Your gain: Learn how to cope with those feelings of things we coulda, woulda, or shoulda done or said in our grief.
I’ve heard all kinds of woulda, coulda, shouldas. I’ve heard grievers express regret that they didn’t take their loved ones to the hospital, and others regret that they did. People regret that they were running an errand or going to sleep or taking a shower, because in that very hour, their loved one died.
People who believe they should have known more or realized something sooner. Known that their loved one was depressed, perhaps maybe to the point of suicide because I know there are people out there who feel that way. Known that this trip to the hospital would be the last, and they should have been more present or took advantage of it more.
We want to believe these things…
We almost 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 or the past. That it wouldn’t have happened if we were adequately vigilant or prepared. If we believe the death only happened because we took our eye off the ball for a moment. THEN we can believe that staying more alert or going back and doing it differently will prevent it from happening again.
But it will. It does. Death happens. Grief expert David Kessler points out that if any of us were truly capable of preventing death, we would be very famous and in great demand. He also points out that guilt is our mind playing a trick on us or is perhaps trying to protect us, as brutal as that can be.
But ultimately, while guilt is very valid, 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 and sort of keeps us busy, in a way.
Disconnecting the Guilt From the Grief
So, let’s play a game. For argument’s sake, maybe we woulda. Maybe we coulda. Maybe we even shoulda. But the thing is? We didn’t. That’s the hard fact, and a lifetime of self-loathing and misery won’t change that.
Coping with Human Loss
I anguished over the woulda coulda shouldas in the months after my mom died. Really, because I felt like I could have been there for her more (spoiler alert: I couldn’t, I was doing the best I could at the time).
Then I felt the same way about my dad when he died. I felt like I wasn’t there enough for him when my mom died, that I should have been more supportive. Again, spoiler… I was hanging on by a thread, and I was doing all I could do.
With both parents, I relished in guilt and regret over not being a better daughter. For everytime I yelled or got in their face about something. For being a defiant teenager and unnecessarily sassy when I shouldn’t have been at times. For not going with them on random family outings for the day when they really wanted me to come.
Coping with Pet Loss
I felt this again when my dog died, because I was ultimately the one who approved the rabies shot at the vet who was insistent that she needed it—going against my better judgement at her old age of 19. Within 20 minutes she was having seizure after siezure and died two days later. It was a level of hell and regret I had never experienced in my life. I, hands down, was convinced I killed my dog. I’ll never know what would have happened with her health had that vaccine not been given to her. That’s something I have to live with.
Every time I felt myself starting down the dark rabbit hole of regret, I slammed the door on the urge by saying to myself, “It’s too late. You can’t go back and change it, and there’s nothing we can do now.”
It’s too late.
It’s a difficult and unbearable fact, but no amount of rumination can change it. So what did I do? I slammed that proverbial door to those coulda, woulda, shouldas over and over and over (and over). This weakens the neural connection between our grief and guilt, because as the saying goes… neurons that wire together, fire together. I no longer wanted my parents and dog and their memory linked with guilt and shame. With the coulda, woulda, shouldas.
Eventually, my strategy worked. Do I still feel these at times? Oh, yes. But more times than not, now thoughts of all three of them don’t immediately trigger perseveration over what could have been different.
So, maybe we can learn something from the guilt. Think about it. Maybe we can be better people? Maybe we can be more thoughtful with our decisions and actions and what we say and do. Think about it, and make a note and act on whatever lesson you may glean.
But I think it’s also important to note, sometimes, there is no lesson. Death happens to everyone and, like it or not, more often than not we’re powerless to stop it. Even with the best of intentions.
Once our loved ones are gone, they are gone. Shutting the coulda, woulda, shoudlas down isn’t easy, though. It requires reality testing, a strong will, and practice. But think about it: isn’t the loss alone painful enough? Why inflict more pain on yourself when it changes nothing, right?
Why Do We Experience These Coulda, Woulda, Shouldas?
Because we really did something wrong.
As much as people are quick to say something wasn’t our fault or we shouldn’t feel guilty, a reality of life is that we all mess up sometimes. We make mistakes, and sometimes those have consequences. Simply put, sometimes we fail to do things we wish we had done or should have done. This could mean a lot of things, and may be as large as a grievous error in judgment or mistake that led to a death. Or, it could be as small as something hurtful we said, or something meaningful we failed to say.
Most often, there are two very overarching ways these “coulda”, “woulda”, “shoulda” thoughts might come up for us.
Because we feel like we did something wrong.
Let’s be clear: just because you feel guilty doesn’t mean you are guilty. There are many, many times that we grievers are a bit irrational. Let’s be real, grief makes you a little crazy! We dissect every moment of time with our loved one(s), and we consider every shoulda, woulda, coulda you can imagine. Our irrational brain will find just about anything to feel guilty about. Despite being irrational (which we can’t simply ignore, so I won’t do that here), this guilt can be consuming.
Because we want order.
This is a big reason why we experience guilt and blame, though as grievers we often fail to see this connection. Without someone or something to blame, we have to accept that the universe may be unpredictable and chaotic. As humans, we don’t love that! That doesn’t sit well.
