Loss: 4 Ways to Move Forward and Counter If-Only Guilt

Loss is painful, but finding the courage to make a plan, can help us heal.

Posted Aug 21, 2013

In crisis situations, men and woman often summon their inner resources and strength. However, some become immobilized, or even guilt-ridden. Certain life events create major stress in peoples’ lives.  Even with the expected loss of someone we love, we might find ourselves behaving unpredictably.

Last month – when it became apparent that our mother was dying – my sister and I sprang into action gathering the family together from around the country. Each of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were able to share moments they will treasure.  But what about the aftermath after reality sank in? We each handled our grief differently.

The Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale

As a nation, we have experienced the unexpected and the tragic over these past several years. Some of us cope better than others.

For everyone who jumps in and plunges ahead saying, “You do what you have to do,” there is another person who freezes in time until the shock subsides. Drs. Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe developed a questionnaire in 1967, called the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), for identifying major stressful life events. That measure is still used today. Ironically even positive events are major stressors. The top seven and their corresponding life change units include:

  • Death of a spouse, 100 points.
  • Divorce, 73.
  • Marital separation, 65.
  • Imprisonment, 63.
  • Death of a close family member, 63.
  • Personal illness or injury, 53
  • Marriage, 50

Here is a copy of that list from the University of Nevada- Lincoln, Holmes-Rahe Stress Test and The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale - Stress Management rating system

A Four Point Srategy 

Even in a crisis, after leaping into action – as often happens with life-threatening situations, natural disasters, and death -- emotional healing can take weeks or months in the case of loss.  With loss, here is a simple reminder that might be of help in moving forward and avoiding the if-only syndrome.

Take a minute to step back and breathe

  • Look at the reality of what has occurred and whether you feel you can accept it or not. Just try to view it without railing at people you love, God, or the universe.
  • Guard against an immediate decision you might later regret unless you are encouraged to seek bereavement counseling.

Assess the situation

  • Understand your personal feelings. (See the Stages of Grief below).
  • Make a list of what you need to do to move forward. Ask close friends to help with this.

Consider the alternatives

  • Generate as many options as you can that can help you move forward.
  • Review the consequences for yourself and others. (Pulling up roots and moving to a cabin in the woods might not be the best option -- even for those who want to be alone.)

Take a stand and follow-through

  • Develop a back-up plan if you must.
  • Proceed with confidence by taking baby steps one day at a time.

Avoid the If-Only Syndrome, Find Gratitude even in Grief

In crises situations some people become guilt-ridden.  Even if there was no opportunity to prevent the loss, oftentimes a person will talk themselves into believing that “if only” they had done things differently they might have been able to change the outcome. 

  • If only I had not gone for a walk, I might have been there when the person I loved died.
  • If only I had listened to my husband when he said, “I can’t take much more of this.”
  • If only I had not left my child with a sitter and stayed at home.
  • If only I had given my children less allowance money, they would not have turned to drugs.

If-only thinking is a counterproductive pattern that victimizes those already in pain. We cannot change the past, but we can embrace the future. By focusing on the positive moments you shared you might find that it mitigates the pain of loss. Additionally, the 4-Point TACT Strategy is a way to focus on the present and future instead of the past. 

Complicated Grief

Here are some notes from the 2011-2012 University of Pittsburgh study "healing after loss."

Strong feelings of sadness and loneliness commonly occur following the death of a loved one.  Other painful feelings, like fear, anxiety, guilt, resentment, anger, and shame are also common. Experiencing any or all of these emotions during acute grief can be very normal.

However, some people find that their grief does not change with time. These people are bothered by something that happened around the death or about how things have been after the death.  These people are “stuck” in the grieving process and suffering from the condition called complicated grief. Healing Emotions After Loss

For people immobilized by grief, it is advisable to seek the help of a bereavement counselor or qualified therapist.

Stages of Grief and our Mother

Keep in mind that grieving is a process. Some people grieve alone. Others need support. This post by Dr. Will Meek helps clarify bereavement and grief. Real Stages of Grief | Psychology Today.

Clara, our 93-year-old mother, in June after her day of beauty at EPOCH Senior Living, Chestnut Hill, MA -- may she Rest in Peace.

She died shortly after my posting The Love List and the Last List

After her glorious funeral, my sister was busy with her daughter's wedding. I shut myself in and, instead of writing, spent days re-arranging furniture. Then a family that mourned in July, came together in August for the joy of a beach wedding. Looking down at all of her children, grandchildren, and great-granchild/ren celebrating, Mother -- who grew up on the water -- was undoubtedly pleased.

Copyright 2013 Rita Watson/ All Rights Reserved  / TACT Strategies ®