Don’t Let the What-ifs Hijack Your Grief

What-if questions haunt us. After a loved one’s death, the what-ifs can feel like a vice squeezing our hearts. But they finally ease their grip as the clock keeps spinning and the calendar pages turn.

What if the what-ifs keep troubling us?

They can randomly and relentless disturb us, like odd noises jarring us awake in the depths of night. What if . . .

  • he’d quit smoking years before?
  • she had gone to the oncologist earlier?
  • they hadn’t given that last dose of morphine?
  • you hadn’t flirted with the passenger on the plane?
  • you’d said, “I love you” . . . instead of “Leave me alone?”
  • the family had attended church (or temple, synagogue, or…) more often?

Are what-ifs like an airborne virus? Mirriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines disease as:

“a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms.” [Underlining is mine.]

Grief is not a disease! It’s a normal response to loss for every young and old, outgoing and shy, athletic and geeky, faithful and faithless, clever and awkward, silly and serious, greedy and generous individual. But many aspects of grief impair (or implode) normal functioning.

One of those aspects is what if . . .

What if the nicotine addiction had been overcome by your kind, stubborn husband? How much longer would he have lived? Would you not be, now a year after the death, still angry at him?

What if, instead of worrying about money, you’d encouraged your wife to visit the doctor at what you now know was cancer’s first signs? But both of you, fretting over finances, arguing about what bills to pay, put it off. For months. Too many months.

What if, when you were so exhausted from caring for your once funny and now bed-bound grandfather, you and the hospice nurse hadn’t given those final doses of morphine? Did you give too much? Was it given at the wrong time? Had you misunderstood the nurse’s instructions? But the doses were given. And then he died. No one in the family blames you except for one person. You blame . . . you. Were you the one who really ended his life?

What if, traveling to see your dying sister, you hadn’t spent that extra time between flights to impress the fellow passenger you met while grabbing a Starbucks? It was innocent. Nothing happened other than cute talk and paying for her caffe mocha. But that extra five (okay, fifteen) minutes of chit-chat meant you missed the next plane and arrived home a half-day later than planned. And so there, beside a hospice chaplain whose name you can’t remember, you wept over your sister’s dead body. The tears haven’t stopped.

There are the words we say. The words we don’t say. We dwell on the places we shoulda/coulda been or the differences between doing something on one day instead of the next day.

In grief support groups I’ve led, people of all backgrounds lug around the what-if worries. It is a miserable human “game,” where we conveniently block any rational explanations from the professionals or our dearest friends. What-ifs have a grim way of acting like Star Trek’s transporter deck, but instead of beaming us from our sturdy starship to a planet teeming with adventure, we are beamed back to a terrible experience. We roam a past observed with eyes only seeking for the worst decisions or indecisions. We scrutinize the moment and situation where, if only we’d tried something else, then something else would’ve happened.

Because grief is so disruptive, it may seem impossible to slow the deluge of what-ifs. But let me offer a few feeble suggestions.

What if it’s not a what-if that’s truly bothering you?

I’ve been with families that decided to remove life support from a loved one. Later, some asked, “What if we hadn’t made Dad go through the surgery?” Or, “What if we’d gotten Mom to the doctor more quickly?” But the deeper pain wasn’t about questions or second-guessing. Some of the family, maybe all of them, were afraid to really talk about and deal with death. Asking the what-ifs can often be easier for family members to talk about than their own mortality.

I wonder how many what-ifs torment us because we want to be perfect?

In her Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life . . .” Lamott’s book was for writers and their writing, but her concerns are universal. It is always seductive to analyze a past action for how it thwarted perfection. But nothing is perfect! No life is perfect! No death is perfect! All the what-ifs anchored to an ideal of perfection drown us. They prevent us from “surfacing” and remembering that we did our best in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

Please, don’t let the what-ifs hijack your life. Don’t honor loved ones by reliving a past that didn’t happen. Honor her or him by living with a generous and forgiving heart.

If the what-ifs won’t let go of you (or you won’t let go of them), I encourage conversation with a trusted friend or family member. Please, carefully listen to their honest (and honestly different) viewpoints about your past actions or words. Sometimes we need another living loved one to remind us that we did do our best.

I would also encourage seeing a grief counselor. A therapist may help you change the what-ifs of past regrets into the what-nexts of living your present life with treasured memories and daily gratitude.

Do what-ifs haunt you? Please, let others help you release old ghosts and embrace today’s hopes.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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