This trope is an incredibly painful but nevertheless important Aesop that is appearing in works that are centered around relationships. It's common in regards to parentchild bonds, but other relationships (siblings, lovers, etc.) can be used as well.
Your character has stayed aloof from their kind and loving partner, parent or child, often Too Good for This Sinful Earth, a victim of a terminal illness or destined to give their lives for the good of humanity. This is usually because of their refusal to become emotionally attached to someone they don't believe they can hold onto.
Far too often, far too late, does the character realize how much they love the other person only as they are about to be lost forever.
In desperation to hold onto what could have been, they will plead them to stay so that they may spend the quality time together that they were too proud or aloof to make, often accompanied by imagined images of happy memories that could have been. This will be made all the more painful by the dying person forgiving for their mistakes, Going Out with a Smile...
This is a Death Trope, so naturally spoilers ahoy!, both marked and unmarked.
- Air: Haruko weeps for her adoptive daughter Misuzu to stay alive, bitterly imagining the times she wished she could have spent with her as she dies in her arms.
- Roy Revant, the aloof adoptive father of the title character of SoltyRei frantically pleaded for his little girl to not go through with the suicidal Heroic Sacrifice to save the planet, even going as far as telling her that he would take her to the amusement park like any father would his daughter. She simply smiles with tears in her eyes, and says that she's happy to have been his daughter, and bravely steps into the shuttle to her doom. Some time later, he goes up and finds her.
- In Elfen Lied, Chief Kurama is unable to kill his monster of a daughter at the end, and instead carries her off as an explosive implanted in her body kills them both, his last thoughts being images of him, his deceased wife, and Mariko as a normal family. This also happens in the manga, but the scenario is different. He tries to kill himself and her with a rocket that doesn't explode but would crush them to death. He see images of his "possible" normal family. However, Mariko saves both of them. That makes it even worse, as later Mariko is beheaded by Lucy and then her body explodes, while Kurama is forced to watch his daughter's death.
- In CLANNAD, after Nagisa dies, Tomoya frequently pictures a life where she is still alive, they are living happily, and they are both raising Ushio together.
- Kaori with Shiori in Kanon. Kaori can't bear to be close to her terminally ill sister and pretends like her sister doesn't exist, so she can stay emotionally distant. This causes Shiori much anguish for years. Only when Shiori has very little time left does Kaori's composure crack and she tries to be the big sister she should have been all along. Fortunately, Ayu's miracle gives them much more time to spend as a family, thankfully averting this trope at the end of it all.
- In Angel Beats! it becomes clear that Yui's greatest regret is not having been able to marry because of her paralysis. Once Hinata says he would have married her despite her condition, we see romantic scenes of them meeting and falling in love during their previous lives. This all sounds very nice, but shortly after Yui disappears, finally having found peace in herself. Hinata eventually disappears as well.
- Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Movie:
- When her daughter Alicia died, workaholic Precia Testarossa deeply regretted that they had never been able to spend quality time together. In despair, she used all her knowledge to create a perfect replacement, and thus Fate was born. Unfortunately, even with her likeness and memories, Fate grows up into a different individual, causing her mother to go crazy and see her as a failure, keeping her only as a mere tool in her new plan to resurrect Alicia.
- In the end, as she falls down to her death, Precia remembered that when she was still alive Alicia once wanted a sister, and realized too late that instead of a replacement, she could have accepted Fate as another daughter.
- Just before Fate escapes her dream world in the movie version of the second season, we see what life would have been like had it been real. In this case, it's less about what could have been and more Fate coming to terms with being a separate person from Alica and embracing the future.
- In End of Evangelion when Instrumentality/The Third Impact is taking full effect ad absorbing everyone on the planet, Gendo's last words are "Forgive me, Shinji." as he realises how he has driven his child away and treated him horribly, invoking this trope. It's also implied that Gendo's always felt like that. However, End of Eva doesn't tend to outright state much of anything.
- A compressed version of this shows up in one of the chapter covers of One Piece. It shows Luffy with his dead older brothers, Sabo and Ace, having adventures in the present day. Although, Sabo later turns out to be alive.
