad went first, it would be Mom and I. And it was (I was living in the house my Dad inherited from his brother [lived there 4 yrs prior to Mom moving in] – Mom sold their house and moved in with me). After a few years – and three major health issues – extremely bad flu episode in the summer, an infected tooth post root canal, and finally bacterial pneumonia and an argument Mom and I had – (she told everyone it was just a temper tantrum – I was 48 yrs old – and I finally stopped caring if she loved me or not) – I told hubby we were moving out…. we found a home and did move out.

    Never heard from Mom for the next 5 years [I did receive a scathing letter in a Christmas card from sister – telling me she forgave me for a list of things – things that Mom was guilty of but had smeared my good name with them – last communication from either of them] – then I received a voicemail message on my answering machine that our Mom had passed away and she would let me know what plans they had for her burial in the following spring – I wrote to sister and told her where I believe Mom had already made arrangements through – same mortuary that laid our Dad’s remains to rest in my home town. Following spring I never heard from sister – but Memorial Weekend we found Mom’s headstone marker next to Dad’s – the mortuary contact told me that arrangements had been hastily made – that sister had her kids and grandkids at the graveside and Mom was buried.

    So to say the least – the rug was pulled out from under me through this situation – I did not grieve when my Mother passed away – I had already grieved the loss of her love and caring years before, her rejection of me because I wouldn’t continue to play her game of her being the victim, etc. Yes there is still anger there and it took another 6 years for sister and I to be in any contact – mostly texting through facebook….. Sad situation but that is the way it is.

  4. Beth  June 21, 2018 at 12:50 pm Reply

    My adult son died suddenly and never had anything wrong with him. No one even got to say goodbye. I wish now that I would’ve spend more time with him instead of working so much. But there’s no changing the past, just trying to do better with my other kids.

  5. Anna  September 10, 2016 at 6:44 am Reply

    I lost my Dad to terminal illness last month. Knowing that he was dying did not make it any easier to have the ‘Hollywood moments’. It never felt right. He was diagnosed almost exactly 18 months before death. I spoke with my father every day on the phone and visited him very often, but what I regret most is that I never really showed him that I was listening. In the last few months we were both always angry, triggered by the stress of family members and their friends. I was rarely ever ‘with’ my father when we spoke. I have been recalling some of the things that he talked to me about and only now think of the ways I should have responded. I’m scared that he felt alone or unappreciated. The worst part is that while I dwell on this, I’m not ‘here’ now either. He was honestly my best friend. I have never felt so alone in my life.

    • valerie  October 16, 2016 at 5:01 pm Reply

      My dad died September 30 of terminal illness with 8 weeks between diagnosis and death. The last two days I was cleaning out the refrigerator and doing busy work when I should have been sitting with him. He tried to talk with me about his finances and about his thoughts that he was actively dying. I was in major denial and would not talk with him. I deeply regret this. I am so very sorry. I am so very alone

  6. Chris ruth  September 6, 2016 at 5:30 pm Reply

    I was married 3 and a half years and 3 months ago today my wife died while kayaking. There are so many things left unsaid, so many things left undone. So many things that I would have, should have, could have done. I blame myself, I should have been there. Maybe it would have been me instead. Maybe i could have gotten to her and saved her. The daughters that are left to grow without their mother to show them the way into womanhood. It’s not right. They need her. I bought her the kayak that she was in. If only I wouldn’t have bought it. So many things go through my head. I can’t imagine living out the rest of my life without her. I struggle everyday to find reasons to go on. She was such an amazing woman to everyone and the best mom to her two girls. It is getting harder everyday, not easier. I can’t move her things, even her towel is still in the same place. My days are dark without her. I keep hoping she comes to me to show me a sign, to feel her breath on my face or even just a feeling that she is close to me. I just miss her, every second of every minute, every hour of the day.

  7. Vicki  July 15, 2016 at 1:13 pm Reply

    I meant I didn’t get to “prepare” for his death because it didn’t happen on account of a terminal illness.

  8. Vicki  July 15, 2016 at 1:11 pm Reply

    I didn’t get to have ANY moments with him bc his death came (literally) out of a clear blue sky.
    The plane piloted by Mohammed Atta crashed into the first tower, and a fire ball from the explosion was propelled downward, part of it stopping on the 77th floor, where he worked, and the rest stopping on the 22nd floor. He was trapped by the fire that was started by the fireball and took at least 10 minutes before he died (he called 911) but he was trapped all around by fire and, after losing contact was burned to death. Then his remains were consumed by the flames and they’ve never received any to match the DNA samples we gave them. About 1,770 families didn’t receive any remains and 1,220 did. I didn’t know that until recently.
    He died so suddenly in fact that to this day I hate the phrase “passed away.” He didn’t pass away, he was violently ripped out of the world by colossal fools. In my admittedly not-so-humble opinion.

  9. Andrea Peebles  July 13, 2016 at 8:16 am Reply

    Great post and I think that the take away here is that though we cannot change the past and go back and capture the missed moments with loved ones we’ve lost – we can, through acknowledging those missed opportunities, learn to recognize them in other relationships with loved ones we still have and grab them with both hands before they slip through our fingers. Hold to them, relish them and even make it a point to create them. Then nothing is wasted. Everything even our regrets can serve a purpose.

    • Suzy  July 13, 2016 at 4:34 pm Reply

      Yes! I agree love those still here and create those moments
      Learn from missed opportunities that might be mostly fantasy anyway
      We just want to change the outcome

  10. Tracy  July 13, 2016 at 2:24 am Reply

    A timely read Eleanor as I have felt I missed those opportune moments like you elequently expressed regarding your mother. I was afraid, in denial to an extent and could not face the grim truth…. I took care of things for my dad and spent time with him in between but we never had those moments and conversations and when I tried the nurse shushed me as “I was agitating him.” So I live with pain, regret and guilt cause I didn’t get to say what I really felt with all my heart and in a way I’m stuck there in that moment in time ?? and there are no redo’s.

    • Anna  September 10, 2016 at 7:00 am Reply

      This is so horrible. It astounds me that people in the medical profession are so out of touch with what people need when their loved ones are dying. It seems like often they assume what is best for someone they don’t know anything about.

      Reading this article helped me appreciate that the end would never have been perfect. This provides my with temporary relief when caught in the pain of regret, I hope you can find some peace also, even if only temporarily.

Leave a Comment

YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.