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  • Dr. Dug

Why We Get Stuck in Grief and Regret

Anyone who has ever had a loss knows that grief is often accompanied by the also-distressing emotion of regret. We get lost in “what-if” loops regarding not only how the loss could have been prevented but also about how you could have acted better when the beloved person, pet, job, skill, or quality was still in existence.

The Finality of Grief

Our brains have a wonderful ability to analyze the variables in our life and then automatically create a whole story based on what it knows. Often, we aren’t even aware of the details of the story, but we get the general gist of it – good, bad, neutral, etc.

For example, you learn that the dish in front of you has some allergen you cannot tolerate, and your brain quickly creates a story of what your immediate future will look like if you were to eat that dish. Or you consider buying a house and then learn that the school district is one of the best in the country; your brain instantly plays a movie about how amazing your children’s lives will be.

In the case of a beloved, your brain crafts a lovely lifelong happily-ever-after story in which the beloved is always present. Further, your beloved is likely also deeply woven into all of the other lifelong stories you depend on for a foundational sense of security. These stories give you a sense of “knowingness” about your future.

Grief largely consists of the sorrow that happens when a story abruptly ends. Further, the more your beloved is interwoven into other stories, the more drastic the sense of loss. There may be multiple stories with huge gaps, shaking your knowingness of the future.

Straddling Two Realities

If grief feels so miserable, why doesn’t everyone just move past it and start creating a new future for ourselves? The answer may be surprising.

When we grieve, we are a link between the old story and the yet-to-be-written story. In that in-between place, yes, we experience the pain of reality, but we also continue to experience the joy and satisfaction from the original story that makes the pain worth it.

The Delusion of Regret

I have had many clients who have gotten stuck beating themselves up for some past mistake. When we’ve tried to explore the purpose of regret, we have invariably come up short. In some cases there is an element of wanting to punish yourself for the error, but that rarely explains it fully.

Today, I realized the truth.

The reason why we stay in that place of regret is similar to the reason why we stay in that place of grief. Every time we think about what we should have done, it momentarily transports us to an alternate reality in which we did the desired action and in which the story is relatively more satisfying.

For example, you pocket a twenty-dollar bill you find on the sidewalk and then feel regret for the next week. You repeatedly think to yourself, “I should have just left it there.” When you have that thought, your brain subconsciously flashes through that alternate reality in which you have a clear conscience and are enjoying life like usual. That tiny glimpse into what could have been, provides just enough satisfaction to make it worth staying in that painful place of regret. Perhaps our brain thinks that if we play that alternate story enough, it will rewrite the past.

Grief and Regret

The big difference between grief and regret is that grief is largely based on something real and regret is based on something imagined. Therefore, I think it is important for people to work through regret and re-orient themselves to this reality, commit to doing better, and live this life rather than getting stuck in a delusion.

Grief, however, is a different creature. I think that most of the time*, we should let people grieve. They are the ones who lost their beloved and associated story, and who have lost some of their knowingness about their future. None of us can be exactly in their shoes.

Joy for the Past and Hope for the Future

If you are the one grieving, it is possible that you will always grieve. You may choose to continue to be the link between the old and new stories. Please know that the pain of that position will decrease, while the joy or satisfaction remains. Therefore, allow the process to unfold however way it needs to for you and realize there is a purpose to the grief. Take solace in the continued connection to your beloved, and allow yourself to feel hope for the future. There will be a new story at some point that will likely be neither better or worse, but just different, and you will again regain that sense of knowingness about the future.

*There are, of course, differences between healthy and unhealthy grieving.

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