So Much For Happily Ever After: When life doesn't turn out the way you planned

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

For further articles on these topics:

Although I like books, I haven't authored a single grief book review for What's Your Grief. Book reviews are Litsa’s forte because, as she’s mentioned before, she has a book-buying problem. I consider this an okay problem for her to have because she can read a book cover to cover in what I consider warp speed.

I on the other hand suffer from an unfortunate dual diagnosis of having both a book-buying problem and a book-reading problem. In laymen’s terms this means I start books but never finish them because I read so darn slow I get distracted, misplace the book or decide to move on to something new. The rare exception to this rule is the book that engrosses me within its first few pages, basically anything from the 'Young Adult' section.

Much to my reading pleasure I recently found myself engrossed in one of those novels you just can't put down (an adult novel to boot) while on vacation. I won't say which book it was in case you read it but I will tell you it was a certain thriller novel that you may have already read, possibly not, but I’m sure you've seen the movie.

I ignored my family for three days while trying to finish this book; I simply had to know the ending. On the third day I plopped down in my beach chair and proclaimed for all to hear, "I will finish this book today if it’s the last thing I do". Hours later, sweaty and covered in sand, I read the last word and quietly closed the book hoping no one would notice. I didn’t want anyone to ask me about the ending, I was too frustrated to talk. I maintained a calm exterior while in my mind thinking...

What the stinkin’ heck? That was NOT the ending I wanted. Seriously?!? Where’s the justice?!?! Where’s the happily ever after?!?! I need finality! I hate it when things end like this. I'm never reading another book again.

I felt betrayed by the author just as I do when the end of a movie is unclear, ambiguous, or not at all what I wanted it to be. When I open myself up to a story it’s with the expectation that it will reach a neat and orderly conclusion; when I get something different I feel confused, abandoned and misled. I demand a rewrite!

It did make me think though how funny it is that vague and unanticipated endings can be so intensely frustrating when they are actually the most true to life. Just like in life the ending can be sudden and unpredictable. There are no rewrites; the story is over when the story is over and, unless you’re reading a Choose your Own Adventure book, you probably won’t get to decide how it ends.

Anyone who’s experienced a loss of any kind already knows that often life doesn't turn out the way you planned. The death of a loved one almost always leaves you with that - this is not how it was supposed to end – feeling. Similarly things like the following may mean closing chapters in disappointing ways:

  • loss of loved ones
  • loss of health
  • unemployment
  • lack of skill
  • lack of education
  • infertility
  • divorce/relationship problems
  • loss of hopes and dreams

Last sentence. Final word. Period. What now? If we were talking about a book or a movie I suppose we’d hold out hope for a part II; but we’re not talking about fiction, we’re talking about life.

I was walking through Wegmans with my father the other day when our conversation turned to my mother. My family’s mecca is my hometown Wegmans so it's virtually impossible for me to walk its aisles without thinking of my mother. Standing amongst rows of pasta my dad remarked how sad it is that my mother didn’t live to meet all her grandchildren or to see a day when they weren’t stressed by worries about money.

As usual I agreed saying, "this was not how her story was supposed to end," and I silently reflected on the many ways her death altered my father’s story as well. He’s a single widowed grandfather of 19. His life is drastically different than the one he would have led with my mother, but he seems happy.

I’m cautious with quotes around topics such as these because so many are syrupy and reductive, but I thought this one by Maya Angelou was wise:

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

Ater a loss you face many challenges; you step into new roles, face new stressors, and struggle to find ways to cope. You hope above all hope that along the way you'll find strength, joy and happiness and that, on most days, you'll like the person you’ve become. It’s hard work - adjusting, reframing, and rethinking your life – but finding balance and a new sense of self of is not out of reach.

How can you turn to the next page when it's written in a language that doesn't make sense? The answer: I don't know. Your problems are dynamic and only you can find solutions that are right for you. All I know is, in reality, life never turns out exactly the way you planned. Your narrative continues to be written and I truly believe, for all of us, there are many story lines that lead to happiness.

I may not have any sage advice but this doesn't mean there isn't help for those who want it. As always we think counseling is a great tool to help you get through a difficult adjustment, but if you prefer to start with the internet here are a few resources you might want to try:

Psychology Today has a whole bunch of posts dedicated to 'The Plan B Life'

Tony Robbins has advice for what to do when life doesn't work out like you planned

I like the Huffington Post's breakdown of 5 truths from the Serenity Prayer that help during hardship

Tiny Buddha offers 5 principles to live by when life doesn't go your way

Just because I'm careful with quotes doesn't mean you have to be. Here are some quotes about finding yourself.

