If only I had stayed home that day - - -
If only I had taken that flight - - -
If only I had chosen the other route - - -
If only I had called - - -
If only I had stayed - - -
If only I had known - - -
If only s/he had let me - - -
If only they had taken the other car - - -
If only I had made time - - -
If only I had spoken up - - -
And the list goes on and on. What if? Why didn’t I? Why did s/he?
In the face of trauma, death and/or grief, we beat ourselves up with these questions. We don’t know what else to do, really. Nothing makes sense. Other options seem so much simpler. And the world has the audacity to keep spinning, staying in its orbit, even as our personal world crumbles around us! Dinner? Are you kidding? Don’t you KNOW?
It is at times like this we regress. We want to go back to a period when there was order, expectations were fulfilled, people were watching out for us. Even in a chaotic childhood environment, you could count on the chaos. But now, everything is up for grabs. And the worst of it is, people keep looking to you to make decisions and come up with a plan. Stop the world, I want to get off! I resign as an adult! Go talk to someone who can still breathe!
In grief, we often find our first reaction being to go back. We sleep with someone’s shirt, go to where they spent a lot of time, go to a place we last felt secure. We hold back a teddy bear or doll from the packing boxes. We clutch photos. We search for clues, meaning, last thoughts, as though the answer would magically appear and everything would make sense again.
We like to be in charge, we humans. We like to think that vigilance pays off in comfortable routines and lack of surprises.
Note the paragraph above: “In the face of trauma, death and/or grief”. A lot of life events fall into these categories: Severe weather, job change, financial trouble, illness, accidents, school events, gas prices, war, relationship changes, substance abuse, psychological abuse, physical harm, moving, birth and death, to name just a few. “If we had done it my way, things would have gone better”.
There are several flaws in that theory.
First of all, we are not the center of the universe. This is our first regression. It is a normal part of a child’s development to assume that all events of which the child is aware are somehow affected by the child. The child’s world view is very narrow at this point. If something goes wrong, the child takes responsibility for it at some level. As a person matures, we realize there are many other factors in play. But knock us out of our comfort zone, and once again we think we have a greater influence. We display inappropriate thinking and action. This is normal. Repeating: this is normal. You will make people uncomfortable, and they’ll ask you to stop. You will eventually come around, at your own pace. Give yourself a break.
The second flaw is thinking you’ll never recover. True, things will never, ever be the same. You will never be the same. Most likely, though, you will adapt, and figure out a way to keep going. This is called growth and maturity. This is called change. Yes, ugly concepts to most. Part of life, alas. Certainly, there are people who never do recover. However, this is where you DO have influence. There is only one person who decides to survive or succumb after an ordeal. That person is found in a mirror. This is called responsibility. Eeeuw!
A third flaw is thinking that a dying person has no control over their death or immediate environment. People who think this get surprised in a major way. Come on, how many times have you heard it said that a dying person was waiting for someone to get there? That they waited for someone to leave, to spare them? These are not folk tales. In fact, it’s the whole purpose behind Living Wills. We honor the dying by giving them this last bit of control. If you have trouble dealing with this, see Flaw #2, above.
So let’s form some resolutions, and make things easier on ourselves.
RESOLVED: I am a small dot in the universe.
RESOLVED: I cannot control, only adapt and grow.
RESOLVED: I decide how I think and act.
RESOLVED: I may never completely understand in this lifetime.
RESOLVED: I am a good person, worthy of love.