If we think we could have done something differently that would have changed the outcome of a loss, that can provide comfort that there is a rational order to things and that we have some control. If we accept that we never could have known or changed the outcome, we must accept that some things that happen are completely outside our control, too. That is hard to do.
A perception of control, however inaccurate, is often more comforting than considering that we have no control. For me, this really came out in my anticipatory grief as my parents were sick and on their declines. I wanted control in a time that felt very out of control, and that was a really complex thing to navigate.
Strategies on How To Cope
Thoughts of coulda, woulda, shoulda in our grief can be challenging, as these thoughts often involve regret and a sense of missed opportunities that take us around and around in circles. That being said, I’m coming at you with some ways to cope, because that’s what I do best!
#1: Consider What the Guilt Is About
Simply put, like we alluded to before, think about where these coulda, woulda, shouldas are coming from. Is it rational? Is it irrational? Is it about control? Where is this stemming from? I would highly encourage you to journal this and write it out, too, because typically even more comes up for us when we really dig into this!
Often our guilt thoughts, whether rational or irrational, start to consume us. They can drag us down into a bottomless black hole full of isolation, despair, and far too much wine and ben & jerry’s and any other crutch we can think of.
We don’t typically feel guilt and regret for no reason, so it’s important to take a moment to recogize and become aware of this. When we do and begin to understand the “why” behind it, we can better notice it when it arrives and tackle it that way.
Irrational? Admit it!
This doesn’t mean dismissing your feelings of guilt. It’s really just saying “hello” to it. It means acknowledging that, although you feel guilty, you may not actually be guilty. Some common examples are acknowledging you did the best you could with the information you had at the time, you couldn’t predict the future, there were many other factors at play other than your behaviors, and more. Being honest with yourself about your guilt is important, and accepting that grief is sometimes irrational can be helpful.
#2: Acknowledge Your Feelings
It’s essential to allow yourself to feel and process your emotions. Trying to suppress or deny these thoughts may actually make them more persistent, which ultimately makes this process even more painful and prolonged. As I always say, giive yourself permission to grieve and experience all the emotions that come with it. All of the anger, resentment, pain, guilt, regret, longing… it all needs space and time to be seen.
#3: Mindfulness and Self-Reflection
Mindfulness and presence practices are SO important when dealing with the coulda, woulda, shouldas. If you think about it, this guilt and regret are very much taking us out of the present, right? We’re very much living in the past and wishing things were different when we ruminate on thoughts like this.
So, techniques to stay in the present moment to avoid getting caught up in ruminating is key. Meditation, deep breathing, and journaling can help you gain insight into your thoughts and feelings. I have a freebie on the lossesbecomegains website under FREE TOOLS for you here to get you started if you need some help with this. I also have some exciting plans to help you dig into this more that’s coming next year, but more than anything this is something I really help you through on a more personal basis in my Intentional Life After Loss membership + community. If you haven’t checked that out yet, seriously, you’ll want to!
#4: Have Self-Compassion and Forgiveness
I always preach this: be kind to yourself. Grief is a complex and individual process (though not one you have to do alone, it’s just unique to you! It’s natural to have regrets and thoughts of what you could have done differently. As mentioned earlier, sometimes we’re doing the best with what we’re equipped with—with the information and resources you had at the time.
It’s time to forgive yourself, my friend. Forgive yourself for any perceived mistakes or regrets. Remember that you are human, no one is perfect here, and those coulda, woulda, shouldas have weared out their welcome. There’s no place for them in your life now, because they’re not adding any value to your life now, either. It’s time to focus on what you can control, and that’s the present!
#5: Seek Support
I put this in nearly every blog post I share, and it’s because it’s true and needs to be heard over and over again. Share your thoughts and feelings with friends, family, a therapist, a counselor, or your friendly Grief Coach—that’s me!
What’s great about talking about your regrets and fears it that is can help you process them and gain perspective. A trusted person can provide a listening ear and emotional support. That being said, make sure whoever you reach out to is exactly that—supportive Some people can actively make us feel worse, not seen, not understood, and invalidated. This can often make us go inward and shut down, which is the last thing we should be doing.
If these thoughts of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” become overwhelming and interfere with your ability to function, which can happen to many of us, it may be helpful to seek support from a professional who can provide you with guidance and strategies to cope with your grief and regrets.
Once again, I want to offer Intentional Life After Loss here. It’s a super digestible way to wrap your head around all of this, have action-focused and reliable coping tools served to you each month, and there’s a beautiful community component to it that you can participate in as much or as little as you’re comfortable with.
But remember, I also offer 1:1 coaching. If this is something you’re interested in or feel might be more appropriate for your needs, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s have a conversation!
#6: Focus on the Positive
I know, I know… you mght not want to hear this one. And really, I don’t mean it as black and white as “find the positive, focus on the happiness.” It’s not really about that.
While it’s essential to acknowledge your regrets, I want for you to also try to remember the positive aspects of your relationship with the deceased. Or the good times you shared with the person you’ve lost. Perhaps even celebrate their life and the moments you had together.
