Grief Hindsight

What's Your Grief Podcast / What's Your Grief Podcast : Litsa Williams

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The What's Your Grief Podcast: grief support for those who like to listen.

In this grief podcast, Eleanor Haley, MS and Litsa Williams, MA, LCSW-C, the mental health professionals behind the website and book 'What's Your Grief', leave no stone unturned in demystifying the complicated and messy world of living life after loss. One digestible topic at a time, Haley and Williams distill topics ranging from grief theory to coping. Grief is sad and confusing, but your grief support doesn't have to be. You can listen here by using the player above or listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Below we have provided a transcript of the episode.

Episode Transcript

Welcome to the What's Your Grief Podcast. I'm Elanor Haley. And I'm Litsa Williams. We're the mental health professionals, turned grief friends, turned co-founders of the website whatsyourgrief. In this podcast, we talk candidly about all things grief. From pop culture, to grief theory. No tilted heads, no soothing tones, just us and our grief friends, exploring the always devastating, often confusing and sometimes even funny experience of living life after loss.

Hey this is Eleanor.

And this is Litsa.

Welcome back to another episode of the What's Your Grief Podcast. How are you Litsa?

I'm doing okay. I, you know, I think for me things have been a little bit calmer these last couple weeks than a lot of people because I don't have kids. I don't work in a school or with a school. So I haven't been in some of this back to school…


…frenzy. Back to school in an adapted and different world frenzy that many people are in. So honestly, I think I've been feeling like Okay. Compared to other people things feel pretty (pretty) calm for me right now.

Yeah. I hear you. You know, we did do the back to school thing. But they're back in school, so it's done with. And we're kind of easing into a new routine, like many people are. Though everybody, you know, across our, the US and beyond, their routines look different, drastically different, so I hope that whatever routine you're in right now is one that feels acceptable and that you can tolerate and bear. And if not, I hope you are finding the support and resources that you need to deal with this current situation that has been ongoing forever.

It does feel like forever at this point.

I mean it has it's been a while. Like, if you think about, I was just talking to somebody about this. Like, when we left our office in March. Like, we had no contingency plan for who was going to like go in and turn on the air conditioning when it got to be like 95 degrees and water the plants and, you know. Though we back a little bit lately. Like, when I first went in, the plants were like absolutely dead, and it was 100 degrees, and the trash hadn't been taken out. Like, I don't think anybody, even though somebody, Oh it's a, it's kind of related to what we're talking about today.

I was just having that thought Wait a minute, this is what we're talking about.

Many people might say I (I) told you so. Or You should have known it was going to be longer. I think a lot of us were like It's only going to be a little while. We'll be back to our normal lives sooner rather than later.

It's so true. And it really does directly, I think, relate to this topic that we wanted to talk about today. Because I do think that I've been, now when I look back on what things were like at the beginning of all of this, there are a lot of self-judgment I have about just how I handled certain things, or what I did and (and) didn't do. And now that you mention it, there are these two topics that we wanted to talk about today, how they relate to grief. But I think maybe there will also be lots of parallels of how they relate to COVID.

I think so, well because so, we're going to talk about two concepts that really just are things that we do all the time in our normal day-to-day life. So we're going to talk about Hindsight Bias, which is a term that I think a lot of people have heard and understand what it is in general. And then we're going to talk about something called Counterfactual Thinking, which I think is a little lesser known, but also you may have already heard of the term or you're maybe familiar with it. But I think because these are things that we do all the time, it is something that relates very specifically to COVID, as well as grief. I think the thing that kind of ups the ante when we're talking about things like the COVID situation and grief is that we feel that the consequences and the stakes are much higher in those situations. And so when we look at how we behaved in a situation, how we responded or the things we did and did not do, we tend to have higher judgments, I think, because the stakes are higher. Would you say that's true?

Oh I think that's absolutely true. I think that we, in these cases, put a lot of weight on how we reflect back on certain things, and how we appraise and reappraise different situations. And when it comes to grief, when it comes to COVID, those things can feel really significant and start to impact our own judgment about ourselves in a way that is more significant than just in like some small everyday ways that we engage in this.

