9. How to respond to "if onlys"

A common and normal reaction to a death is to relive the past and about how it could have been different. In fact, it is rare when a survivor doesn’t explore the past for a few weeks or months. You may hear such comments as, "If only I had..." or "I wish we had..."

None of us likes to have a friend feel guilty. When we hear someone express feelings of guilt, we may react by saying, "You mustn’t feel guilty. I'm sure you did everything you could." That statement unintentionally tells the bereaved person he should not have those feelings. But the feelings are there, and denying their existence doesn’t help. Grief brings with it an overwhelming sense of loss of control. Rehashing the past may seem useless and morbid to others, but the bereaved person gains a bit of control, even though it's only an illusion and temporary.

Understanding the difference between guilt and regret may help you to respond in a more useful way. Guilt is what we may feel when we purposely commit a hurtful act. We feel regret when, with the wisdom of hindsight, we realize we could have done something differently.

I heard someone say, "Don’t take my guilt away from me!" What she meant was that she needed to hold onto her regrets for awhile. Don’t try to rescue people from their regrets. Attentive listening helps grieving people sort through these feelings themselves. Eventually, in their own time, they will forgive themselves. It is healthy to do "regret review" during the mourning process.

If the survivor still talks repeatedly, with full details, about the circumstances surrounding a death that occurred a year ago or longer, you might assist him in exploring the situation. One way to do this is by asking, 'What could you have done differently?" After his response, come back with another question: "Then what might have happened?" Keep asking non-leading questions until the person concludes that with the knowledge he had at the time, he did the best he could.

This may take several weeks or months. Be patient. Integrating this new reality may take time. (Also, he aware of the difference between realistic and unrealistic guilt. If the feeling is based on reality, professional help may be called for.)