Barry Schwartz taught me not to use counterfactuals. All those ‘what ifs’ that manipulate our past just don’t work for a happy mind—there’s an obvious counterproductivity to dwelling on impossibilities instead of focusing on what is and what can be. “What if I hadn’t said that,” “what if she liked me,” “what if Dad hadn’t called, so I didn’t forget to set the oven-timer, so I didn’t have to wave a rag in front of the smoke alarm, so I made it to the SEPTA on time, so I didn’t miss my plane home”—counterfactuals are a dangerous rabbit hole of the mind.
For me, counterfactuals are insidious because they feel so necessary—like playing through every possible scenario will somehow give me control over a situation. When unchecked I churn away at them, gathering bouquets of beautiful alternatives that I then feel I have to keep because, well, they’re beautiful. But I’ve gotten better at recognizing those thought patterns as they bud and bloom. I can usually check myself and dismiss nagging alternate realities before they take root and entice me with their fractal-like tendrils of possibility.
Except maybe there are exceptions. I don’t want to eschew the expert’s advice, but I’ve been confused by moments when counterfactuals are powerful in ways that aren’t purely destructive. While the vast majority of what ifs that circulate through my mind are energy drains that get me nowhere or worse, there are a few big What Ifs that help me really dig into what’s on my mind, focusing instead of dispersing me.
This takes a little explanation.
My mom died when I was in high school, and she’s still constantly on my mind. There’s some awareness of her that’s just always, always there, that has become an essential part of me. It’s dynamic though. Strangely enough, after four years without her, my thoughts focus more on presence than absence. The sweeping loneliness I used to feel is slowly converting to a sense of quiet accompaniment. In the music of my life, she’s a quiet harmony, supporting and filling in.
But there are still times when Mom’s supposed to take a solo, and the music swells, but there’s just silence. The musicians dart glances at each other, but no one knows the melody, no one can step up to fill in. This vast emptiness opens up, this complete and total and obvious lack. It’s hard to know what to do with it. The typical advice I’ve heard is to quietly ride it out until music fills back in: to let it be. And while that sounds like the healthy and mature thing to do, sometimes it just feels wrong.
I think anger is a huge part of grief. When my mom died, she was really, really sick and had been for a long time. When someone you love so limitlessly is showing you so much suffering, her release from that is a relief. In the following months, I could hold onto the rightness of that moment of release to calm myself. It was such a powerful solace at the time that I sort of skipped over anger. But now there’s a distance that stops me from being able to make sense of things the way I once could; sometimes all I want is to feel seething anger.
I have this intense desire for anger and need a place to put it. In those moments, “what if Mom had never gotten sick?” seems like a really great question. It gives me something tangible to put my anger on instead of trying to squash it or letting it bounce around in my head in an amorphous blob.
The only way to avoid counterfactuals would be to focus my anger on something that does exist in my world now, which seems unhealthier. For me, relegating that anger to What Ifs, to things I can’t push over onto any part of reality, is preferable to blowing up at friends “for no reason” or picking fights with people who talk proudly about how their loved ones are “fighters” and therefore survived cancer.
So in those moments, when the music swells to nothing, instead of trying to restore peace and okayness, I can allow myself to admit that sometimes this really just isn’t okay for me. Instead of generally feeling like things aren’t okay in the world and having that bubble up in unexpected places, I can wonder what it would be like if Mom had never gotten sick and what it would be like to have her now, and explore the deepness of that hurt. And I can get angry, really, really angry. And then when I have felt what I am trying to feel, when I am satisfied that my connection to the immediacy of a person who now often feels far off is still there, I can reign back. I can come back to the here and now and exist better in the here and now for having done that.
I wonder if counterfactuals can be tools that, in the right context, have some use to them.
I worry that I am wrong to think this way, that allowing myself these mental loopholes is damaging my long-term mental health. But I have to remind myself that this is what is true to me in the here and now, that for the time being, digging into the right What If feels productive and important and provides an outlet for things that I otherwise find it very hard to release.
And I have to remember that this is not a controlled experiment—there is no duplicate grieving Yvonne that can try different ways of coping and report back. At this point, the only way to delve into my worries is with a “What if I had never used counterfactuals?,” and that’s a mess I’ve learned not to get into.
By Yvonne Socolar
Speak2Swatties is Swarthmore’s student-run peer counseling and mental health advocacy organization. Speak2Swatties is confidential. Speak to one of our peer counselors in person or call our hotline at 765-727-0555.