In addition to giving time and attention to our loved one who’s gone, look around you in your present, too. What positive, beautiful things are making up your life right now? This can truly be as simple as your morning cup of coffee. The birds chirping outside and getting some fresh air. Eating your favorite chips or watching your favorite movie. Nothing is too big or too small. Gratitude is truly everything in our grief, and it’s absolutely something we need to work up to! But I assure you, it’s there.
What is “Thought Stopping”?
“Thought stopping” is a technique with mixed reviews in the mental health crowd. But, the idea is that when you notice a negative thought taking over (i.e. guilt), make a conscious effort to stop and replace the thought. Though it may not be quite this simple and straightforward, there is value in having a positive thought to balance the negative guilt thoughts you experience.
For example, if you are feeling guilt that you were not there at the moment of your loved one’s death (hi, I’ve been there!), when that thought comes up, be prepared with a thought about the many times you were there. This is, verbatim, how I was able to move past some of the regret I felt in not being there for my dad’s death and him dying alone vs. my mom, whose death I was present for.
#7: Determine What You Have Learned
Oh yes, my friend… guilt and regret often teaches us something, whether we care to believe that or not. It can be something about ourselves, or about the world or people around us. We can learn and grow from almost any emotion or experience, so take some time to consider what your loss and these resulting coulda, woulda, shouldas have taught you.
Is it to be more open-minded? Patience? The importance of being present and mindful? Gratitude? Journal on this and see what comes up for you! Remember, my Losses Become Gains Daily Journal is available on Amazon and is specifically designed for grievers, by a griever (yours truly). It helps you tap into ALL of this and so much more, and is a really amazing daily practice that takes just minutes to do.
#8: Take Action and Set Goals
Despite any coulda, woulda, shouldas, you can use these feelings to help others. What you do may come out of things you have learned, like we just talked about. Whether it’s educating others so they can avoid the mistakes you feel guilty about, raising awareness about causes of death (anything from heart disease to substance abuse to suicide), or simply encouraging others to talk with their family about end of life wishes. You can use your experiences to help, guide, and support others, which is such a beautiful gift!
Additionally, your regrets as motivation to make positive changes in your life. This doesn’t always feel possible or even palatable in grief, so if you’re feeling resistant to this right now… I hear you. Don’t push this on yourself. My only ask here today is to consider how you can honor your loved one by living in a way that aligns with their values and, moreover, your own.
And believe it or not, goal setting can be really fun and inspiring! It’s something we dig into in depth in my membership and community and is something I help walk you through. Because as grievers, this is a more difficult and complex process than doing this as someone who hasn’t seen some serious loss. It’s more emotionally taxing, it’s harder to “see the light”, so to speak, and the idea of goals can feel so far off from anything on our mind.
But I have to tell you, this practice can be revolutionary in your grieving process so it’s not one we should ignore! It’s just one we have to do when we’re ready.
#9: Create a Legacy
I love this point so much, because any excuse is a good excuse to honor our people. Use this as an opportunity to discover meaningful ways to remember and celebrate their life. This could include creating a memorial, starting a scholarship, participating in activities they enjoyed, picking up a hobby they enjoyed or something you did together, whatever this looks like for you.
And remember, there could be some trial and error here. That’s okay! This isn’t a practice we need to put pressure on ourselves to do, it’s more about making the gesture feel good for us. Our loved ones are no longer embodying this physical being we’re in. No matter where you feel they are now, we have to remember that the physical needs and wants and desires we feel here no longer apply to them. So really, of course we can make this legacy or memorial about them. But remember, they’re safe and okay wherever you choose to believe they are now. Do this for them, sure, but make sure you’re doing this for YOU first and foremost.
#10: What Would Your Loved One Tell You?
Finishing off this post with something to get you thinking a little bit, get yourself in a space to truly focus on thinking about your loved one. Imagine telling them how you are feeling—your regrets, your guilt, your coulda, woulda, shouldaa… all of it. If there are things you wish you had said, say them. Write it out or talk it out in a voice note.
Draft an email and perhaps don’t send it anywhere, or send it to yourself (the point is to make it feel like it’s “out there”). You can do a similar practice with a letter, too! Journal your thoughts, or just meditate on all of it which is one of the best practices of all. We can absolutely channel our loved ones more than we think we can, and I like to think they want to talk to us, too! Imagine what your loved one would tell you and what advice they would give.
No One Said It Was Easy
No one, certainly not me, ever said dealing with these emotions and thoughts of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” were easy to cope with. I want to acknowledge that, and I want to meet you where you’re at right now.
But my hope is this post today gave you some things to think about and ponder as you continue navigating your grief, that you know that SO many fellow grievers out there have these ruminating coulda, woulda, shoulda thoughts as well, and you’re not alone. We all experience them in our own way, of course, but these feelings can be very isolating.
You might feel them so deeply and intently that you almost can’t express how hard it is to move through to others around you. But I hope you also realize today there are tools out there to help you, both at Losses Become Gains and everything I offer and beyond.
Tools to Help You Move Through Grief
I have lots of tools to help you out with your grief if you find yourself struggling. Here are a few below: