Second-Guessing Grief

Updated on July 1, 2018
Carolyn M Fields profile image

Lifelong learner, musician, author, world traveler, truth enthusiast, and all around bon vivant.

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Getting Stuck is Easy

Grief comes in all forms. It is a healthy emotional reaction to loss. It helps us process what just happened, cope with the life-altering event, and get on with living in our new reality.

But what if we don’t move forward? What if we get “stuck” going over and over the events leading up to a loved one’s passing? Even worse than that, what if our grief morphs into guilt over things done, or left undone in the relationship with the recently deceased?

Life is difficult enough living in the present, moving forward one day at a time. Constantly rehashing the past is infinitely more difficult. Second guessing ourselves about what we may or may not have done in the past is only useful if we can glean a life lesson, and improve ourselves going forward. Sadly we can’t rewrite history. And more importantly, we should not use what we know today (in the present) to judge ourselves for what we did in the past. Let me give you an example.

My Late Husband

It has been over 10 years since my husband died suddenly (although it was not entirely unexpected) of a massive heart attack. I got up one morning, went to work, and that afternoon he was gone. Just like that.

Since then, I’ve had plenty of time to ruminate about everything I did (and didn’t do) in the time leading up to his passing. Contrary to what many people say about a loved one passing away suddenly, wondering if I said “I love you” enough is not one of the things I worry about. He knew I loved him. I knew he loved me. I am blessed that this was not an issue for us.

What, then, do I contemplate in the wee hours of the morning when I can’t get back to sleep (usually after a disturbing dream where he is once again alive and talking with me)? I tend to think about the practical matters. What else could I have done to safeguard his health? Could I have cooked better meals, encouraged him to be more active, or insisted that he give up tobacco? What else could I have done to mitigate his stress levels? Would it have made a difference? Should I have tried harder than I did (because trust me, I tried each and every day to nudge him towards healthier habits)?

If Only

The worst are thoughts about what I would have done differently, “if only” I had known more about this or that. If only I had known more about his condition. If only I had known how close he was to death. If only . . . and on and on and on. I can beat myself up for hours and hours thinking along these lines.

Then one day I turned a page. I had enough of beating myself up. I replaced my “if only” thinking, with “I did the best I could, knowing what I did at the time.” That last part, “at the time,” is the critical piece. It has restored my sanity, and kept me from second-guessing myself endlessly, and pointlessly.

That's not to say that I don't still have these thoughts. I just remind myself, as quickly as I realize what I'm doing, that rehashing is pointless. And the more often I do this, the easier it is to remember.

At the Time

Have you recently lost a loved one, and find yourself agonizing about what you “might have” done differently? Are you thinking “if only” you had been more loving, asked more questions, or acted differently, your loved one might still be alive? Do you stay awake nights, playing the last few days and weeks before their death over and over in your mind, looking for ways to beat yourself up for your supposed short-comings?

However difficult it may be, you need to try not to judge yourself for the past based on the knowledge you have today. If you’re reading this far, my guess is that you did the very best you could, with the knowledge you had at the time. If I can help just one person with this thought, it was worth writing this.

Wishing all of you health, happiness, safety, security, and opportunities for love in your future.

Have you ever second-guessed yourself about your role in a loved one's passing?

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© 2018 Carolyn Fields

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  • Carolyn M Fields profile imageAUTHOR

    Carolyn Fields 

    2 months ago from South Dakota, USA

    John,

    It was my hope that this idea would be shared with those who might benefit. Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing.

    Best,

    CF

  • Jodah profile image

    John Hansen 

    2 months ago from Queensland Australia

    Carolyn, I have a friend who recently lost a loved one and I think this may benefit her. I am sharing this article with her. Thank you for writing it.

  • Carolyn M Fields profile imageAUTHOR

    Carolyn Fields 

    2 months ago from South Dakota, USA

    Breakfastpop,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, I agree, every loss is unique. I understand completely what you shared about your father. With time, the thoughts fade naturally. Sometimes I need to "help them along" with my "at the time" thought. It has helped me. Hoping it may help others.

    Again, thank you.

    CF

  • breakfastpop profile image

    breakfastpop 

    2 months ago

    Grief is a very personal process, mostly unique to each individual, but also universal in so many ways. My father died when I was 18. He first has a heart attack at 40 I worried about him every single day of my life, and when he died I was obsessed with thoughts that perhaps I could have saved him. My mother passed away when I was 23 and pregnant with our first child. I went through the same thing all over again. It's natural, but in time those thoughts mitigate. Thank you for this very thoughtful and insightful article.

  • Carolyn M Fields profile imageAUTHOR

    Carolyn Fields 

    2 months ago from South Dakota, USA

    VK,

    I enjoy reading your comments, as they always add depth to the subject at hand. Thank you for stopping by.

    CF

  • ValKaras profile image

    Vladimir Karas 

    2 months ago from Canada

    Carolyn---From the moment we fall in love on, we have adopted the notion that the person is somehow an inseparable "part of us"---which is an illusion, as sweet as it may be.

    It hardly ever dawns on us that he (let's agree on "he") is in many aspects a stranger to us, with only a part of his intimate reality, (usually tailored to ensure the smooth relationship) being shared with us.

    His health, his mental and physical and emotional habits---it's beyond our control. He couldn't even reveal those deepest parts to us because he, himself didn't know them.

    We keep discovering ourselves all our life, and never really learn much about others, from that fragment of them that they are willing to share with us.

    This being said, there is no way that you could have done anything different, my dear. The very bottom line of the life wisdom says that we are ultimately responsible for our own fate---not those around us.

    Of course, all this goes into a separate file from natural grieving upon the loss. With sadness we wish to have enjoyed the company of the person for many more years, but we are not responsible for the way cards were dealt.

    Moving on in life should include two things: 1) cherishing the memory of the lost person and being grateful for all that he contributed to our happiness, and 2) revamping those times before we ever knew about him---in order to repossess our true identity free of that memory.

    In other words, we have to pick up the neglected pieces of our singlehood life, and continue---a sort of-- from where we left it.

  • Carolyn M Fields profile imageAUTHOR

    Carolyn Fields 

    2 months ago from South Dakota, USA

    PS,

    Thank you for reading and commenting. I love your mantra! I think I will adopt it, too.

    Be Well,

    CF

  • pstraubie48 profile image

    Patricia Scott 

    2 months ago from sunny Florida

    In our family we have had several unexpected sudden deaths over the last 7 years. We made peace with them as we were in a good place with the loved ones. One mantra we have in our immediate family is this: Dont try to second guess the future and the past is past. Dont get me wrong....it has taken years to get to this point. Lots of soul searching and contemplating brought me to the realization that all of my wishing and thinking would change nothing...so living today fully and with gusto is my motto and the motto of our family. So much is going on with my loved ones right now that in order to remain HOPEful and sane I must live that way. thank you for sharing...Angels are on the way to you this morning ps

  • Carolyn M Fields profile imageAUTHOR

    Carolyn Fields 

    2 months ago from South Dakota, USA

    Dred,

    Thank you for reading, and for your insightful comment.

  • dredcuan profile image

    Dred Cuan 

    2 months ago from California

    Moving on after a death of a family member isn't as easy as it seems. I guess it's better for us to think everything happens for a reason. Right away, we need to express our love to people who mean to us so we won't end up feeling regretful when their time arrives.

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