Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda

Originally published in May 2011.

Woulda, shoulda, coulda.

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.”

Okay, but she did. And unless you are Marty McFly with a DeLorean and a mad scientist for a friend, you can’t go back and change it. So what now?

Look back to learn. Don’t look back to lament. You can only change your now.

So, today:

  • 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

Photo Credit.


  1. Frieda said on May 18, 2011 at 7:21 am ... #

    I so needed to read this today. Thank you.

  2. Bill said on May 19, 2011 at 2:26 pm ... #

    “So today” -What a wonderful contribution. Thank you! I’m making a copy of it. My yoga teacher is fond of saying, “Yesterday is a memory, tomorrow is a mystery, today is an opportunity.” I totally agree this is the path to peace.

  3. Sheryl said on May 20, 2011 at 11:12 am ... #

    Thank you for this article, especially the “So today” section. I’ve been struggling with this lately and you have helped. Thanks again.

  4. Susie said on May 24, 2011 at 12:20 pm ... #

    I’ve been struggling with the relationship I had with my dad and the things I didn’t do/didn’t say the last time I saw him. It’s been 10 months, I’m still working on the healing part, and I’ve been finding myself “playing the game” lately.

    I needed this reminder that he loved me, regardless of the things I said in anger as a teenager, and that the relationship we had – while far from perfect – was the relationship we were meant to have. Thank you so much for this. Thank you for this little “wake up call” on my journey.

  5. Wendy Sefcik said on May 24, 2011 at 12:35 pm ... #

    Thank you for this article. My 16 year old son T.J. lost his battle with depression and committed suicide on December 1, 2010. I spend a lot of time going over every detail of the last months of his life wondering what I could have done to prevent this from happening. You words have given me comfort.

  6. Susan Hayden said on May 24, 2011 at 2:51 pm ... #

    It is always a surprise–after a loss–to hear what those who don’t know what to say, say anyway. The right words can be everything in the moment and the wrong words can make you feel more alienated that you ever thought possible. I have found the most comfort in friends who have been through losing someone close to them as well. I think the words: “I am here if you need me, and even if you don’t” are the best + most helpful..

  7. Michelle Muncie-Huo said on May 24, 2011 at 5:25 pm ... #

    After my brother died I was in shock for the first 4 months. I was in disbelief. I had never experienced emotional pain like that. I thought this must have happened because of something I had done. My question to God was why me? I kept telling myself If Only or What If. I knew I couldn’t erase or change the past but that’s all that went through my head for almost 9 straight months. I was mad at myself and God. All of which wasn’t going to bring back my brother or help me heal…all it was doing was keeping me from moving forward. I thought if I moved forward I was somehow failing my brother. I was scared I would forget him.
    I too was shocked at some of the things people said to me after my brother’s death….. I hated hearing the stupid phrase repeated over and over to me, “You can’t look back, you can only look forward”, or “You can’t change the past”. I knew they were trying to help…but it wasn’t helping. I think the worst comments I received were from my brothers ex-wife. After the day my brother died she said to me, “You don’t know what your brother has put me through”….really? That’s what you say to someone who’s brother just died, who’s the father of her children. I knew she wasn’t a nice person but didn’t know she was so ignorant and heartless too. I don’t in anyway claim to be perfect but I do have common decency and compassion. Not to mention I couldn’t believe some of the things she had done to my brother either. Another comment I heard a day after my brother died was, “Michelle it’s not your fault”. What…my fault? It’s shocking to me the things that come out of people’s mouths. It has only been 9 months since my brother’s death and I’m still in grieving process. Thanks to everyone for sharing its very helpful.

  8. Jeff Thorn said on May 25, 2011 at 4:26 pm ... #

    Thank you for sharing your experience of loss and hope here .My friend Susan sent me this link .I recently also lost my 23 year old son Chase and Have found the most comfort with the words of those Who have also Suffered A similar loss of a loved one thank you again

  9. Debbie said on June 8, 2011 at 5:25 pm ... #

    The shoulda, coulda, woulda, article made me stop and do some thinking. I lost my dad in Jan 2007 and my mom Feb 2009. I was daddy’s girl even at the age of 50. We had this bond, he lived in Wva and I in Tn. I took it hard when my dad passed away. I have since been doingthis shoulda, coulda, woulda, thing. I have not been able to move on yet. Then my mom passed and the the shoulda, coulda, woulda, got double worse. I should have called them more often, I could have sent them cards just to say hi, would it have made any difference if I tried to visit them more often? I have not been able to move on, or even look at their pictures. I feel like an orphan.It still hurts like itwas yesterday.I am beginnning to think that I will never be able to move forward.

  10. Robin Hubert said on June 8, 2011 at 5:40 pm ... #

    I lost my son a month ago. He was 27 and it was sudden and unexpected.

    I am glad to find words of comfort from others at this site. I found myself ruminating on what if I had been there and could have done CPR or something but all those imagination of scenarios will not bring him back.

    I found a grief group and started going and that helps. They have been there in grief so that is one thing that is helping.

    I am also glad that I have faith in God. I haven’t been angry with God but think that my son’s death was at that time because something worse was in his path. So many things personal make me say this but I believe he is in Heaven and it is a better place than here.

    Thank you all for posting and sharing.

  11. Chuck Sadler said on June 12, 2011 at 11:45 am ... #

    Wow, I’m surprised it has taken this long. My son died the end of March. It seems he feels near at the oddest and most unexpected times. I still half way expect a call from him on weekends. It helps to find there are paths to the future other than woulda, coulda and shoulda. I have been doubly blessed with a spouse who has,while dealing with this loss,has also lifted me and friends who only say we are here and we care.

