The Dissonance of Things Left Unsaid

I want you to imagine you’re listening to a child play the piano. This particular child is relatively new to piano and has just started learning the complicated business playing chords.  As you listen to her play, you notice that some chords sound pleasant and pleasing, but every once in a while she hits the wrong note and the chord sounds jarring and harsh.  The unpleasant chords make you think, “oh that can’t be right,” and you sit cringed and frozen until she realizes her mistake and makes the chord pretty again.

Dissonance in music refers to chords made up of notes that when played together sound like the musical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.  Although in my example the dissonant chords we’re played in error, often composers intentionally used these sounds in their music to create emotion and atmosphere.  Dissonant tones are unstable and inherently create tension, so that the listener instinctually feels as though they want them to resolve to more pleasant chords (i.e. consonance). You may hear dissonant sounds in every day life, for example a babies cry, a blood curdling scream, or the buzzer on your alarm clock.

(Please excuse my elementary explanation of these music concepts.  Although I was technically a music major for all of one semester my freshman year in college, I also had a dual minor in homesick misery and downloading music on Napster.)

Anyway, here’s a brief example of consonant vs. dissonant:

Perhaps it’s juvenile, but I’ve always wished we had our own individual soundtracks to play in the background of our lives.  I imagine our music would sound pleasant and harmonious, until the inevitable day when the dark themes of loss make their way onto the score.

Out of nowhere the music would start to twist and turn in crooked and clashing notes until reaching a final dissonant chord. Then just like that the song would be over; as though someone played a shrill and terrifying chord on a piano and then slammed the lid shut.  Although at the time you intellectually knew your soundtrack would never sound the same; your heart and body remained frozen, tense and aching, waiting for those dark notes to turn light again.

The good news is that most of grief’s harshness eventually softens.  The bad news is, because your loved one is gone, some things will always feel a little unresolved.  Take the pain caused by things left unsaid, for example. Death makes telling your loved one things like “I love you”, “I’m sorry”, “I forgive you”, “I know”, or “I wish I had known” impossible. You will never feel the release of knowing you’ve said everything you wanted to say. This aspect of your relationship will always remain suspended on a sharp and unpleasant note and longing for rest or resolution.


This reality bothers me because I can’t stop wanting to say things to the people I love. When you love someone, there is never really a point where you think – “Okay, I’ve had all the conversations I want to have with you.” The truth is that it can be hard to live with a head full of things left unsaid.  Sadly, this is a problem without a perfect solution.  Nevertheless, there are things you can do to help yourself cope with some of your pain and frustration.

How to Handle Things Left Unsaid

Find a way to say what you need to say anyway:

You wish you could speak to your loved one, but you can’t.  So instead you may be having an ongoing inner dialogue filled with wishes, questions, and regret.  The more things spin around in your head, the less perspective you’re likely to have and the more anxiety you’re likely to feel.

Find a way to direct this conversation outward; you would be surprised how different it might sound when you’re able to say it out loud or even write it down on a piece of paper.  It may feel crazy to have these conversations because your loved one can’t answer back, but it’s not.  Tell your loved one how you feel and tell them what you wish you could say.  Some ideas for doing this include:

Work on accepting what you can’t change

I’m sure you guys have heard of the Serenity Prayer.  Originally authored by Reinhold Niebuhr and, most notably, used by twelve-step programs.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”

Grappling with unresolved issues and things left unsaid is common after a death, but staying focused on your anger and regret toward “if only’s” is a story without an end.  It’s often necessary to find a way to cope with the things you can’t change, in order to focus on those you can.

Work on accepting your guilt and regret

Although people will often tell you – “Regret nothing! Don’t feel guilty!” – guilt and regret are very common and normal experiences in grief.  We’ve actually written pretty extensively on this topic so, if this is something you struggle with, you should check out the following articles.

Guilt vs. Regret in Grief

Love Your Regret: A Journaling Exercise

Understanding Survivor Guilt

Guilt and Grief: Coping with the shoulda, woulda, couldas

What Not to Say to a Griever: Guilt and Grief

Work on finding forgiveness for yourself and for your loved one

Forgiveness can go a long way to soothe the burn of anger, but for many reasons it can seem out of reach; especially when the person you’re angry at has died.  People often have misgivings about forgiveness because they think it’s unattainable, but this doesn’t have to be true. Once again, we’ve written extensive posts on this topic.