Yeah. For sure. So let's introduce the two concepts and actually give some, maybe small mundane, everyday ways we engage in this. And then talk about how it can impact us when we're experiencing something more traumatic and stressful and related to grief and loss.

Yeah. Absolutely. The first one, you know, mentioned Hindsight Bias and that people have might be more familiar with that one. And I think even that expression that we hear, you know, Hindsight is 2020, is something people throw around commonly. And it really points to what hindsight bias is, which is in that moment after something has occurred, after the outcome of an event, we look back and we think Oh it was so obvious or predictable that this was going to happen. I absolutely, like, I knew that this would happen. And we see that as predictable even though it wasn't actually predictable. We didn't actually have any way to know that this is what was going to happen, but with the advantage of hindsight we then look back and think we did, or we did, or we should have.

Yeah. Absolutely. So some everyday examples, so this could go either way where you feel like you were wrong or you were right, you could say I, you know, I (I) predict that the Ravens are going to win the football game, you know. I know that they're going to win. They're definitely going to win. And as a fan you might say that no matter what, right. And then when they do win, you might look back and say Oh I knew it all along, I told you so, right. Some other examples are kind of examples where we end up feeling like we made a mistake or we did wrong so some really day-to-day examples might be that you are running a little bit late for work out the door, and you take different routes to work depending on the day, and you take the route that has a ton of traffic. And you end up being really really late to an important meeting, and as you're walking in you say Oh, I should have taken the other route. I knew that route was going to have a lot of traffic on it. I so should have gone the route that the alternative route because then I would be here on time, right. So that's just a really, like, kind of mundane example. Maybe you go out, maybe maybe you're going out for the day. Maybe you're, let's say you're, you have a child who has a sporting event, right. And you go out and it starts pouring and you're caught without your umbrella and you say to yourself Oh. I knew it was going to rain. I should have brought my umbrella. Well, you probably didn't know it was going to rain. But now in hindsight, you're like, I totally should have brought my umbrella. I normally like have it in my car or whatever. So those are just some really boring random examples of times where we engage in this type of thinking.

Yeah. Absolutely. And I will get to how this relates to grief. You may already be able to think of examples that it, where it relates to grief. But I think the second concept, before we get there that we want to talk about, is one that relates to that traffic example that you just gave. And (and) that's Counterfactual Thinking. And that's the idea, this one is, I think, a little bit less common, that we kind of go back to specific point in time and we then decide what the alternative outcome would have been if things had gone differently. So we kind of, you know, it's like almost a sliding doors moment and we imagine what the other alternative would be. So that example you gave of Hindsight Bias and traffic of like, Oh I knew it. I knew there was going to be traffic if I gone this way. I should have gone the other way I would have been on time. Well if had gone the other way, I might have hit traffic too. Or I might have gotten a flat tire or any number of other things might have happened on the alternative route where I wouldn't have been on time. But in my mind, first I do the hindsight bias thing, and then I do the counterfactual thinking thing, where I say both I knew this was gonna happen. And if I had only made that other decision then this wouldn't have happened. But in reality, we have no idea what would have happened on the alternative route, because we didn't take it.

And I (I) think it's important, like it's (it's) so normal for us to think about these things and to think back and say What if, what might have been, right, especially when it comes to someone we love and the events that impact them and that impact us. So it's something that we normally do. And oftentimes with these counterfactual thinking examples, it's you know, just we (we) ask ourselves, like, What if, you know. What (what) might have been. What could have been different. Like, what reality could I be living in these instances. And oftentimes we, it kind of follows these "if-then" statements. So we say to ourselves If only, then this would happen, right. So, if only I hadn't slept late, then I would have been to work on time, which sometimes is very true, but you know, you never know, right. Or like, if I had gone to that party, right, like I wanted to, then I wouldn't have gotten such a good grade on my test, I wouldn't have aced my test. Well, you might have still aced the test, you don't know that. But, so sometimes we engage in these if-then statements. And like we said, with our day-to-day examples, they can be really mundane but you can see where when we start to talk about grief and we say to ourselves If only we had done this, then things could have been different.


