Beware the What-ifs

the what ifs

After a loved one had died, the what-ifs can seem like a weight pressing against our hearts. Won’t they finally lighten as the clock keeps ticking and the calendar pages turn? But what if the what-ifs keep troubling us? They can randomly appear, like odd noises jarring sleepers awake in the depths of night.

What if . . .

  • My husband had quit smoking years before?
  • My wife had gone to the oncologist earlier?
  • I hadn’t given that “last” dose of morphine?
  • You hadn’t flirted with the passenger on the plane?

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 or more 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 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 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 minutes (okay, half-hour) of chit-chat meant you missed the next plane and arrived home later than planned. And so there, beside a hospice social worker and nurse whose names 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 choices or the muddled 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 couple of 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 openly talk about and deal with death. Asking the what-ifs may 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 create a wall around us. They prevent us from building a bridge so that we can remember that we did our best during an extraordinarily difficult circumstance.

Please, don’t let the what-ifs hijack your life. Don’t honor loved ones by reliving (or recreating) a past that did not 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 also encourage seeing a grief counselor. A professional who knows the tricky ways of grief 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.)

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather


  1. Truly useful information. could it be that stress at the time of end of life care for another makes us “unconscious “ and numb? Later we don’t quite even remember the many , many ways we were caring , smart and useful to our loved one. Getting in touch with what we actually accomplished may help us know we did what we could in the midst of crisis. Or is that still tallying up positives to self doubts?

    • Karen:

      Thanks for these comments. And I liked your lingering question at the end. Is it ever possible to break away from the self doubts?

  2. Well said. I would add that one possible function of the “What-Ifs” is to foster the idea that we can somehow remake the past in such a way that the departed person will reappear. I mostly learned that from Joan Didion’s sad and wonderful book “Year of Magical Thinking,” and I think it applies to my own thinking after my beloved wife died tragically. Of course that’s not what we’re thinking consciously, but I suspect it’s true for many of us.

    • David: thanks for the comment! So sorry to learn about your wife’s death. I am glad you found Joan Didion’s book helpful. When I was leading grief support groups, I always suggested it as a resource.

      Take care . . .

Leave a Reply

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.