See the typos before we've doubled back and corrected them, subscribe to receive posts straight to your email inbox.

We wrote a book!

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for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

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12 Comments on "So Much For Happily Ever After: When life doesn't turn out the way you planned"

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  1. Marni  December 14, 2018 at 1:00 am Reply

    I accidentally killed my mother in a car accident when I was 29. She never had any grandchildren, which is what she was hoping for once she retired. My father sued me for her wrongful death and never spoke to me again. My husband divorced me. I would go years lonely, not interested in dating, and I was 45 before I found love again. So, I never did get to have a family of my own. I live an empty, unfulfilling life- no parents, siblings, cousins, aunts/uncles…and, no real friends either. And, what I always wanted – to be a mother, also not a possibility. I guess I walled myself off… I just don’t enjoy being with people much of the time. Hearing how hard it is to deal with aging parents or a hardheaded teen. All things many take for granted. I have zero family. My clock likely ticked out long ago to have a family of my own. I do not qualify to foster as I have multiple myeloma, and the foster system says that most foster children would not benefit/be further traumatized by the possible instability/trauma a caretaker with a cancer could possibly go through. I own 2 businesses and have been working 50-70 hours a week for years – with a blood cancer. Certainly its better for a woman full of love and life to care for a foster child than no one at all?

    I live in a chronic state of dissatisfaction. Sadness. Loneliness.I love my husband, but having just one person in my life still leaves me feeling empty and alone. Not really depression, just a deep acknowledgement that I will never be truly happy. I fill my days with work, trying to find success, and tell myself when I am finally successful, I’ll be happy. But, I probably won’t. A) because success is starting to seem out of reach, and B) success isn’t really what will make me happy- family and friends are. And, I’m short on both

    • Kathleen B  January 30, 2019 at 9:14 pm Reply

      Marni, I am so sorry to hear what happened to you at such a young age and to your Mom, but even more so what your Dad did in response. That is tragic and surely caused a deep wound in your soul. Of course you did not mean to have the accident and suffering the loss of your Mom for a daughter so young is heartbreaking. I would like to encourage you to allow yourself to forgive, forgive yourself, forgive God, forgive your Dad. One day at a time but simply the act of choosing it, daily…even when you don’t feel it yet…one day will come and you will. If I may suggest possibly you reading one or both of these books: “Do yourself a Favor…Forgive” by Joyce Meyer and “When Bad Things Happen To Good People” by Harold Kushner.

      I also fully understand your feeling of loss without any family now. You have your Husband, treasure him and that relationship. You may be able to find ways to be around children who need love and to be helped. I don’t know if you attend a church or not, if so, they have classrooms usually and also some help locally with other non-profits teaching, caring etc. I was divorced in my early 30’s from a man my entire family did not like or want me to marry, while I’m SO grateful we did not have children….I thought I’d find love again, remarry and live happily ever after. My dad died of cancer in ’99 and my Mom lived 19 years a widow. She and I were very close and this past year I spent it mostly full time caring for her until she passed in Nov. I’m lonely and missing her terribly. However, I’m solid in my faith and spending time in prayer to move forward. I turned 50 last year so I understand. I have extended family but so many years difference in age, and miles in location that we are not that close. I’ve moved a lot, lost all I had in the recession and am determined this year to turn it all around and work from home. I cannot do the rat race any more and it will not provide for me for retirement at this late stage and it’s no longer fulfilling. If you can hire someone at least part time to help you with your business, you may find time to do some things that will fill your heart and your soul. You were created for more and I know only One who can heal your soul.

      I will add you to my prayers and I’d also like to encourage you that there are natural things that you can use for your cancer. I think when your heart and soul have forgiveness, healing and peace your cells will be able to help in that area as well. I’m not a Dr. just been around PhD’s and the Nutrition/Holistic world for a while and happy to share more if you’d like and you receive this message. Huge Hug across the miles wherever you are Marni 🙂 There are kind, caring people around who

  2. lorraine lawson  October 15, 2014 at 8:35 pm Reply

    I lost my husband of 29 yrs June 13th 2014. It’s so hard as I’m the one that is disabled on oxygen16 hrs day, waiting for hip replacement,dvt,pe,copd I won’t bore you. It Was just right I’d die first. He took voluntary redundancy 2014. To care for me. Very fit man never ill never been in hospital. Complained of pain in back by ribs. April went casualty thought was chest infection, middle may he was told lung cancer, cancer on the heart! Yes rare lesions on he’s liver and a huge dead mass inside him!! Doctors didn’t believe he could breath.was metastatic sarcomatoid and 2 other cancers one of which doctors couldn’t name as nit seen before. Saud tumour on he’s heart had obliterated he’s left valve. Docs words not mine. Came home June 3rd died in bed 13th. I’m still like a zombie been out once to funeral. I seem to want to suffer why am I still here, I’m lost angry suicidal hurt you name it. I don’t even want to shower think what’s point. Have lost 3 stone. Someone help me I have to use crutches to even get to the bathroom
    If my son wasn’t here well I don’t know plz someone tell me what to do.