Then the stakes are so much higher. Because it feels like the outcomes could have been so much different, in oftentimes a more positive way. And though, sometimes, it's the opposite, a lot of times what we're focusing on in grief is how could we have prevented these worst case scenarios. And we want, just to right off the bat, after saying this is very normal and something we do all the time, just remind people that most of the time, we can't say always, but most of the time you were making the decision that you could with the information that you had. You had to make decisions about your behavior, about what (what) to do based on, you know, everything that you knew at the time. And you now know new things. But you didn't know those things at the time. And you cannot beat yourself, well I guess you can, but I hope you won't, beat yourself up for not being able to predict the future, and not knowing the things then that you know now. Because there was probably no way for you to know those things. Even though you might tell yourself there was.

Well, and that's I think the thing that's hard is that once we know something and we're seeing the world through the lens of knowing that thing, it's very hard to really remember what it was truly like to not know that thing. To be in that position before it happened. To really, you know, and we may even, when we may theoretically be able to say Okay, rationally I get it, that I didn't (I didn't) know this, I still might think, but I should have known it. And now that I see it now, it seems like it was so obvious or I should clearly have done those things, so.


There's still sometimes, even when we rationally know it a little bit of judgment that we suddenly start putting on ourselves.

Oh sure.

If we had asked the right questions. If we had been a better parent. If we hadn't been such a fool, we might have seen things differently. If we hadn't believed the lies. Or if we hadn't, you know, there's so many times that this comes around and rigers its ugly head. And so, you know, the (the) first thing we often talk about when looking at this concept is the fact that we feel often such guilt and regret. Because we think we could have been better. And whenever we get into statements, whenever we get into the territory where we're saying We should have done something. We should be this way, or we should have been this way. Often times the next, the, our thought leads to the feeling of guilt and regret. And that is something that I think we all struggle with in big and small ways after a loved one dies. And it's not just that I could have prevented a death, it is sometimes like smaller things. Like, if only I had known my mom was going to die a month later, I would have gone to the movies with her that one day when she asked me to, right. Or If only we had given up hope that she was going to get better, we would have had that Hollywood moment where we could accept that they were gonna die and have this conversation. I lived with that for a really long time. The thought that if (if) only we had stopped hoping, we would have been able to have this moment of reconciliation where we not, that might be the wrong word, but this moment where we are all on the same page and have that Hollywood goodbye. And it wasn't until I talked to my dad much later that he acknowledged that my mom never wanted to say that she was going to die even until the day she was going to die. And that was what she wanted. And I've lived with that feeling that it was my fault that I didn't come around to it, to hear what she would have said to me. And so, I think that I was telling myself a story that started to feel very real. And I think that's another important thing to touch on with this, is that we start off sometimes with this with the statement I should have known, and over time it becomes like Oh I knew that but I ignored it. Or like, we start off with the idea that (that) a different reality could have been true so there could have been these other outcomes and over time we start to believe that would have been the outcome. This is what would have happened. And in reality, that's (that's) no. That's just a possible outcome. That's something that could have been true, maybe, maybe not, maybe there was never a reality in which that was going to be true. But over time, sometimes, these things turn into absolutes in our mind when they really aren't.

Well, and your example is such a good one because I think, I mean not a good one, a hard one, that you lived with that feeling for so long. But it's an interesting one in that in so many of these examples we don't get to kind of challenge our own thinking about it. Or realize what the other outcome, you know, that (that) it wouldn't have been what we thought. But that example, with talking to your dad is so interesting, because that story of like, If I had just come around then we would have had this moment and it could have, I could have connected with my mom in this way. And what's so interesting about talking to your dad and getting that perspective on really where your mom was is that's one of those moments where you do have a more definitive person being able to say to you like No, actually, even if you had come around that's not where your mom was. So, like that other story that you've made up in your mind, that it was on you. And that if you had just gotten to a different place that you would have been able to have a different outcome, you were actually able to have someone really share like, No, it (it) probably wouldn't have gone that way because that's just not where your mom was.

