People have a natural tendency to sift through the ashes of tragedy in search of explanations. To quote Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl,
“Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.”
The search for sense in the seemingly senseless is one of the most instinctual coping skills a person can employ in the face of hardship. The idea that life and death is random creates a dissonance so sharp one simply can’t allow it to linger; so you search…and you sift…and you piece irreparably broken things back together, desperate for it all to make sense.
It’s common to ask questions after a loved one dies, because sometimes you want answers. You may look into your memory and ask questions like…
“Why did this happen?”
“How could this have happened?”
“Could I have seen this coming?”
And through a shattered but enlightened lens, you suddenly see the signs. You see things you could have done differently, you see turning points, and you say to yourself…
“I should have done something”
“I should have known.”
It may be hard for you to believe, because you now know how things turned out, but in the past you really didn’t know as much as you think you knew. You may have worried or had your suspicions, but you didn’t know. Or if you knew, the things you think you could have done differently weren’t quite as obvious to you then as they seem now. The reason I know this is because you are looking at things in hindsight, and hindsight is biased.
Hindsight bias is a normal and common psychological phenomenon that causes people to believe that outcomes were predictable. When looking at events after the outcome is known, people have a tendency to notice information that is consistent with what they now know to be true. The same tendency causes them to ignore neutral or contradictory evidence, so that when a person goes to piece together a meaningful narrative, as people are wont to do, they often wind up with a story that goes – this was the beginning, here were the signs, here’s where things went wrong, and this is the outcome.
For some, it is comforting to create a narrative that brings order to the confusing chaos of death and grief, and many people find reassuring answers to questions like “why?” “what went wrong?” “could it have been changed?” and “what could have been done differently?” Others, on the other hand, are left with a narrative that causes them to feel unpleasant things like guilt, blame, shame, regret, and personal responsibility.
If you’re still with me, let’s throw one more concept into the mix. In an effort to construct a narrative around one’s experiences, people often engage in counterfactual thinking. Counterfactual thinking is thinking things like ‘What if?” and “What might have been?”. It is the act of coming up with alternative outcomes that are counter to (or different than) the facts. Many times our counterfactual thinking follows an “if-then” pattern. Some examples:
“If I hadn’t slept late, I wouldn’t have missed the bus.”
“If I had gone to that party like I wanted, then I wouldn’t have aced my math test.”
Researchers Kray et all (2010) note that counterfactual thinking is actually, “an essential feature of healthy cognitive and social functioning and also a ubiquitous part of life.” While they acknowledge that this type of thinking can certainly lead to negative thoughts and emotions like guilt and regret, they also suggest that counterfactual thinking can lead to positive emotions like relief and gratitude.
In grief, though, one can see how counterfactual thinking could have negative implications when combined with hindsight bias. Through a narrative constructed using hindsight bias, one can easily see the part they play in various counterfactual realities. Knowing what they know, one might come to believe that if they had been paying attention or if they had acted differently then a better counterfactual reality might actually be the reality. Some examples:
“If I had been paying attention, then I would have noticed that my mother was sick and urged her to go to the doctor.”
“If I hadn’t gone to work that day, then I would have been home and could have prevented the accident.”
“If I hadn’t been so caught up in my own life, then I could have gotten him the help he needed.”
“If I hadn’t left her bedside when I did, then I would have been with her when she died.”
So, now that you know how your tricky brain works, some of you may decide to take a step back and reassess your narrative. However, if you still need a little extra help, we’ve written a few articles that I think may be relevant to anyone struggling with feelings like guilt, regret, and blame.
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