- It features a variation on the cover of the chapter finishing the Naruto's birth arc, in which Minato and Kushina sacrifice themselves to save their son and Konoha. What's particularly gut-wrenching is that it shows a typical family breakfast for Naruto's family—showing the huge contrast between his What Could Have Been childhood and his very Dark and Troubled Past one.
- While attempting to complete his master plan after betraying everything he believed in, Obito sees flashes of the life he could have lived had he chosen to cope with Rin's death rather than let it define his existence.
- Happens in Anatolia Story, between Kash and Ursula. She's about to perform an Heroic Sacrifice via willingly Taking the Heat of a murder, and Kash tries to break her out. Via invoking this trope, Ursula manages to tell him how much she loves him before refusing to escape and facing her destiny; Kash accepts this and they share a Last Kiss as well as a Tragic Keepsake giving.
- In Skyhigh, one of the stories features an author who learns that he'd sired a daughter with a one-night stand eighteen years ago, who had recently been killed by her unstable mother. Horrified and despairing, he writes his last work—a year by year account of the life he would have given her if he'd known she existed.
- In Dragon Ball Super, the sight of Gohan with his happy family makes Future Trunks imagine himself, his mother, and Mai sitting down to a peaceful dinner — something that is no longer possible thanks to Goku Black murdering Future Bulma and (seemingly) Mai. This strengthens Trunks' resolve to defeat Black and bring peace to the future once more.
- Higurashi: When They Cry (the manga version). The visual novel includes a flashback to a scene that would have occurred if Shion had remembered her promise to Satoshi, in which she serves as an older sister figure to Satoko. In the manga it's shown while Shion is falling towards her death and Driven to Suicide and ends with her dead body lying on the ground, and Redemption Equals Death.
Shion: But... It's okay, right? To make it into something like this? It's okay, right...? I'm sorry... for being born.
- In Dr. Stone, Tsukasa Shishio reveals to Senku that had they of met before humanity turned to stone, his Friendless Background would have turned out much differently, and he would've considered Senku his first friend. A few "what if" scenes play out where a young Tsukasa protects Senku's experiment from three bullies, and he's later seen bringing parts for Senku's rocket experiment. Later Yuzuriha also makes a doll of him to load into the rocket Senku was attempting to launch into space. He then "kills" Senku, because the latter refused to give up science, and his ultimate goal of reviving humanity regardless of who they were, and bringing it back to the approximate technological age it was at before everyone turned to stone, because Tsukasa considered adults to be tainted and worthless due to starting wars and greed.
- In The Flash, when Linda Park is temporarily killed by the Black Flash, Wally goes so far into denial that for a few pages it seems as though everything is fine, as we see images of their wedding, their children, and their happy life together, only to snap back to reality.
- A Star Wars comic focuses on Vader thinking back on what would happen if he hadnt betrayed the Jedi.
- In Doomsday Clock, Doctor Manhattan spends his last moments daydreaming about a world where Janey Slater convinced Jon Osterman to sit and have lunch with her instead of heading to look for her watch at the intrinsic field chamber, thus stopping him from ever existing.
- Subverted in Dead Poets Society — all Neil's father has to say is "my son, my son" (in a true It's All About Me way), and he blames Neil's teacher for the boy's being Driven to Suicide, completely unable to accept the blame. His outward denial of responsibility and rage at the teacher are driven by his own guilt.
- In Scarface (1983), Tony Montana finds his best friend and his sister together, and in a rage, shoots and kills his friend, only to learn that he and his sister had just gotten married.
- In the films Jean de Florette and its second part Manon of the Spring, a greedy, conniving farmer, César, engineers the downfall and death of his newly-arrived neighbor, Jean, in order to get hold of his property. Years later, César discovers, to his infinite horror, that the man he destroyed was the son that César had always wished he'd had. Heartbroken and devastated, César loses the will to live and dies soon after.
