If I can be completely honest, those three fabricated words drive me nuts. Those three words are actually what is wrong with the world these days. We keep looking back hoping to fix what’s in front of us. Shortly after my 23 year old son Stephen died, a person said those words to me. This person said, “I know you must be playing the woulda, coulda, shoulda game right now.”
Yes, it is true, someone actually said that.
My reply? “No, actually I am not. Even though I wish things could be different, I would not change the way I loved my son, nor would I expect him to have loved me any differently than he so beautifully did. If something happened to someone you love tomorrow, I hope you could say the same thing.”
Was I a perfect parent? No. Was he a perfect child? I think so, but I suppose I may be slightly biased. But woulda, coulda, shoulda? Really? I was absolutely stunned that someone would say this to a mother who was grieving the recent loss of her child. Speechless, and let’s face it. That does not happen to me very often.
This statement, early in my grief, shocked me. I just didn’t see it coming. The person did not see the error in saying it. It was almost as if it was a given for her, a natural process in her own life to look back over her shoulder and “play the game”, revisiting your actions and the actions of others with a focus on regret, blame and shame. Looking to the past in the hopes that reflection can somehow change the reality that you are facing in the present.
But we all know you can’t erase or change the past. So why do we spend so much time trying to do just that?
It never works. It can’t. Looking back does one thing. It keeps you stuck. You cannot move forward as long as you are trying to affect change on the unchangeable. And how far do you plan on going back? To your most recent mistake? How about college? Heck, if we are really playing the game, why not go back to that unfortunate incident in the third grade? If this game truly worked, we would all spend our todays fixing our yesterdays.
Now, that is not to say that you can never look back and reflect on your life lessons in an attempt to improve yourself for the days and years ahead. That is a good thing. It is also not to say that you will never make any mistakes. No matter how great you live, you will always be imperfect by design. I am cringing right now thinking about some of my own “cringe-worthy” moments on my journey to now.
You also can’t change the past for someone else. Many times, when we hurt, we look to the past, and say, “If she didn’t do that to me, I could be happy.”
Look back to learn. Don’t look back to lament. You can only change your now.
- Wipe the slate clean.
- Give yourself permission to be imperfect. Everyone else does.
- Make peace with the fact that no relationship will ever have perfect closure. Whether it is death, divorce, break up, or firing. It will never be the perfect script you write after the fact. And that’s okay. That’s how you learn.
- Know that you only ever have power to improve upon the present.
- Distance yourself from any toxic emotional vampires who tell you that you should play the game of woulda, coulda, shoulda.
- Promise yourself you are done playing that game. No more. Refocus yourself on the now. It will take work at first, but keep trying. It will happen.
- Imagine what your loved one would say to you. For me, I think about a chat with Stephen. I think he tells me daily to take all the love I have for him in my heart and give it away to those who need it.
Wipe the slate clean. You deserve to be happy.
Have a clean chalkboard kind of day.
Kelly Buckley writes about her life after the sudden death of her 23 year old son, Stephen. She recently published a book, Gratitude in Grief (www.gratitudeingrief.com) about finding little things to feel grateful for in the first two months following Stephen’s death. She also blogs here: gratitudeingrief.blogspot.com