I think that what you say is so true. And it's actually really, it, it's interesting and it brings up something else for me another concept. One that we were just talking about and which we were talking about on Instagram recently, is that we often engage in something called Magical Thinking. Where we believe that our thoughts, or maybe even things that we say can have a bigger outcome on people and events in the world than they actually can. So an example of that might be I get in a fight with my sister and I think to myself, Oh I wish I didn't even have a sister, right. And the next week she dies. And I think to myself Holy crap that's my fault because I (I) thought that she, I (I) didn't want a sister. We've heard other examples of people feeling that in moments when the family was gathering for prayer over their loved one they weren't paying attention or they were distracted or and they didn't pray hard enough and then feeling later that it's their fault their loved one died because they didn't pray. We even shared a grief secret recently that someone shared with us where she felt that because she, it didn't have hope, didn't hold out hope that it was her fault that her loved one died. And the reason I bring this up in relation to what you said is because sometimes we know that these things don't have a lot of basis in reality. We know they're not true in a way but it doesn't stop us from believing them and buying into them. And I think that's why that we have they we have a term like magical thinking for it, right. But they're things that really impact us. But because we know how they sound we don't share them. We don't say them out loud. And so then, we don't have somebody to kind of reality test that belief with us. Or to check our belief. And so, I think that oftentimes we can live with these things for a really long time, like, we've heard examples of people who have developed these thoughts as children. And actually magical thinking is very common in children. Especially around age of four or five years old. Develop these beliefs in childhood and carried them with them into adulthood and lived with that guilt. And so, I think that what you say is really important about maybe being able to talk about it, if not with a loved one, but sometimes you can get into a situation, maybe with a support group or with a counselor where you're able to talk some of these things out and also investigate some of the other evidence.


So they might help you to in investigate the evidence for your belief. And also, possibly, the evidence that doesn't support your belief and see that maybe it's not necessarily an absolute truth or not even something that you believe is true at all in the end. So, I think that there's such power in being able to speak some of these things.

Yeah. You know, I was thinking about, it's a little bit different, but I was thinking about this just recently. Because a couple weeks ago it was overdose awareness day, and we did a training that we give almost every year around that time on Grief Support around Addiction and Overdose Loss. And you know, I lost, we lost my sister's boyfriend to a drug overdose. Many, what is many years ago now. And I have thought a lot over the years but was thinking about it again when we gave that training about just how much the world has changed when it comes to opiate addiction in the last, you know, 10 to, you know, 10 to 15 years. And in many ways, when I think about my sister's boyfriend's addiction and his death. He was so close to our family and there was so much that went into their, my sister and her boyfriend's addiction at the time for the rest of our family, that I look back at that now and I realize there's a lot of judgment that I have now about why we didn't do certain things. And there are things where like I look back, and I think, Oh we must have seen that. Or we must have known that it was an option to go with this type of treatment. Or to do the, and then I have to catch myself and realize, like, No. Those treatment alternatives, like, weren't even things that were being discussed at that point in time. The opiate epidemic wasn't even something that was being labeled in that way at that time. You know, so many of those things I look back now. And I assume that we must have known those things. And I have to really really keep it in check, and go back and be like, Okay, let me actually remember that. And for me, I think too, it was, as a mental health professional, you know, I, it was before I went back to graduate school, it was before I got into this career, and I think about how much I learned about substance use and substance abuse and mental health over that time, and it's really hard to then go back and remember who I was then, what I knew then, what the world was like then. And not impose some of my current knowledge, expertise, what the world is now, what treatments are available now onto the time when he died.

Yeah. And I can see where that would lead you to blame yourself or to blame other people for not knowing things that they truly had no way of knowing.


But you can see, like, I think, oftentimes blame is a big big deal in grief because of the counterfactual thinking. Like, if somebody had done something different, we would not be here today. And so, I think sometimes we want to believe, I think blame does two things for us. Sometimes, it gives us a sense of control in an uncontrollable world. And sometimes it makes sense, it like gives meaning and makes sense to things that are totally senseless. And I think sometimes it feels better to be able to be mad at ourselves or someone else than it does to accept there are things we have no control over in the world and sometimes senseless and meaningless things happen that have terrible terrible consequences.

