If: Dealing with the ‘if’s of grief

If is a little word with a universe of possibilities and altered outcomes.

If he hadn’t left … if we had gone to see a doctor sooner … if she had chosen this this treatment instead of that treatment … if that job had come through … if her friends had been more supportive …

Iffing doesn’t end in the near past.

If my mum had married someone else, then we may not have inherited the gene that predisposed us to this illness … if my grandparents had not emigrated …

If a little word that is all too familiar to the bereaved.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

If seems to be one of the most natural of responses to the passing of our loved one.

I read a very sad story today about a young woman named Hannah Stubbs who took her life following an apparent rape.

The Reverend Sally Smith, Miss Stubbs’ aunt, said if events had been dealt with differently she would still be here today:

“In Hannah’s case, if things had been dealt with differently she could well be here today, continuing her studies and looking forward to a life as a physiotherapist.”

If represents the powerlessness of the bereaved. We look back with the benefit of hindsight and see how things could have been changed for the better, should have been changed for the better. But it didn’t happen, and our loved one is gone. And there is nothing on heaven nor earth that can change this. We can’t wind back time.

Iffing seems to be a fairly universal reaction to grief; not kept within bounds, it can lead to terrible torment.

So what is the answer? I don’t think there’s any magic wand to wave, but here are a few considerations:

  • I would tentatively suggest avoiding the if train of thought, particularly if you find that this leads you to a dark place.
  • On the other hand, it could be helpful at some point to try to objectively explore the ifs about your loved one’s passing. This is probably best done with someone who can indeed be objective, such as a counsellor, but it could also be a matter of going and talking to those directly involved. For instance, if your loved one suffered from a terminal illness, talk to the doctor. Could anything different have been done? The answers you receive may or may not help you, but at least you’ve done something.
  • If isn’t only about personal guilt; it can also be about blame. That’s why sometimes pursuing the ifs can be therapeutic, particularly if this can result in improvements in care or processes. A parent who lost an adult child in an accident might join a campaign for road safety, for instance. If that driver… 
  • Once in awhile you might want to try some positive iffing- the things you said and did that brought good results and happiness in your loved one’s life. What if you hadn’t been there for them? Try to connect to the brighter parts of the past.
  • It can also help to be aware of others who have been in similar circumstances. Perhaps 39,999 people survive a tonsillectomy, but your son is the one in 40,000 who hasn’t. There was no expectation on your part, when agreeing to his surgery, that the outcome may be the worst possible. You may still think, “if I hadn’t agreed…” and of course you struggle with these feelings. Any parent would. But on another level, realising the facts may help you see that your decision at the time was in your child’s best interests. All you wanted was for him to be well.
  • Ultimately, like every aspect of the grieving process, you need to find your own peace with what is past in order to keep living forward. Finding peace doesn’t mean accepting it was all good and right, but it can mean accepting that whatever happened, despite the best will in the world, you cannot change it. A personal faith can also support you in this path of reconciliation with the past.

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