The day I caught an octopus …and coping with the self-recrimination of grief

I caught an octopus the other day. Actually it was a small cuddly toy octopus that I picked up on a walking path. A young couple with a baby in pram, from where it had been dropped, were 50 metres ahead. I rushed along to catch up with them and return it. They were ever so pleased to have it back, saying that it was their baby’s favourite toy.

But I did actually catch a real octopus once.

It’s four decades ago now. Catherine was a small baby and Pax a toddler. My husband and I were camping in a van not far from the beach somewhere near Athens.

I had put a bucket into the sea by some rocks to bring up water to wash clothes. When I brought up the bucket there was an octopus inside! You can imagine my astonishment!

I hauled it up to to the beach and called out to my husband to come and see. He laid it out on the beach. It was big. Spread out, the tentacles might have each been a few feet long. And then husband and friends killed the octopus. We sold it to the local restaurant. They were very glad to have the fresh octopus.

I didn’t know at the time how intelligent that octopuses are. If I had realised this creature was sentient, I would have put it straight back into the sea. (If you watched My Octopus Teacher on Netflix you’ll know where I’m coming from. See also recent legislation.) What used to be a fun story of “the day I caught an octopus” has changed to a somewhat regretful tale.

“If I’d only known then what I know now”

That sentiment of “If I’d only known then what I know now” is very common in grief.

Would we have paid more attention on a visit to an elderly relative if we had known that this would be the last visit?

What would we have said to our loved one before they left the house if we had known that this would be our last conversation?

What treatment options might we have pursued if we’d have known more about the illness that took our loved one?

Would we have spent more on holidays with our loved one instead of saving so diligently, if we’d known their life would be cut short?

And the list of “If I’d only known then what I know now” examples goes on endlessly.

Perhaps you have your own.

But we didn’t know then what we do know now…

“With the benefit of hindsight” is how this is often expressed. But it doesn’t feel much like a benefit when our grief journey is overshadowed by this type of regret. These are things that we can’t do anything to change.

The reality is – we didn’t know then what we do know now, but there is no going back.

If only we could accept we were doing the best we could at the time, then this particular type of grief pain might not have such a grip on us! If only we could accept that we had no evil intent, we might not be in the agonising grip of regrets.

One writer put it this way:

It is also important to remember that we try to do the best we can with the information and resources at hand. That’s true of every decision we’ve ever made, no matter how bad it turned out to be. If we could have done better, we would have done so. It doesn’t help to thrash ourselves for not knowing better; we have to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. To understand this is very liberating; it frees us from the torment of recrimination.

Mark Coleman in Psychology Today

The ‘torment of self-recrimination’ is only going to cause us more pain. We cannot change the past. We can only live in the present.

An apology

Deep-rooted regrets are not easy to get over.

Sometimes the first step is acknowledgment.

I wish I had known then what I know now. I would have acted differently. I would have spoken differently.

Apologies can also feel right.

Dear octopus, I’m sorry. I didn’t realise. I didn’t know.

But then finally, we need to exercise self-compassion.

Me! You didn’t realise. You didn’t know. You meant well. You did not intend harm.

I’ll end here with a poem. Please do pay attention to the last lines:

Be gentle with the one who walks with grief.
If it is you, be gentle with yourself.

Andy Raine

Do not hurry as you walk with grief;
it does not help the journey.
Walk slowly, pausing often:
do not hurry as you walk with grief.

Be not disturbed by memories that come unbidden.
Swiftly forgive; and let Christ speak for you unspoken words.
Unfinished conversation will be resolved in Him. Be not disturbed.
Be gentle with the one who walks with grief.
If it is you, be gentle with yourself.
Swiftly forgive; walk slowly, pausing often.

A wild octopus in the Mediterranean.

Read more about grief here

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