- Saw: Saw II, while subverting this trope (because they survive) with the broken family straits Daniel and Eric, gets this quote in to lampshade it:
John Kramer: Seems to me that the knowledge of your son's impending death is causing you to act... Why is that we're only willing to do that, when a life is at stake?
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has a unique variation because Joel desperately tries to save memories of things that have happened, and it doesn't concern a death of a person, but the end of a relationship. Joel decides to have a memory wiping procedure (because Clementine did the same first). When the wiping goes further back into Joel and Clem's relationship, Joel realizes how much he loved her and how happy they used to be and that he al least wants to remember her. Since he's losing her forever by erasing his memories of her, he tries to fight it.
Joel: Please let me keep this memory. Just this one.
- Discworld, Lords and Ladies: When the elderly Archmage Ridcully and Living Legend witch Granny Weatherwax meet for the first time since their teenage years, Ridcully reminisces on his attempt to court her and wistfully imagines the family they could have had together. Defied when Granny immediately counters with a scenario where that family died young in a house fire, then tells him not to speculate on what didn't happen.
- Classic example in Victorian sensation novel East Lynne by Ellen Wood, which played the death of the tragic heroine's illegitimate son for all it was worth. The often-quoted line "Gone! And never called me mother!" (or "Dead! Dead! And never called me mother!") doesn't appear in the book — they come from stage adaptations.
- In The Lord of the Rings, Denethor only realizes he loves his son Faramir when Faramir is dying from wounds he received in a pointless battle that Denethor sent him into. Turns out Faramir is Only Mostly Dead, but by this time Denethor's so insane he can't see it (movie)/loses all hope anyway (book), and he attempts to kill himself and Faramir on a funeral pyre. In both versions, Faramir is rescued, but Denethor burns to death.
- Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby: Ralph Nickleby hangs himself after learning that Smike was his son because he wasted his life making money and believes that raising a child might have made him a better person.
- Ally McBeal: Billy is Ally's big love — he was her high school and college sweetheart. It breaks her heart when she finds out that he's married to Georgia. They work in one law firm in Boston and have a lot of will they, or won't they get back together tension (they share a kiss etc.), but they never truly do. In season 3, Billy unexpectedly gets a tumour and dies very suddenly, but before he dies, he hallucinates, believing he's married to Ally and that they have children together.
- A Victim of the Week on Cold Case was a drug mule who ultimately dreamed of leaving the business and gaining employment in an legitimate company's office building and receive flowers on her desk. Just before she was murdered by her associates, she views herself gaining her wish and working in a high-rise building, away from her imminent death.
- Doctor Who:
- A variation in "The Family of Blood". When he has to turn human for a time (losing his Time Lord memories and becoming a different person; the mild-mannered teacher John Smith) the Doctor is needed to save the day as usual. Unfortunately, John Smith has fallen in love, and doesn't want to (from his perspective) die. While agonising over whether to sacrifice himself or not, it gets worse when he and the woman he loves share a vision of Fond Memories That Could Be, where they have children and grow old together in a possible future, after it has been made clear to John that, for all the wonderful things he can do, the Doctor is lonely.
- Another variation in "The Rings of Akhaten", where the Doctor faces a parasitic planet that feeds off of memories and emotions. Up until now, the people of the orbiting worlds have kept it dormant through regular offerings, but now "Grandfather" is awake and intent on devouring the entire system. The Doctor tries to offer his own memories and experiences, but even at over a thousand years old, he can't offer enough to put the parasite back to sleep. It's the leaf that Clara keeps as a memento that does the trick: as it symbolizes a future that never happened, all the adventures her mother had planned before her death, and all the infinite possibilities of that future, Grandfather implodes when he attempts to consume it.
- "Heaven Sent"/"Hell Bent" are basically all about this trope from the Doctor's perspective after the sudden and senseless death of Clara Oswald. Made even sadder and taken in a different direction when the Doctor is forced to erase most of his memories of Clara.