  12. marshall said on July 30, 2011 at 4:01 pm ... #

    hard day today iwent to my granpas grave he was cool we did almost every thing togeather 🙁

  13. Taylor said on August 4, 2011 at 3:51 am ... #

    It was Thursday, Dec. 30 2010. My winter break was just ending. My mom and I were getting ready to go pick up things I needed to go back to school. We hadn’t heard from my grandmother in a few days. My mom called her phone 3 times that morning with no answer. My mom asked if I could come with her over to gramma’s to check on her. Right then, I already knew what my mom was fearing and I felt it to.

    My gramma lived only a few houses down the road so we drove and pulled up to the house. We entered the breezeway and knocked on the door. No answer. My mom pulled out the spare keys to the door and opened it. We were both calling for my gramma but no answer.

    I remember the house being too quiet. Even the color was off. Everything just felt so “off”.

    I remember standing in the kitchen too scared to go any further. My mom went forward and took one step into the living room and said the words “Oh my God” and covered her mouth. She moved further into the living room where I couldn’t see her and she quickly came back and sped by me outside of the house, and I followed close behind not wanting to stay there by myself.

    I knew she found gramma. My mom was so distraught, it unnerved me I’ve never seen her that way before, always such a strong woman. She trembled, eyes were red with unshed tear. I remember screaming to her “What? What???” needing to hear the words for myself.

    She yelled “Go look at gramma!” And I screamed back at her “NO!” and broke down sobbing, imagining my grandmother… I didn’t want to know what my mother saw in there but I had too.

    After we both settled down, we walked into the living room, me following my mother. I remember seeing my grandmother’s little white/greyish colored feet sticking out from the other side of a little cabinet next to the piano. It is in image I’ve seen everyday, a moment I’ve replayed so many times since then, when I first laid my eyes upon my gramma’s body which the coronor said had been there a few days.

    I immediately felt responsible for her death, guilty of not being there for her or finding the body sooner. My boyfriend was coming to visit that day and I felt guilty for that too, I felt guilty because the previous day I said I was going to go over there to fix her mailbox and check on her but I didn’t because I was too lazy.

    But most of all I felt guilty for not being there for her. She lived alone and I kept telling my mom that when I got back from school I’d stay with gramma or at least visit her often. I didn’t do any of this and I can’t help but feel if only I had done this, I shoulda did that, if I were there I coulda called for help.

    No one should die alone, and I felt guilty for letting my grandmother go alone. It isn’t right and I beat myself up about this all the time, crying myself to sleep everynight, afraid my grandmother’s ghost is going to come and haunt me, which in a way it has, and I realize I’ve let it haunt me for far too long.

    There’s no use in crying over spilled milk. It happened and there’s no changing it. Shoulda coulda woulda… I’ve played you for far too long.

    I wanna play a game I haven’t played in a while: Life

  14. Deb said on February 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm ... #

    Wow…I juist caught up with your article and those exact words were said to me after We lost our 16 year old son. He had died from a undiagnosed heart disease, with no telling signs or symptoms. We have determined that many people are ingnorant in dealing with a grieving person. So they say anything that pops into their minds and don’t realize the impact their words may have. At the funeral home, we were told, “at least you have three other children.”

  15. Mary said on February 25, 2013 at 2:10 pm ... #

    I can so relate to this. I am so glad to of found this on a day when those kind of thoughts have come to my mind. I did the best I could I loved my mother more than anything.

  16. Sharon Bates said on July 11, 2013 at 12:17 pm ... #

    My son will be gone 1 year as of July 20th. I have cycled thru the stages of grief several times now and when those words shoulda, coulda, woulda came up it reminded me so much of what has silently been on my heart. He died at home of a seizure. We’d had so many discussions about not taking the medicine regularly what could happen. Should I have made a 21year old take meds, would he have been there if I had made him take his meds, could I have done that, could I have done more to educate him about how serious his condition was????? the answers make no difference…he’s gone and is not comiming back. My life is a big question mark since my baby died. I struggle each day to continue my christian journey but it is a struggle without him. I know God makes no mistakes and he will reveal what I need to know in his own time. Pray for me for my heart aches not one bit less.

  17. Margie said on July 12, 2013 at 1:00 pm ... #

    The link to your site was just shared with me by my sister-in-law. What a blessing to read everyone’s thoughts about their grief journey, and to know that what I’m going through is not unusual. My heart goes out to every one of you. I’ve been on that journey since January of 2013, when I lost my 40-year-old son to cancer. No one understands our grief unless they’ve been there themselves. I try not to get upset when people say insensitive things, because I understand that they just don’t know how to deal face-to-face with someone who is grieving. It’s such a raw emotion and not pretty for others to see. It really helps to find people who have experienced the exact same type of loss you have. I’ve been fortunate to find two groups of Moms who have lost children. We are sisters in a club that no one wants to join, but we’ve been put together to help each other find peace and strength to move forward. It doesn’t change the reality of what has happened, but it does provide some comfort to share our experiences with each other. May God continue to be with all of you on your journey of healing and peace.

  18. marilyn said on August 26, 2013 at 2:54 pm ... #

    I was just led to this site by a friend. My 27-year-old son died two weeks ago today and I still watch for him to walk in the door, wait for him to call me on the phone. . . I am learning, minute by minute, how to walk this new life. I know he is with Jesus, but my heart is broken because I miss him so much. I want to sleep – because it doesn’t hurt there. I returned to work today. And while everyone is kind, all I can do is cry. . . I know others have survived this. I look to you/them to know how.

Leave a Comment

Your email is never shared.


By submitting a comment, you are agreeing to our Terms & Conditions.