Oh, the guilt, the regrets, the remorse. The woulda, coulda, shouldas. The if onlys. The why didn’t I’s?
Is it possible to lose a loved one and not suffer from guilt, regret, remorse, or all three? Judging by the many, many regrets I hear aired in support groups, few of us manage. Certainly, I suffered all three after my husband’s death.
In the first few days, I felt the urge to apologize to everyone who loved him because I had let them down by not keeping him alive. I felt guilty and ashamed; I should have done better. Even as a little voice in the back of my mind whispered that this was irrational, I felt I’d somehow made a terrible, irreparable mistake—let the vase slip through my fingers or burned the bottom out of the saucepan. How could I let him die?
There were circumstances surrounding Tom’s death for which I have legitimate woulda, coulda, shouldas. I could tell you the story—and such litanies are just stories, which we tell again and again and again until they ossify into our version of the truth, with us in the starring role of antihero. But I’m not going to share the story I told myself because although I have wrestled the regrets into submission, they are easily reactivated. They are potent and dangerous. I'm not going there.
We Are Not All-powerful
But I have heard all kinds of woulda, coulda, shouldas. I have heard some people express regret that they didn’t take their loved ones to the hospital and others regret that they did. People who regret going to the bathroom or going to sleep or taking a shower because their loved one let go in the brief time they had stepped away from the deathbed. People who fear they loved their addicted children too little or too much. People who believe they should have known. Known that their loved one was depressed to the point of suicide. Known that this was the day when the motorcycle would flip. Known that this trip to the hospital would be the last.
We want to believe these things. We want to beat ourselves up for them because that suggests that we are actually powerful enough to prevent death or make it less awful than it is. We want to believe we have control over death, that it won’t happen if we are adequately vigilant. If we believe the death only happened because we let our attention lapse, then we can believe that staying more alert will prevent it from happening again.
But it will. It does. Death happens. As grief expert David Kessler pointed out, if any of us were truly capable of preventing death, we would be very famous and in great demand. He also pointed out that guilt is our mind playing a trick on us or perhaps trying to protect us, albeit unkindly.
Guilt is a distraction. As painful as it is, it’s not as painful as pure, raw grief. Guilt fills our heads with noise that keeps the worst pain at bay. Guilt gives us something to do.
Reality Check the Regret
David also likes to reality check people’s beliefs. Do people die every time they get into a car? No? Then why would you have stopped your son from driving off that day? Did your mother have stage four cancer? Then why be so sure that getting her to the hospital a day sooner would have saved her life? If you stopped your daughter from using on Tuesday, isn’t it possible—even likely—that she would have to use another day instead and overdosed anyway?
When grieving my brother, who died of an overdose many years ago, I reminded myself frequently that he had told me how much he loved doing drugs. He had the terrible illness of addiction, yes. (And schizophrenia, which complicates matters.) But he also was an adult. He made his choices. I decided, in my grief, to respect that.
Yes, maybe if we’d done things differently, things would be different. But hindsight is 20/20—you can’t know when someone will get into an automobile accident—and sometimes, all we might manage would be to delay the inevitable. People die. They just do.
We can also weigh the years of love we showed against the moments we regret. Chances are very good that the balance tips definitively towards the love and away from the “failures.” Or, in the case of estrangement—which I also experienced with my parents—we can remind ourselves of the reality of the relationship and resist the temptation to put on rose-colored glasses of regret.
Disconnecting the Guilt From the Grief
So okay. Maybe we woulda. Maybe we coulda. Maybe we even shoulda. But we didn’t. That’s the hard fact, and a lifetime of self-flagellation won’t change that.
I anguished over the woulda coulda shouldas in the months after Tom died. My way of eventually dealing with them might not suit everyone because it was a little harsh, but every time I felt myself starting down the dark rabbit hole of regret, I slammed the door on the urge by saying to myself, often aloud, It’s too late.
It’s too late.
A hard and terrible fact, but a fact all the same, and no amount of rumination can change it. I slammed that door over and over and over, weakening the neural connection between my grief and guilt because neurons that fire together wire together, and I didn’t want my memory of Tom forever linked with guilt and shame. And eventually, my strategy worked, and thoughts of Tom didn’t immediately trigger perseveration over what could have been different. Only when I did that (and EMDR for trauma, but more on that later) was I able to access the pure grief of losing my love, my person.
Maybe we can learn something from the guilt: that we should call Mom more often or stop smoking or make changes in our health more seriously. That’s fine. Make a note and act on whatever lesson you may glean. But often, there is no lesson. Death happens to everyone, and we are powerless to stop it, no matter how hard we love.
Once our loved ones are gone, they are gone, and woulda, coulda, shouldas are just distracting noise. Shutting them down isn’t easy; it requires reality testing, a strong will, and practice. But isn’t the loss alone painful enough? Why inflict more pain on yourself when it changes nothing?