Welcome to The Widowed Mom Podcast, episode 209, Counterfactual Thinking in Grief.
Welcome to The Widowed Mom Podcast, the only podcast that offers a proven process to help you work through your grief, to grow, evolve, and create a future you can truly look forward to. Here’s your host, Master Certified life coach, grief expert, widow, and mom, Krista St-Germain.
Hey there, welcome to another episode of the podcast. I’ve been meaning to do an episode on counterfactual thinking for a while and I’m glad I’m finally getting to it because I think it’s important. You want to understand it and I want you to know how to deal with it. So that’s what we’re going to talk about. We’re going to talk about what it is, why we do it, two main reasons. And then three things that you can do when you notice it happening to you which you probably will or have because it’s very common in grief.
So before we jump into that a couple of things. Thank you, thank you, thank you for those of you who left podcast reviews as a birthday present for me. Last week I turned 48 on Saturday. And thank you so much for those of you who left a review. If you haven’t, I would love it if you did. It’s my mission to get this podcast out to as many widowed moms as possible. And when you rate and review the podcast, especially review it, not only does it help me know what you like about the podcast, but for some reason it makes the algorithm more responsive and send it to more people.
So if you haven’t reviewed it or rated it, I would love it if you did. And then also I’m so excited. I get to travel again. I went to Spain to see my daughter in April, Greece in early May to be with some of my coach friends. And coming up here in a couple of days we’re going to the Dominican Republic which I’ve never been to. And that will be our family vacation, so me, my partner and my two kids and one of his two kids. The other one is working and he’s just too cool to travel with us anymore, but at least the three kids and he and I are going to go and enjoy a little Vrbo.
Found a condo right on the beach, super affordable which I love, good internet because I’ll probably do a couple of calls while I’m there and nice restaurants around. And we’re just going to chill out and relax. So really looking forward to that so, so very much.
Okay, so let’s talk about counterfactual thinking in grief. You may have already heard the term, this might be a refresher for you, it’s still a very important subject. So counterfactual thinking is essentially when our minds imagine alternative scenarios, these alternative outcomes, things that could have happened if only something had been different. Basically it’s when we think about all of the would have, could have, should have and if only things that could have happened in the past that somehow would have resulted in our spouse not dying, our person not dying.
It is not logical. It doesn’t make sense. We know intellectually that probably when we investigate those thoughts that there really isn’t much merit there, but still we think them. And they might look like, if only I had called the doctor earlier. If only I had noticed that they said they were depressed or if only I had noticed that they seemed a little off to me. If only I hadn’t left the hospital room when I did.
If only I had, in my case, insisted we call AAA. I had that line of counterfactual thinking for quite a long time, if only I had just said, “No, you cannot change the tire, it’s not safe, this is why we pay AAA.” And I had just put my foot down, if only I had done that, or if only I had checked that tire before we went on the trip. If only I had made sure there was enough air in it or if only I had pulled up further on the highway to a part of the highway where it was a little less dangerous or maybe had a wider shoulder on the highway.
All of those thoughts about the past and usually they have ‘if only’ in them or ‘I should have’ in them. And that if we had done them we get to live under the illusion that it would have been differently, it could have been differently. So that’s what it is. And it’s a very common experience for people who are in grief. It’s very natural. It does not mean there’s anything wrong with you. So that’s what it is.
Now, let’s talk about why it happens. And I think there’s kind of two main reasons. So some people argue that it’s the brain’s way of learning from past mistakes and figuring out how to avoid death in the future. But I actually think it’s more about making ourselves feel better because when we’re focusing on the past, what that means is that we get to avoid in a way what’s in the present.
So if we’re feeling terrible in this present moment, if we’re not sure how we’re going to get through the day, if the pain is super intense, the yearning is intense, the longing is intense. What feels like we have in our present moment is something we really don’t want because it feels awful to us. Then it makes complete sense that we might distract ourselves in a way with something that feels less intense which is counterfactual thinking. And even though it’s not incredibly logical, it does stand to reason that for most of us and I’ll just say this for humans in general, we don’t like powerlessness.
