questions in bubbles

Dealing with the “What Ifs” of Life

 January 19, 2023

Over the holidays I ran into the husband of a friend of mine who had died years ago. While catching up I mentioned that my daughter was working for a hospital computer software company. He remarked, if only the local hospital had had that software years ago, maybe his wife would be alive now. What if she were still alive? This got me thinking, how do we deal with the “what ifs” of life?

Life is Full of “What Ifs”

There are many “what ifs” of life. What if you had stayed in your hometown and married your high school sweetheart instead of going off to college in another state? What if you had pursued your dreams of being a starving artist rather than settling on a business degree and the security it provided? Or what if you had taken an economically safer course of studies instead of studying acting? What if you had taken that job offer in New York or Los Angeles rather than staying closer to home? What if you hadn’t gone out that rainy night and ended up in a collision? So many possibilities. Or, as in the case of my friend, what if the ER doctor had told her or her own doctor about the small spot on her lungs before it became a much bigger, life-threatening one?

One Woman’s Story

My friend had gone to the ER with chest pains. After the tests that are part of most ER visits, she was given a clean bill of health. Years later when another episode brought her back to the ER, the ER doctor mentioned that the spot on her lung had grown.

“What spot?” She and her husband had questioned. Then ensued years of cancer treatment and finally death. It was a medical malpractice suit waiting to happen, but my friend, a retired chaplain from the same hospital and a Christian who practiced her faith, chose not to pursue legal retaliation for the mistake on the part of the hospital’s doctors. Instead, she and her husband worked with the hospital to set up procedures to help ensure this would not happen again.

Still, if that first spot had been reported, she might be alive today. The world was deprived of these extra years with this gifted and kind woman, a chaplain and a spiritual director. I couldn’t help but wonder, what if she had lived? How many more lives would she have touched?

Dealing with the Grief Associated with “What Ifs”

So how do you deal with the “what ifs” of life? Do you ignore them, powering on? Or do you dwell on them, becoming fixated on what might have been? Being stuck in the past is not helpful. Many recommend that we not dwell on these what ifs. However, behind every what if lies grief, sorrow about what had happened or had not happened. What ifs of life need to be grieved like other losses. It won’t change the past, but it will give you the opportunity to recognize what you had lost.

I grieve not only the loss of my friend, but all that could have happened had she been given more years of life. I grieve that she is not around to be part of the newly formed spiritual direction school using the Enneagram where I’m teaching. She had been an early proponent of the Enneagram and would have loved being part of this.

Acknowledge the Loss then Move On

Perhaps you grieve lost opportunities. For every opportunity chosen, there are others that are left behind. There is a shelf-life on some of our desires. While not impossible to pursue a dream to be a doctor at fifty, it is harder. The time required by medical school and residencies will leave you with limited years to practice. If you dream of the Olympics or being a professional athlete, you need to dedicate your early years to that pursuit. There is a time limit to how long our bodies can withstand the abuse often associated with these career options.

After you acknowledge the loss, appreciate what you have. Because you moved out of state to college, maybe you met your husband. Maybe the marriage didn’t last but gave you two beautiful children. Because you majored in accounting instead of art, you are now financially stable and able to pursue your dreams in retirement. Maybe you can’t be a doctor, but you can be a medical assistant or a nurse practitioner and serve others this way. Maybe you can’t enter the Olympics or be a professional basketball player, but you can enjoy running in your spare time or playing basketball (or pickleball) with friends.

So how do you deal with the “what ifs” of life? Acknowledge the loss and appreciate what you have. Life is too short to dwell too long in the past, but also too short to repress our grief.

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