Grief, Emotion, & Major Life Decisions

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

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I should start out by saying this post is not about some disastrous decision I made while grieving, so don’t expect the story to end in a smoking pile of wreckage. Excuse the spoiler, but it actually ends with a sweet-smelling, chubby-cheeked bundle of wonderful. Most decisions–good, bad, hasty, or impulsive–have some probability of turning out well. Instead, this is a story about how grief impacted my ability to make major life decisions in a rational and thoughtful way.

I’ve known I wanted a family since forever. I have 5 brothers and sisters, 20 nieces and nephews, and I wouldn't be surprised if there were a few more buns in the oven as we speak. Most will agree, the only female-related instincts I possess are maternal, which I like to think I inherited from my own mother who spent her life surrounded by children.

My husband, Matt, also wanted kids... so there was really no question that, when the time was right, we'd start a family. Now, if you’d asked me during our yearlong engagement when that time would be I probably would have said:

Oh, maybe we’ll start trying after being married a year."

If you’d asked my husband—who was just starting a demanding new career—he might have responded:

"...More like two."

Regardless, we were on the same page give or take a year. We'd take a little time to get life started and then think about babies.

I have a friend who loves the Mike Tyson quote:

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face”.

Mike Tyson

I love it now too. Life doesn’t always turn out the way you expected, I don’t need to tell you this. Circumstances change in an instant and, when these changes come in the form of a proverbial punch in the face, you don’t always react the way you might have expected.

George Loewenstein, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, authored the concept of the hot-cold empathy gap’. This is the tendency for one to underestimate the influence that being in heightened physical and emotional states will have on their behavior. When one is in a calm and non-threatened state, they have a hard time predicting how they would feel and act if in a state of arousal like anger, fear, or even love. When you are anxious, it's difficult to imagine being at ease. This probably sounds familiar: When you're experiencing the complicated emotions of grief, it's difficult to picture a life of happiness and balance.

Had someone asked me, ‘What would you do if you found out your mother had only one year to live?”, I would have probably said that I would spend as much time with her as possible, spend quiet afternoons reading by her bedside, help out with treatments and medications, and have meaningful conversations about life, love, and family. But what really happened when I found out that my mother had terminal cancer a month before my husband and I married, was that, in my heightened emotional state I panicked, avoided the realities of her diagnosis, and began fixating on having a baby.

It’s hard now for me to pinpoint exactly why having a baby before my mother died seemed absolutely necessary. Based on her diagnosis, the math didn’t even make sense unless some miracle drug provided her more time than expected. My most rational explanation is that I'd always imagined my mother being alive when I had babies. I wanted her to come to my baby shower and guess how many jelly beans were in the stupid jelly bean jar. I wanted her to help me through motherhood and most importantly, I wanted her and my children to know one another.

The future I wanted was no longer a possibility. Deep down I knew this, but I was caught up in a counterfactual reality. Sometimes, when faced with an outcome we aren’t happy with, we engage in something called counterfactual thinking or counterfactual comparison where we lament the hand we’ve been dealt because we believe it could have (or should have) been different. The reality is these ‘what if's’ and ‘if only's’ lead us to feel like we've been robbed.

portrait of a baby

My marriage and my mother’s terminal diagnosis was a horrible mishmash of looming life events. My dream of starting a family was closer than ever, while—at the same time—my mother’s death had become a reality. I thought maybe if I denied the facts, I could continue in the hopes of having the future I preferred. What can I say? Grief makes you crazy.

Then there was the fact that my mother was all the qualities that the prototypical ‘mother’ should be: nurturing, unconditionally loving, comforting, and wise. In my anticipatory grief, I acknowledged that she was dying and this acknowledgment led to an intense fear of losing her forever. Maybe if I filled my life with the qualities that I associated with ‘her,’ I could keep holding on.

In 2003, Loewenstien and another psychologist, Jennifer Lerner, studied how the emotions we expect to feel, our 'expected emotions', impact decision-making. When considering different courses of actions, we predict the emotions we will feel with each outcome and weigh them against one another. We anticipate which will result in things like regret, emotional pain, happiness, or pleasure—and we try to select the actions that will maximize positive emotion and minimize negative.

When I predicted what life would be like without my mother, I imagined falling down a bottomless hole. The prospect of life without security, comfort, unconditional love, and nurturing felt like free-falling through a gigantic void. But, on the other hand, thinking about life with a baby quickly filled the hole back in with positive emotion.

My husband and I were married in November and, by the New Year, I had convinced him it was okay to fast track to having a family. How could he have said no? I was playing the dying mother card with conviction and, to some degree, I had convinced both of us that it was a sound decision regardless.

