Burning My “If Only”s Behind Me

The other day I wrote about how grief changed me, that now I am more patient, and today I discovered another change. The death of “if only.” How many of us torment ourselves with thoughts of “if only”? And it is a torment, that thought of what might have been  . . . if only.

The bereft are especially prone to this syndrome.

I have talked to people who followed doctors’ orders or accepted the doctors’ hopeful prognoses, and now they are haunted by “if only”s. If only they had known it was their husband’s last day. If only they had known their mother would suffer so much longer under a doctor’s care than if she had been allowed to die at home. If only she hadn’t insisted on his going through another operation or round of chemo.

I have talked to people who didn’t follow doctors’ orders, and now they are haunted by a different set of “if only”s. If only if they had done what was prescribed. If only they had insisted their wife see a doctor. If only they had insisted their husband stop smoking.

If only . . .

I saw a twitter yesterday that said hope and maybe were two of the most damaging words in our language, but those words don’t even come close to the wreckage “if only” can do. (As for hope and maybe, as Virgil Sweet in Talent for the Game says, “Maybe is powerful stuff.”)

I had my share of “if only”s — if only he’d hadn’t been so sick, if only I could have helped him, if only I could have kept him from dying, if only I hadn’t taken his dying for granted. (It seems unreal, now, that we took for granted he would die young. Shouldn’t we have railed against it more? But he was so disciplined, focusing his energies on trying to prolong his life and be productive. It was just the way we lived.)

When I realized how few of us felt we did enough for our dying mates or hadn’t done it right, I came to the conclusion that in these situations there is no “right.” There is just “do.”

A couple of days ago I learned something about twitter (or rather, it seemed to click and I finally got it), but hash marks are used for tagging a post or for categorizing it. I hash marked grief before I posted a blog (#grief) and ended up getting an influx of readers to my blog (including a woman whose life mate/soul mate died the same day as mine, a woman who is facing her grief the same way I am, a woman who makes comments that sound exactly like what I would have written).

Astounded by this turn of events, I began to form the thought that if only I had known about the hash marks, I could have reached more people with my grief blogs, but the “if only” died in wordbirth. I couldn’t even think it. I realized then, I’d burnt up all my “if only”s. I had none left. Not one of my “if only”s had changed a single moment of his dying. Not one “if only” could change what had already happened. And not one ever would.

One of my sisters in sorrow uses this tagline line at the end of her emails, which I always marveled at because the sentiment seemed so positive compared to the horror of the grief she was living:

Perhaps it is true. And if the universe is unfolding as it should, there is no place for “if only,” so it’s just as well I burned all my “if only”s behind me.

15 Responses to “Burning My “If Only”s Behind Me”

  1. Antigone's Clamor Says:

    A beautiful post! It really made me think more seriously about the “if only”s I hold onto.

  2. Rod Marsden Says:

    If only can be pretty tough. I was probably the last of my family to come to terms with my mother actually dying in hospital. One of the last things I gave her was a miniature tea pot to cheer her up. Inside there was a little flower made out of the same material as the rest of the pot. I don’t know if it really did cheer her up but she was a collector. Generally speaking collectors are always cheered up by new editions to their collections. Besides, at the time I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I even thought presents from me would somehow keep her safe but it didn’t work simply because it was never meant to work. Sometimes I wonder if I could have been a better son but that particular what if gets you no where fast.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Rod, but you did what you could. It was a thoughtful gift, and I’m sure it brought her comfort. We can all be better. I suppose the only way to deal with such “if only”s is to try to make it up to someone else who might need a thoughtful gesture.

  3. Holly Bonville Says:

    We all have the “if onlys”. I deal with them by reminding myself what Jake would say..”It is what it is”. That one statement has gotten me through a lot.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Holly, I’ve been telling myself that — it is what it is. Can’t change what is. I’m sorry for both of us that we learned such a terrible lesson in the worst way possible.

  4. Joy Collins Says:

    My John’s favorite saying was “Things are happening the way they are supposed to.” It’s hard but when things get really tough, I hang onto that.

  5. joylene Says:

    I left a reply yesterday, but it didn’t stick. Not enough glue, maybe. Anyway, I’m wondering if the feeling that something bad is going to happen ever goes away?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I saw your comment this morning, Joylene, and I’ve been thinking about it all day. I don’t know if that feeling ever goes away. Maybe it’s just one more of those things we get used to and find some comfort/happiness/peace despite it.

  6. Yosis Says:

    Pat,
    I love this post of yours. Ever since I was a teen (many, many, many years ago!), the Desiderata has remained one of my most favorite, most treasured, most re-visited pieces of writing. “And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should” has instilled a calm inside of me more times than I can count. And when life starts to seem or look or feel too bleak, I try to remember: “With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world….”

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      The trouble is, I can’t believe it. If the universe is unflolding as it should, then it means it was right and proper for J. to have suffered and died young (relatively), and that is something I cannot and never will accept.

      • leesis Says:

        No, I don’t think the terms ‘right’ and ‘proper’ relate to anyone suffering Pat. We haven’t figured this stuff out yet. The why of death and suffering remains unanswered (no offense to those with religious and atheist faiths). But I do know that by continuing to ask questions we find answers.

        There is sense in the idea that we have a finite view of a potentially infinite universe/reality. For me that simply means I don’t have to get impatient with what I don’t know yet (though I am impatient…wanting to know it ALL NOW please), I just have to keep searching.

        Oh and Hope? I think it’s an empowering word particularly when hope is a verb.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          I always thought he was my teacher/companion during my journey into truth, and after his death, I wondered if I would find someone to be a companion on this next leg. It seems as if there won’t be a single companion, but many, perhaps one after the other. Thank you, Leesa, for accompanying me on this leg of my quest for truth. You are right, we just have to keep searching.


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