We don’t like accepting that things happen and we can’t control them. And in fact if you look at the emotional scale, where all the emotions are essentially lined up top to bottom in order of their desirability versus undesirability, powerless is at the very bottom. Humans don’t like to feel powerless.
Now, we don’t particularly like the experience of guilt either but if we are experiencing guilt it actually prevents us from experiencing powerlessness. Because with guilt we have the illusion of control whether we’re feeling guilty because we’re thinking counterfactually and if only-ing ourselves to how we are the cause of what happened. Or if it is an if only about someone else where we’re blaming them. We’re angry with them. We have the illusion that either we had control or they had control. But someone had control.
Versus being able to accept that it was always going to happen this way and that there was nothing we could have done about it. And it really was something that we were and are powerless to control. So yes, it is illogical. Yes, we could argue that counterfactual thinking is a complete waste of time, but I don’t find that to be true. I believe that it really is an effort for us to avoid the present pain that we’re experiencing and to somehow give ourselves the illusion of control and avoid that feeling of powerlessness.
Now, if we got a bunch of grief professionals in a room together and we’re all discussing it, everybody might have different opinions. These are just mine. So that’s what it is. That’s why it happens. Now, what to do when it happens. I’m going to offer you three things. The first is just name it and normalize it. And what that looks like is this is the part where my brain offers me some counterfactual thoughts. It’s totally okay. I don’t need to change this because it’s just my brain doing what brains sometimes do in grief, this is just the part where you name it and normalize it.
We don’t actually need to change this, you all. We don’t need to worry about the thoughts. We don’t need to criticize ourselves for having these thoughts. We don’t need to try to disprove these thoughts. Just name what’s happening and normalize it for yourself. That’s one.
Number two is practice some self-compassion, especially in the way that you speak to yourself. And so that might look like, dang, this is hard and I’m doing it. I love you. This is hard. We’re doing it. Well, I always tend to talk to myself like a third person. So however you talk to yourself, it doesn’t really matter but let it be a compassionate voice. This is hard, you’re doing it. I love you. You’ve got this. It’s like how I talk to you on the podcast.
And the third thing and I think this is actually the most important in terms of long term responses to counterfactual thinking. The most important thing you can do is to develop the muscle of being able to let that pain that is in the present moment flow through you. Because when you develop that muscle, when the pain can come through you and just like water through a screen, flow on through, that’s when we no longer need to escape it by thinking counterfactually in the first place.
That’s when illogical thoughts are not necessary because we’ve developed the muscle of being able to let the pain of the present moment flow through. So yes, name it, normalize it, practice self-compassion and most importantly can we learn a different way so that our pain becomes a normal part of our grief experience. A normal part of our human experience because while this might be the most painful thing we have in the present moment it will not be the only pain we experience.
And if we can learn to allow it now we can leverage that later and we can look back and say, “Yeah, I am good at handling challenging emotions. I am good at letting feelings flow through me. Feelings are not problems that I need to solve because I’m good at letting them flow through.” That’s one of the main things I teach in Mom Goes On. Also if you’re new to the podcast and you’re looking for more information, go listen to episode number three, How to Feel Better Now. And that will get you headed in the right direction.
Okay. So counterfactual thinking, very common in grief. We don’t need to worry about it. We don’t need to argue with it. We don’t need to logic our way through it. We just name it and normalize it, practice some self-compassion and then most importantly, develop that muscle of being able to let the pain of the present moment flow through so we don’t even need to escape it.
Alright, shorter episode than normal, hopefully exactly what some of you needed to hear. I love you. You’ve got this. Take care and I’ll see you next week. Bye bye.
If you like what you’ve been hearing on this podcast and want to create a future you can truly get excited about after the loss of your spouse, I invite you to join my Mom Goes On coaching program. It’s small group coaching just for widowed moms like you where I’ll help you figure out what’s holding you back and give you the tools and support you need so you can move forward with confidence.
Please don’t settle for a new normal that’s less than you deserve. Go to coachingwithkrista.com and click work with me for details and the next steps. I can’t wait to meet you.