The trouble is, we weren’t ready at all. I was just out of graduate school and didn’t have a job. My husband was advancing quickly in a stressful and demanding career. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment. We hadn’t taken any time to be on our own... And, oh yeah, my mother was dying.

Along with ‘expected emotions,’ Lerner and Loewenstein also discussed the effect immediate emotions have on decision-making. The emotions we feel at the time of making a decision can impact us in direct and indirect ways. This is true regardless of whether our immediate emotions are even related to the decision at hand. Although I couldn’t imagine a life without my mother, I knew her death was drawing closer every day. This heightened my feelings of fear, anxiety, and dread. I felt miserable knowing she was going die and this caused me to look at life through a negative filter. It seemed like everything from there on out was going to be just a little bit worse.

But the promise of motherhood felt like a fix: a light in the darkness and a cure for my despair. A hasty fix, but a fix nonetheless. There is an economic model called ‘hyperbolic discounting’, which suggests that—when making decisions—humans prefer choices with more immediate rewards. This is true even when the rewards we would receive by waiting are ultimately better or wiser. The relief I thought I would feel when I finally saw that little pink plus sign far exceeded the reward of waiting and minimizing the potential stress and strain my husband and I might feel in the future.

By May, I was pin-balling from state to state, spending the majority of my time in New York with my mother and my family. Being at home felt comforting, although I was hesitant to face what was happening two bedrooms away.

In August, I finally realized I couldn’t put off life any longer and I returned to Maryland to look for a job I was lucky enough to find in September.

In early October, I started my new career, eight weeks pregnant and anticipating the death of my mother any day.

My mother died on October 23rd. Sometimes I regret the fact that I didn’t have those meaningful conversations with her before she died. I regret I didn't have the presence of mind to keep it together and focus on the present. But I find consolation knowing that in the last lucid conversation I had with her, I told her I was going to be a mother. She knew my daughter was on her way and, given the circumstances, I’m not sure I would have wanted our story to end any other way.

It’s impossible for me to reflect on which decisions were right and which were wrong, I honestly think many times there is no wrong answer because both roads can lead somewhere good. I don’t deny things would have been easier had we waited a year or so, but it’s hard for me to care about easier when I have Evelyn. Evelyn, who was named after the grandmother she will never meet and who also loves babies.

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12 Comments on "Grief, Emotion, & Major Life Decisions"

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  1. Libby  March 6, 2019 at 11:45 pm Reply

    Thank you for writing this. I had the exact same experience of wanting a baby when my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and he died a year after being diagnosed. It’s now been 5 months and I still really want a baby and am trying to make sense of that feeling. Thank you for being so clear in your writing.

  2. Dee Anna  November 24, 2015 at 4:54 pm Reply

    Thank you for another good post. After losing my boyfriend & knowing that his son wanted to stay with me, I was going to make the hasty decision to give up my great job & home in the down I was living in & move 40 miles to take on his son. There were other benefits besides caring f/ his son, I was closer to my parents & closer to our friends; however, in one of my 5a commutes, my gut rose up & said ‘don’t do it’, ‘you will be angry having take care of his son for 3-yrs’ & ‘you have a great job you love’. So I retreated; however, I have since began to doubt my choice, only because my grieving process has been so hard being away from Steve’s kids, his family & our friends. I feel like so much was stripped from me at the time & thinking now if I was there I could grieve better. Going on 4-mos since Steve’s passing his children have approached me & would like to see me move back. They are orphans & we are very close; however, I have told them that this would have to be a decision or move that would or could take up to 6mos to a year. I need to find a job, a place to live & tie up loose ends where I am at now. The only thing that is keeping where I’m at is my good job & my best friend; otherwise, living where I do holds no purpose for me. The goal was always for me to move to where Steve lived & begin our life together; however, our dreams were gone once he suddenly passed. I didn’t think I could still move back because it wasn’t the same; however, knowing that his kids need me has given me a possible chance at having a little of what Steve & I planned. Scared & uncertain.

  3. Kim  November 7, 2014 at 8:37 am Reply

    My father is dying of pancreatic Cancer. As my father is now residing with me in my home until he passes, I’m trying my best to deal with Hospis, funeral planning ect. But my Aunts and Uncles and mother (dads X-wife) are driving me crazy. My phone rings non stop, and everyone is giving me their opinions of what to do. I feel like I have to check in with my very large family. Please help me! What is the right thing to do? To say? Without pissing everyone off!

    • Eleanor  November 7, 2014 at 2:36 pm Reply

      Ugh…this sounds familiar. Although I didn’t live at home when my mother was dying I remember her remarking that everyone wants to just come around and watch her die. People mean so well yet sometimes they really fail to see what an imposition their good intentions can be. From watching my family and others go through this I would probably suggest a few things…

      1. Find a way to give mass updates so people aren’t constantly calling to find out the latest. Even if you ask another person to be responsible for doing this. You can do this via a private facebook group or private blog, even a group text message could work.