- An episode of VR.5 includes a variation where a Death Row inmate is about to be put into the gas chamber when a call suddenly comes in to say he's been pardoned. Scenes of his subsequent reconciliation with his family, long life, and such play out until the smoke from his grandchild's blown out birthday candles suddenly thicken and we're brought back to the gas chamber where he has just been executed.note Turns out everything from the phone call onward had been one of the Virtual Reality experiences the show centered on.
- The Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead, after the brutal deaths of longtime cast members Glenn and Abraham, Rick hallucinates that everyone survived and is enjoying a Sunday brunch in Alexandria with Glenn and Maggie with their newborn son (as Maggie was pregnant when Glenn died), and a very pregnant Sasha still together with Abraham.
- The X-Files:
- Subverted in the episode "Amor Fati". While dying from an unknown brain ailment, Mulder hallucinates that his life is suddenly "perfect." There is no conspiracy, Big Bad CSM is actually a nice guy who lives down the street, Deep Throat isn't dead but happily married, his sister is alive with children, and he's married to Diana Fowley. However, Mulder immediately notices something is amiss and expresses that this is not his life—he has other commitments. Eventually, he does come to accept his life there, and it becomes a parable about trusting wolves in sheep's clothing, since it turns out the Big Bad was simply distracting him from his quest. The final shot of the hallucination is Mulder lying in bed as an old man, with the apocalypse raging outside. Luckily for Mulder, Scully is always there to kick his butt back into gear, she pops up in his hallucination to tell him to fight the fight. It works, he comes out of it, and there is an adorably shippy scene at the end of the episode in which Mulder calls her his "touchstone".
- In season 10 episode "Founder's Mutation", both Mulder and Scully have an Imagine Spot with their son William whom Scully gave up as a baby because she thought it would be the best way to save him from the omnipresent conspirators. Now she is full of remorse and is not so sure it was the best thing. She imagines taking William to school for the first time. Mulder's father-fantasy involves watching a movie together and launching a model space rocket.
- "Chasing The Sun" by Billy Talent:
I curse the mistakes that we'll never make
The pictures of trips that we'll never take
- One of the most famous passages on the subject comes from "Maud Muller" by John Greenleaf Whittier:
For all sad words of tongue and pen
The saddest are these: "It might have been".
- In Shin Megami Tensei IV, in either the Law and Chaos paths Isabeau quietly mulls about this for a moment after her defeat, lamenting you two could not remain together, despite all the experiences you had lived through. She then proves she does not want whatever you are planning in either Path by slitting her throat.
- Essentially the plot to To the Moon. The main characters are part of a company that gives artificial memories to the dying so that they can pass peacefully believing they achieved what they wanted in life.
- At the end of Meakashi-hen, one of the most gruesome arcs of Higurashi: When They Cry, the visual novel includes a flashback to a scene that would have occurred if Shion had remembered her promise to Satoshi, in which she serves as an older sister figure to Satoko. Sadly, this scene occurs only after Shion murdered Satoko gruesomely and herself fell off a building to her death. It takes until Minagoroshi-hen for the relationship pictured to actually develop in one of the alternate universes (although in Matsuri, Tsukiotoshi-hen also appears to take this trajectory and shows that it isn't a cure-all).
- Spoofed in Monster of the Week, webcomic recap of The X-Files episode "Founder's Mutation". Scully wants to have a sideflashback about her missing part-alien son. Next panel has her and William skipping hand in hand, and the panel's heading reads "Impossibly idyllic child-rearing fantasy". The last panel portrays Mulder and William watching a movie, Mulder calling William "fantasy son" and Scully his "fantasy mom".
- Elan in The Order of the Stick has a Happy Ending fantasy, but realizes it's fundamentally impossible because his father is an evil asshole, as is his twin brother, and it's just his own childish desire to see his family together.
- Darkwing Duck: In the episode "In Like Blunt", while he and Darkwing are waiting in the death trap, Blunt laments that he's going to die never having had anybody or anything besides the trashy films based off his autobiography.
- Family Guy: In "Brian Wallows and Peter Swallows", Brian falls in love with an elderly woman that dies at the end. But, before she dies, Brian puts a VR helmet on her to imagine her life if she lived and married Brian.