    • Eleanor  October 17, 2014 at 10:02 am Reply


      I’m so sorry for all the hurt you’ve been through and the pain you are dealing with. We just wrote a post on how isolating grief can make us feel and the fact that you are less mobile and able to get out of the house (if you even wanted to) without your husband just means you are more at risk for feeling isolation. Unfortunately isolation can cause us to feel even worse about our situation so I can only imagine how awful things must seem right now. Do you visit with your son often? Do you have anyone else for support? Are there any support groups, online groups, grief centers that you have access to?

      It’s difficult for me to tell you what to do because, as grief always is, your situation is complex and unique. If you really feel you are struggling with serious thoughts of self harm or even just a general – what’s the point in being here? – feeling I strongly urge you to talk to a professional whether it’s your doctor or a mental health professional. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK or Samaritans in the UK 08457 90 90 90 even if it is just to talk about whatever you are struggling with.

      Please stick with us here and let us know if there’s ever a specific topic you think would be helpful to see addressed. You can also email with questions privately at


  3. Caelidh  August 28, 2014 at 10:37 am Reply

    When I lost my mother 4 years ago.. I was resigned.. I guess I knew I would have to deal with her death some day. While she was only 76 and I never got to talk to her after her cancer surgery as she never recovered.. I felt somewhat at peace because we had talked about stuff up until then.. I had made a choice to take the gift of having some money to do something different with my life.. live more meaningfully.. however, that has been a disaster and things are not turning out as idyllic as I imagined.. My partner has been sick.. we have had one issue after another.. I haven’t been able to sell my house, my stepfather did recently. on and on and on.. the bad luck has rained down.. I never imagined it would be this bad.. I had such good hopes and that I would put her money I was grateful to have to good use.. but most of it has gone down the toilet in dealing with crisis after crisis.. I wonder what went wrong? Am I that incompetent?

    • Eleanor  August 28, 2014 at 10:50 am Reply

      Oh Caelidh I doubt you are incompetent. It is so common for a death to precede more and more loss, even loss you wouldn’t have anticipated or that seems somewhat unrelated. You hear people say bad things happen in threes or when it rains it pours and sometimes this really is true. I’m very sorry for all these crises and I do hope things get easier soon. We’ve written a few posts on the blog that might also be helpful. One on cumulative grief (when it all piles on); one on secondary loss (when one loss leads to more); and one on caregiving, although I hope your partner isn’t sick enough you need this but I will include it anyway. Please let us know if there is ever a topic you’d like to see addressed or a question you’d like us to answer.

  4. Deatra Yatman, LCSW  August 27, 2014 at 6:28 pm Reply

    Eleanor, I found this article about redefining yourself and creating a new life when things don’t turn out as planned, most helpful. It provided websites to build resources while constructing that new life and re-defining yourself and what that new life might look like. Wisely, you state that each persons problems are dynamic and that we each find our own way, gave reassurance that there is hope – and grieving people require hope to move forward after loss! Keep the articles coming as each one has merit and can be utilized in many ways with different outcomes. I am so grateful for posts such as yours…..they are affirming of possibilities.

    • Eleanor  August 28, 2014 at 10:42 am Reply

      Thank you so much Deatra!

  5. Ann Farnsworth  August 27, 2014 at 5:46 pm Reply

    So many of the best experiences I have had in life have started out as something I never would have wanted! I wouldn’t change a thing.

  6. Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)  August 27, 2014 at 2:23 pm Reply

    I know this feeling well, Eleanor, and I thank you for addressing it here. As I read your piece, I am reminded of the terrific line from the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which brings me great comfort whenever I’m feeling this way: “Everything will be all right in the end, so if it is not all right, it is not the end.” ♥

    • Eleanor  August 28, 2014 at 10:42 am Reply

      Marty I really do love that quote. Thank you so much for sharing it! I’m going to have to use that one.

    • Litsa  August 28, 2014 at 10:44 pm Reply

      Marty, I have this quote on a magnet on my fridge!! Needless to say, I love it too 🙂

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