Oh, absolutely. And even thinking about the way that I just framed that, right. Like, thinking about the idea that If I had known more. Or If there had been more treatment options. Or, you know, all of those things that (that, that) maybe the outcome would be different when in fact the reality is there are many family members who have, who are substance abused counselors themselves, who know tons about the treatment options that are available, about all the signs of substance, about all of these things and still have loved ones who die of substance use disorders. Like, the those outcomes are never guaranteed but I think that's what's so hard is like we want to have that control that says Okay. But if I (if I) just know enough, or if there's just enough resources available, or enough out there, that then the outcome the next time or in another situation would be different. So I think you're exactly right. Oftentimes we, it's scary to say, even if all of those other, I, things had lined up and fallen into place, it still might have been the same outcome.

Yeah. And like we said at the beginning of the course, I think we can see a lot of this happen. This buying into alternative outcomes, and blame, and feelings of guilt and (and) regret, and if only. With COVID, of course, because people who are losing loved ones to COVID are probably running a number of scenarios based on, you know, If only I had, you know, not let them go out in public. If only we hadn't taken that trip. If only I had known I had it and I think maybe I gave it to them. And so, running through all these different scenarios about how we could have prevented someone's illness or (or) death, I think it must be very common for people right now that we don't know a lot in terms of, like, empirical research and facts. I'm just assuming based on what we know about people and based on what we know is going on. That this is something that many people are (are) probably really struggling with. And (and) I think it's a good example of, kind of what you just said, when it comes to COVID, there's still so much we don't know, right. And so we're learning new things every day. And people didn't mean to do the things that they possibly did that contributed to a loved one getting COVID. Or we didn't, you know, it's quite possible that we had no say over whether our parent went out in public or took that trip, you know. Sometimes, we believe we could have prevented our loved ones from doing things. We never could have prevented them from doing. And so I (I, I) imagine this is something that people are (are) struggling with right now.

Yeah. And I think it's things that we're seeing people certainly talk about some in on our social media and in comments, and we have a e-course for people who are grieving a loved one who died during COVID, whether it was of COVID or something else. And I think one of the things that we're also seeing described is that then it can bring up an anxiety going forward. And there is that feeling of Okay if I had done more to control it in the past, if I had tried, if I had done everything I should have been doing to control the situation, so my loved one didn't get COVID. They wouldn't have gotten it. And the outcome would be different. And so now, I need to control everything to make sure that it doesn't happen to my other loved ones. Or to me. Or you know, I think that sometimes that cycle is we look back at it and we think we had power that we didn't really have, right. And then it can lead to excessive anxiety. And of course, everyone you know do need to be safe and thoughtful. And (and) in we are in a situation where it makes sense that people are having uncertainty and anxiety. But when we take on that added level of guilt that may or may not be accurate or (or) warranted, we can be carrying the weight of that and trying to assert control in these different ways that might not be realistic.

You're right. I do think that we can, we think we have have a power and a control that we don't have. And it, and it's terrible that we have to do this to ourselves. But I know that we do. I know we do do it to ourselves. And I hope that anybody who's struggling with feelings of, you know, I could have changed (I could have changed) fate. I could have told them to leave the house five minutes later. I could have, you know, been home five minutes earlier. I could have found them sooner. I could have done so many different things. It's such a normal thing to do and I know that so many people are feeling pain and struggling with it right now. And I just, I hope that if this is something that resonates with you, that you'll consider exploring it a little bit even though it might be a source of some of your most intense pain. And if it's something you're really struggling with and you feel like it's really keeping you stuck, consider talking to somebody professional about it. Because like (like) we mentioned earlier, sometimes a counselor can just help you to examine it in a way that feels a little bit safe.


And to look at, you know, the reality of it. And, yeah. I (I) just, I, I think that there can be such benefit in being able to explore it and understand it a little better. And nobody, sometimes we don't want people to take our beliefs away from us. We hold on to them even though that we know that they're painful and they hurt us. I don't know. I think sometimes we can just get perspective even if we want to keep the belief. We can have a little more perspective.

