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The Dangerous Game of Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

March 7th, 2011 | 6 comments

“Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves – regret for the past and fear of the future.” ~Fulton Oursler~

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” ~Alexander Graham Bell~

It’s a two quote kind of day.

Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda.

If I can be completely honest, those three fabricated words drive me nuts. Those three words are actually what is wrong with the world these days. We keep looking back hoping to fix what’s in front of us. Shortly after Stephen died, a person said those words to me. This person said, “I know you must be playing the woulda, coulda, shoulda game right now.”

Yes, it is true, someone actually said that.

My reply? “No, actually I am not. Even though I wish things could be different, I would not change the way I loved my son, nor would I expect him to have loved me any differently than he so beautifully did. If something happened to someone you love tomorrow, I hope you could say the same thing.”

Was I a perfect parent? No. Was he a perfect child? I think so, but I suppose I may be slightly biased. But woulda, coulda, shoulda? Really? I was absolutely stunned that someone would say this to a mother who was grieving the recent loss of her child. Speechless, and let’s face it. That does not happen to me very often.

This statement, early in my grief, shocked me. I just didn’t see it coming. The person did not see the error in saying it. It was almost as if it was a given for her, a natural process in her own life to look back over her shoulder and “play the game”, revisiting your actions and the actions of others with a focus on regret, blame and shame. Looking to the past in the hopes that reflection can somehow change the reality that you are facing in the present.

But we all know you can’t erase or change the past. So why do we spend so much time trying to do just that?

It never works. It can’t. Looking back does one thing. It keeps you stuck. You cannot move forward as long as you are trying to affect change on the unchangeable. And how far do you plan on going back? To your most recent mistake? How about college? Hell, if we are playing the game, why not go back to that unfortunate incident in the third grade? If this game really worked, we would all spend our today’s fixing our yesterdays.

Now, that is not to say that you can never look back and reflect on your life lessons in an attempt to improve yourself for the days and years ahead. That is a good thing. It is also not to say that you will never make any mistakes. No matter how great you live, you will always be imperfect by design. I am cringing right now thinking about some of my own “cringe-worthy” moments on my journey to now.

You also can’t change the past for someone else. Many times, when we hurt, we look to the past, and say, “If she didn’t do that to me, I could be happy.”

Okay, but she did. And unless you are Marty McFly with a DeLorean and a mad scientist for a friend, you can’t go back and change it. So what now?

Look back to learn. Don’t look back to lament. You can only change your now.

So, today:

    • Wipe the slate clean.


  • Give yourself permission to be imperfect. Everyone else does.



  • Make peace with the fact that no relationship will ever have perfect closure. Whether it is death, divorce, break up, or firing. It will never be the perfect script you write after the fact. And that’s okay. That’s how you learn.



  • Know that you only ever have power to improve upon the present.



  • Distance yourself from any toxic emotional vampires who tell you that you should play the game of woulda, coulda, shoulda.



  • Promise yourself you are done playing that game. No more. Refocus yourself on the now. It will take work at first, but keep trying. It will happen.



  • Imagine what your loved one would say to you. For me, I think about that chat with Stephen. I think he tells me daily to take all the love I have for him in my heart and give it away to those who need it.


Wipe the slate clean. You deserve to be happy.

Have a clean chalkboard kind of day,


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6 people have commented
  1. Kelly,First, I love the idea of this blog. Sharing your own coping and pain is such a lovely gift. And this post is amazing. I just felt my heart expand as I read it. I just wrote recently about the unhelpful things that people say when we are in pain.I'll be passing this one along.Warmly,Ann

  2. This has helped me and many others. I lost my son Danny on July 1, 2008 to an overdose. He was 22. In dedication to him I formed The Prayer Registry for parents who have lost children.This free website service is dedicated to all of the families who have lost children, whatever age that child was when they passed. This site registers the anniversary day of our children's crossing. The members of this online community, the Prayer Team, have the opportunity to honor their child's legacy and connect with other bereaved parents to participate in world-wide group prayer for every registered loved one on the anniversary day of their passing. To learn more see my website: To register a child for prayer, email Sheri at [email protected]. I need only your child’s full name along with the date that he or she passed to ensure that your child receives prayer every year on the anniversary day of his or her passing.

  3. You make an excellent point, but I find it interesting that you seem to have a lot of anger towards the "toxic emotional vampire" who made that comment to you.In giving ourselves permission to be imperfect, I think we also need to extend that same permission to those around us, to recognize good intentions even when a friend says the opposite of what we feel we need to hear or does the opposite of what we wish they would do.

  4. Thank you for the thoughtful comments to this blog. To respond to anonymous, I actually don't feel anger towards this person, and was not describing the individual personally when I used the term emotional vampire. It was more in a general sense, so I am sorry you may have interpreted it in that way.I was bothered by the comment, and it was upsetting, but the true emotion for me towards the comment and the person was sadness. I feel sad that some feel life has to be that way.The use of the term emotional vampire is one that has been used by others as well when writing about negativity. I have often said in my blog that my choice to be happy is a daily struggle, and one of the ways I stay on track in distancing myself from individuals or groups who, through words or actions, affect my ability to see the good in life. It is not to say they are wrong. It is simply a way of thinking I find difficult to be around since losing Stephen.I do realize we are all imperfect and that is okay, but also know we sometimes have to protect ourselves when our hearts are hurting. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it.

  5. I have enjoyed looking through your blog and reading about your journey and your insights. It is a beautiful tribute to your son and family!You're so right about regret and living in the past and trying to 'fix' the past, which is now only 'memory.'One thought I had about the comment from your friend — perhaps he or she meant to say it in compassion — to let you know that if you were feeling regret for anything, it was a natural response that's easy to fall into.Your tips for today are very wise and apply to many situations. I have not lost a child, but I have a son with disabilities, and all of your tips were a useful reminder for me. I look forward to following your blog! Louise

  6. HelloThank you for this blog. I am struggling against those three words and your reminder to me how futile that is is helpful. I have a feeling I will read it everyday for a while. I have not lost my child. He is only three years old but it has been a difficult couple of years realizing his seizures and disabilities in every area . I am so sorry for your loss and very grateful that you have chosen to share so' much because although our situations are so different I still find inspiration and comfort in your words.Thank youAndrea

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