      2. Let people know that you really need to focus on your father right now so you can be present for him and keep the environment as calm as possible. Express your understanding of their concern and appreciation of their support, but let them know how you would prefer to disseminate messages (ie – I promise to call you if anything changes). Additionally, are any of these people connected? Is it possible to ask them to update one another?

      3. If you’re not comfortable having these conversations maybe just set boundaries for yourself like deciding not to answer the phone every time. Decide to call your aunt back at the end of the evening to update her and ask her afterwards to call your uncle and give him the update. Anything you can do to cut down on your obligation to communicate. Is there anyone else in the house who could help handle some of this communication as well?

      I realize these things are easier said than done but if you don’t say what you need people are just going to keep driving you nuts. These situations make us remember both what we love the most about our families and what we…well you know. I’m not sure if any of this was helpful. This is actually a pretty complicated topic and every family is different. Your question has made me realize we should address this topic in further detail on the blog.

      Good luck and I’m so sorry about your father’s illness.


  4. Karen Capucilli  September 26, 2014 at 10:28 pm Reply

    I found much resonance in this writing. Thank you!

    • Eleanor  September 29, 2014 at 8:47 am Reply

      I’m glad. Thanks for reading!

  5. Alicia  September 25, 2014 at 7:37 pm Reply

    Thanks so much Eleanor for sharing your story. When my mom died this year, she left behind not only me, but also her grandaughter Isabella. Even though we had the chance to share time during my pregnancy and the first 5 months of Isabella’s life…it was a bitter sweet experience: the brain cancer left her with dementia, sometimes she was even coursing me and believe me…it was the most painful thing ever cause all I wanted was to share the joy with her, receive all sort of advice on how to be a good mom, I even had fantasies of her carrying Isa in her arms and enjoying her family. Those moments were so short…she could not even recognize me sometimes. It was like lossing her twice (I knew her illness was serious + the dementia). She is gone now, but I prefer to think that her good memories, the way I am right now, the way I cook, all those little details that makes who I am …. they all come from the time I DID SHARE WITH HER, WHEN SHE WAS ALIVE AND HEALTHY. That will not go away, that cannot be taken from my heart. She did showed me how to be a good mom…cause I was a good daughter because of what I saw on her, her beautiful spirit and soul, always helping others, always forgiving. I know I love animals and I can see the same in Isa…because she loved them too. And so many more things that I am sure I am going to discover through the years. Thanks for sharing this story for us the young moms mourning moms. Blessings,

    • Eleanor  September 29, 2014 at 8:55 am Reply


      I’m so sorry about your mother’s death. I totally know what you mean, my mother is the reason why I am the way I am in so many ways and it makes me so proud to be like her in the slightest way. Thanks for sharing and congratulations on starting your family.


  6. Arnie  September 25, 2014 at 2:18 pm Reply

    Thank you for sharing. I am still dealing with the loss of my wife after her long and agonizing illness. Your story of trying to manage events to achieve the most desirable outcomes, while grieving, strikes a familiar chord. Under such circumstances, I thought I was rational and believed if I did the “right things” I could predict and control my future emotional destiny. You have made me realize my aspirations were folly from the beginning. I didn’t truly know what would make me happy in my “altered” future, I didn’t really know what journey was necessary to get me there, and my thinking was being adversely affected by my grief. Its no wonder I still feel the sting of my loss.

  7. Vicki Panagotacos, PhD FT  September 25, 2014 at 1:34 pm Reply

    Another fabulous post.

    I am working on a workshop presentation which addresses my experience with people rebuilding their life after spousal loss, how it helps the surviving spouse to understand Lowenstein and Gilbert’s work – and why they need to challenge their vision of the future. So it was interesting and heartwarming to read your honest recounting of how you dealt with your mother’s upcoming death vs how you would thought you would have when it was an intellectual execise.

    Keep up the good work. It takes real commitment it is to write such comprehensive posts.

    Vicki Panagotacos

    • Eleanor  September 29, 2014 at 8:57 am Reply

      Vicki, your presentation sounds really interesting! I hope it goes well. Thank you for reading.

  8.  September 25, 2014 at 1:09 pm Reply

    Wow, I love your thoughtful writing and the subject touches a part of my life that is kind of tender. When I lost a baby before birth at 8 1/2 months all I could think about was having another baby. Everyone thought I was crazy but luckily no one was brave enough to talk to me about it. It was the best thing I could have done, for me at that time. Thanks for sharing your insights, we need to hear from a voice of experience once in a while! Come by and visit my site sometime:

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