Absolutely. And I think sometimes we have to be careful that in circumstances like this, if have assumed a level of guilt and responsibility or lost our loved one, you know, sometimes we feel like we deserve it. Like, we deserve the pain of beating ourselves up. And we deserve the, you know, hyper vigilance and anxiety that we're now assuming to keep everybody else safe because that's something that's part of our (our) penance for not doing a good enough job protecting our loved one. And so I think we have to look at some of those things. And if that is starting to get in the way of being able to to live a meaningful, connected life, and if it's causing us to feel stuck in a cycle that's really hurting us and our connection with our loved ones who are still here, or our connection with our loved ones memory, because we're so kind of consumed by (by) some of these things specifically, I think when it comes to the guilt and regret piece or the blame piece, it is important to challenge some of those thoughts that we're having and just you know make sure we've really examined them. And it's not to say that sometimes we really didn't screw up. Like, you know, what we're talking about here is different than that. It's saying that we need to take a step back and examine those thoughts and really see Is there accuracy in it or are we falling into some of these traps of hindsight bias and counterfactual thinking.

Yeah. Even if talking to a therapist seems like a big step for you. Like, using the example I shared, my personal example of talking to my father about (about) the situation was helpful. So just maybe, even being able to talk to somebody about it, maybe somebody who has knowledge of the situation, or maybe somebody who doesn't, I think that one thing that can hold us back from doing that is, sometimes, we feel like we're confessing to something. Especially when we've really bought into the narrative that we're guilty. I think sometimes if we open it up because there's some shame there we feel like we're confessing that we're a bad person or that we're at fault. And I encourage you to push through that a little bit and (and) open yourself. And maybe if you don't want to confess or acknowledge something to people who are close to you, choose somebody who's (who's) maybe not quite as close to the situation. Maybe a friend who doesn't have a lot of knowledge of your family or your friend group. Also, one thing we'll say is if you're not someone who is comfortable talking to people about any of this for very understandable reasons, something that we always recommend is writing about it. You don't have to be a writer, you don't have to be a regular journaler, you don't even you have to write complete sentences. But sometimes just writing about things can help give you new perspective on them. And so, I, we would encourage you to explore some of these. Maybe some of the ways that you feel like you're blaming yourself or feel guilty and regretful because of hindsight bias. And maybe even exploring some of those counterfactual outcomes that you have been believing could have possibly been the truth. Writing about some of those. And then if you feel like it, you could even maybe split your sheet in half or start a new sheet of paper that looks at those beliefs or those thoughts and kind of takes the other perspective. Like Litsa was saying. Like, I didn't even know that treatment existed then. Or I didn't know this about addiction at the time. Or exploring some of those counterfactual alternatives and saying to yourself Maybe this wasn't ever going to happen. Maybe I couldn't have caused this to happen. Maybe nothing could have. And so pushing back a little bit on some of those things that have become sort of factual in your mind even though they aren't necessarily things that would have happened or things that you're responsible for or things you could have controlled.

Absolutely. I think one of our favorite, easy, go-to techniques too that can be helpful is thinking about, you know, what would I, if this were my best friend and this were their situation what would I be telling them. What would I, you know, how would I be helping them think it through. Because sometimes we see things differently when we pull ourselves out of it. And you know one thing we don't talk about, I think we've mentioned it on here occasionally, but I (I) guess I'll plug and mention it really quickly because I brought it up before, is that we do have some online courses that help with some of this stuff. If you're looking to think about this, write about this, explore this, we have that free one I just mentioned earlier about coping with grief during COVID but we also have a journaling course where we really do give you some prompts and ways to think about some of these things. So, if you haven't ever checked out, our courses, they're at and maybe a (a) way to explore it, if it's something where you feel like you need a little bit more guidance and support.

Yeah, for sure. Well, with that, I think we can wrap up for today. And as Litsa said there, we do have other resources, we have articles and things like that. We will, actually we're trying a new format for a notes page. No promises but we will be sharing that in the future and so you can look back on some of the notes. But that said, if this is a topic that interests you and you want more information please you can always email us at And just say, you know, is there any other, can you share an article with me about this or whatever question you have we will try and answer. So with that, we hope everybody is doing okay and we will be checking back in again soon.

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