Grief and Forgiveness: Part One

Grief and Forgiveness Part Two: Twelve Steps for Self Forgiveness

What have we left unsaid?  Leave your thoughts in the comments.  

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March 28, 2017

22 responses on "The Dissonance of Things Left Unsaid"

  1. My mom died almost two months ago. We thought she had the flu, but it turned out to be heart failure. (Why did I overlook the clues? Why didn’t I push her harder to get checked out?) Even after we found out what was going on, I had a few minutes alone with her, and I blew it. I didn’t say I love you, I’m proud of you, goodbye – nothing. I mostly sat there, cried, and made lame jokes. I know she knew… we were very close and talked every day. But I still blew it.

  2. I struggle daily after 5 yrs if the guy I had a relationship on & off for over 20 years really loved me. I never knew he was sick. Two years prior. My ex died of lung cancer. I cared for him the last month of his life & never cleared up the questions of his cheating & abusivness. Now I live with these unanswered questions.

  3. I am having such a difficult time. My husband died 39 days ago. We knew each other for 10 years and were married for 8. Trying to take care of bills I opened his computer. I found he had been seeing other women during our marriage, talking to other women online during our marriage and had pictures of women he was “dating” during our marriage. I am so devastated and now I can’t say anything to him. I don’t know how I can ever wrap my head around his infidelity. All the trips for business, weekends I worked or vacations I went on with my friends and he was out there meeting with other women. After discovering all this his odd comments and actions all make sense. How could I have been so stupid to not see what was going on. We had our ups and downs as all couples do. Now I have to ask myself why he bothered to marry me. Did he really love me. Why would someone do that to another person. Why couldn’t he be honest. I am a nurse so did he just marry me so I could take care of his mother? Take care of him? I was a good wife to him and the whole time he was good to me. Always cleaned the kitchen, made the bed, did laundry, good conversations, fun times. People thought we were such a great couple !! Now I feel betrayed by the very person I loved the most and I can’t say a damn thing to him now.

  4. Thanks for a very timely post. Last night I dreamt of my son for the first time since he ended his life. He was in such pain in the dream I was so anguished at the coulda shoulda woulda that followed. I have resisted writing about it for the past 2.5 years and realize I must do this or remain in the pain. That dream will haunt me until I make it right with him.

  5. I lost my dad a month ago today. It still hurts soo much as I had a close relationship with him, being the youngest in the family. Since I’ve grown, got married and live abroad, I wish I had visited more often. I had the chance to be his caregiver but was not there during his final days. I called a lot, did video call but was not there up to his last breath. I still have feelings of guilt and regrets and still grieving. My husband keep telling me I still have not accepted that my dad’s gone that’s why I feel how I feel. I just miss my dad soo much and wish I could have done more. He died from persistent pneumonia at 82 yrs.old. They always tell me, he’s in a happier place now and no longer suffering but I refused to believe. I started questioning my faith, stopped attending church, lose interest on things I routinely used to do. I just could not believe he’s gone. Seem things happened so fast. I’m thankful for this blog to know that I am not alone. Comfort and peace to you all grievers like me.

  6. I was one of the fortunate ones. I was my wife’s primary care-giver as she died a little every day from the effects of tumors in her brain, her bones, and her internal organs, though I had hospice workers spends two hours with her three days a week so I could shop and run errands. My wife’s lucid moments shortened by the day, as the time between those moments increased. I knew that even though she spent most of her days sleeping or resting, too weak and tired to do anything else, she could probably hear me. So I talked to her all the time. I told her how much I loved her and our life together. I told her what she meant to me, and how much I appreciated her and how she looked after all of us. I reminisced about our vacations, the good times, our favorite things to do together, some of our misunderstandings, and how sorry I was I didn’t do more with her during our marriage. I told her everything. I left nothing unsaid. Our sons would visit every day for a few hours as their work permitted, and at first they would just sit with her quietly. I told them to talk to her, to tell her how much they loved her, how much she meant to them, and how much they appreciated all she did for them. I told them to leave nothing unsaid because I believed she could hear them. They did, and after she passed away, they thanked me for telling them to do that. Now they will have no regrets for things they didn’t tell her. I am thankful that I, too, have no regrets for things I didn’t say.

  7. I lost my grandmother and father 3 days apart in November. Being so involved with my father I didn’t make the time to talk with my grandmother and then it was too late. I could not figure out what to say to someone who I had such a complicated relationship with, and I was overwhelmed knowing that my dad was dying, but I still feel incredibly guilty.

  8. I know my loved one exists on the other side & can hear me so I say whatever I feel . I talk to him, my parents & God all the tiime. I know he exists on the other side because I believe and also had a reading with a well known medium who told me things that he and others that have passed over knew and the medium could never have known. This was a telephone reading so the medium could get nothing from my reactions. I KNOW there is an afterlife so I just talk all the time to my loved ones. I’ve also had many signs from my loved ones.

  9. My daughter was six and half years clean and sober. She worked as a volunteer helping other users to stay safe. She worked with “Functioning Alcoholics, and Users” She saw others picking up and managing it and she thought she was strong enough to do the same. I can’t stop crying. People say the only reason you would still cry is because of your guilt…..or things you could have said and done. I don’t know about that all I know is I miss her like mad. x

    • No, Janet…I believe crying and grieving is the result of loving deeply and that is what we did with our loved ones that we now grieve

  10. It can seem out of reach: Especially when people won’t shut their cotton pickin’ mouths about certain things. I feel like they’re implying that they speak all this hatred on behalf of my dead former husband, who was killed in a terrorist act, but he wasn’t like that at ALL. He used to play a song with words that said ‘I’m calling everybody stand face to face we’re all sisters and brothers in the human race, we can learn from each other ain’t no big disgrace just throw a little love all around the place.’
    That’s who he was, not an opportunity to sow discord among people like people keep using his death to do. Sometimes I find it overwhelming that nobody can see him as a person but only the event that took his life.
    He deserves to be remembered as a good father who never hated anyone. I don’t believe his death should define his life.

  11. My mom just past away three weeks ago. I have so many emotions going on mostly regret, anger, and disbelief. I wish I could of done more for her. I wish I could of been there more for her. I wish I could of listen to her voice one more time. I wish I knew what she was saying, feeling, and thinking during those rough seven weeks before she passed. I’m not sure if we could of done anything different. I want to know that she is really in a good place. That she is no longer suffering. This all just happened so fast and none of us were prepared for this. We all thought she would get through this like she did previously. I’m just not ready to let her go….

    • I feel the same way. I lost my mom two weeks ago. I cannot believe how much pain I am constantly in. I feel that I will never be okay again.

  12. My son died of a heroin overdose after an incident upset him in rehab
    I would love just one hour with him to tell him how proud I am of him that he stayed clean for 3.5 months and that I love him so much….I did tell him all the time that I love him, but never enough…

    • Suzy,

      I experienced the same thing. My son died if a heroin overdose after fighting so hard to recover from the vicious disease if addiction. My heart goes out to you. I also ask why… and there are never enough times to tell your child how much you love them. Although I believe my son hears me every time I say it aloud now.

      • Kathryn
        I am sorry for your loss and mine…I agree Kev sees me when I cry and wants me to have a happy life and not crumble

  13. When my mom had stage 4 breast cancer, we were dealing with conflicts in our relationship. I had spent 8 years trying to help her through het own depression mostly at the loss of her life when she lost her home and her husband died. She moved in with us and it gradually changed or relationship as depression had such an impact. I had reached a point when my son returned from college in a depressed state. .. giving up. Struggling with his own issues. The perfect storm culminated at get terminal diagnosis. I NEEDED MORE TIME! I needed to fix the broken, say the unsaid, All my years of giving, supporting, fixing were unraveled. I couldn’t speak what needed to be said. .it would be acknowledging that she was dying. ..she couldn’t hear that. .so i was silent . I tried to be strong for her and protect her but she needed me to be the child again. Unconditional love is the hardest to give, but the most rewarding, that leaves you with NO regret.

  14. I wish I had told him more often that I really did think the world of him and was so fortunate to have been loved by him.

  15. So many unanswered questions I still have for my husband WHY? WHY? WHY?

    • Rachel
      I too have questions for my son…he overdosed after being clean for months
      I want to ask him WHY he did not call me so I could help when he was upset
      He called when he needed me to bring his shoes to rehab, when he need a copy of his birth certificate, and wanted books from Amazon…why didnt he call me when he was about to use again????

  16. I was thinking about this very subject only this morning. I am constantly thinking of things I should have said or done and things I shouldn’t have said or done and I need to try to think about all the times I said or did the right thing. I want to remember the good times, that far outweighed the not-so-good times but the regret keeps dragging me down. I am such a negative-thinking person and it doesn’t help. I just want Pete back.

  17. Our daughter took her own life. Finding a way to forgive her took years but finally I did. It was such a relief!

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