“I should have known…”: Understanding Hindsight Bias in Grief

People have a natural tendency to sift through the ashes of tragedy in search of explanations. To quote Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl,

“Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.”

The search for sense in the seemingly senseless is one of the most valuable, and instinctual, coping skills a person can employ in the face of hardship. The idea that life and death is random creates a dissonance so sharp one simply can’t allow it to linger; so you search…and you sift…and you piece irreparably broken things back together, desperate for it all to make sense.

It’s common to ask questions after a loved one dies, because sometimes you want answers. You may look into your memory and ask questions like…

“Why did this happen?”

“How could this have happened?”

“Could I have seen this coming?”

And through a shattered but enlightened lens, you suddenly see the signs. You see things you could have done differently, you see turning points, and you say to yourself…

“I should have done something”

“I should have known.”

“I knew.”

It may be hard for you to believe, because you now know how things turned out, but in the past you really didn’t know as much as you think you knew. You may have worried or had your suspicions, but you didn’t know. Or if you knew, the things you think you could have done differently weren’t quite as obvious to you then as they seem now. The reason I know this is because you are looking at things in hindsight, and hindsight is biased.

hindsight bias

Hindsight bias is a normal and common psychological phenomenon that causes people to believe that past outcomes were predictable. When looking at events after the outcome is known, people have a tendency to notice information that is consistent with what they now know to be true. The same tendency causes them to ignore neutral or contradictory evidence, so that when a person goes to piece together a meaningful narrative, as people are wont to do, they often wind up with a story that goes – this was the beginning, here were the signs, here’s where things went wrong, the end.

For some, it is comforting to create a narrative that brings order to the confusing chaos of death and grief, and many people find reassuring answers to questions like “why?” “what went wrong?” “could it have been changed?” and “what could have been done differently?”  Others, on the other hand, are left with a narrative that causes them to feel unpleasant things like guilt, blame, shame, regret, and personal-responsibility.

If you’re still with me, let’s throw one more concept into the mix.  In search of meaning and in an effort to construct a narrative around one’s experiences, people often engage in counterfactual thinking.  Counterfactual thinking is thinking things like ‘What if?” and “What might have been?”. It is the act of coming up with alternative outcomes that are counter to (or different than) the facts.  Many times our counterfactual thinking follows an “if-then” pattern.  Some examples:

“If I hadn’t slept late, I wouldn’t have missed the bus.”

“If I had gone to that party like I wanted, then I wouldn’t have aced my math test.”

Researchers Kray et all (2010) note that counterfactual thinking is actually, “an essential feature of healthy cognitive and social functioning and also a ubiquitous part of life.”  While they acknowledge that this type of thinking can certainly lead to negative thoughts and emotions like guilt and regret, they also suggest that counterfactual thinking can lead to positive emotions like relief and gratitude.

In grief, though, one can see how counterfactual thinking could have negative implications when combined with hindsight bias. Through a narrative constructed using hindsight bias, one can easily see the part they play in various counterfactual realities.  Knowing what they now know, one might come to believe that if they had been paying attention or if they had acted differently then a better counterfactual reality might actually be reality. Some examples:

“If I had been paying attention, then I would have noticed that my mother was sick and urged her to go to the doctor.”

“If I hadn’t gone to work that day, then I would have been home and could have prevented the accident.”

“If I hadn’t been so caught up in my own life, then I could have gotten him the help he needed.”

“If I hadn’t left her bedside when I did, then I would have been with her when she died.”

This is one of those instances where I hope that simply knowing how your tricky brain works helps you to take a step back and reassess your narrative. However, we’ve written a few articles in the past that I think may be particularly helpful to anyone struggling with feelings like guilt, regret, and blame.

Guilt vs Regret in Grief

Guilt and Grief: Coping with the coulda, woulda, shouldas

Love Your Regret

Seeking Order in the Aftermath of Loss

Grief and Forgiveness

Grief and Self-Forgiveness

64 Thoughts on Individual Worth and Forgiveness

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COMMENTS

gloria

Posted on February 9, 2017 at 4:54 pm

Oh yes, this is a biggy, and so very hard to get past, the coulda, woulda, shouldas. I am not sure I will ever. My daughter, Laura, (28yo) struggled for 10 years with her diabetes, eating disorder, and alcohol. After 19 months now, I now feel like I did not take her issues serious enough. What was I thinking? I know what I was thinking. That she would be okay. Because she always recovered from whatever. Except she didn’t, and my sweet girl is no longer here. Thank you Ladies, for this article, time for me to go back and read some of the past excellent articles on this topic.

On another note, I got my first tattoo, it’s for Laura! It’s her signature with a tiny cardinal, on my wrist! ♥ I love it and it makes me so happy to look at her writing, on me, every day! Maybe a topic for the future. 🙂 ♥

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Doug Ebbert

Posted on February 9, 2017 at 5:35 pm

This articulates exactly what I’ve lived with every day for that past three years since losing my only son. Knowing that there was a way that he could have survived will always haunt me. Thanks Eleanor

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Suzanne

Posted on February 11, 2017 at 6:32 am

Gloria
My feelings exactly
My son had emotional issues and serious drug addictions
I took him seriously for 14 years but he survived all of it so at the end I thought it was just another time and I backed off
From “fixing” him..to let him work on himself
Well that time was not another round of survival for him
But how are we as parents to know that when they keep dodging that bullet that there will be a day they don’t?
Hindsight I felt that I should have known
But I remind myself that had I known then he would lose one last attempt at getting high
I didn’t know what I didn’t know as the saying goes
I’m heartbroken but being gentle with myself because I know I would have stepped in had I known he was in such bad shape at the end

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Barbara

Posted on March 6, 2017 at 3:38 pm

My husband died in 1998 from Huntington’s disease a genetic disease that we knew nothing about. He was sick for over 10 years. Your article was so helpful. Unfortunately, each child of a parent with this disease has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the disease. We had two beautiful daughters and both of them have the disease. They are now in the late stages of this tragic illness which is described as Alzheimer’s,Parkinson’s and ALS combined. Unfortunately I live far away from both of them. They each have families and of course their children are at risk as well. Until I read your article I did not realize what I was feeling or that others were feeling the same. Thank you for your understanding. My youngest daughter will be entering a nursing home in a few months and due to the degenerative nature of the illness she will not come home. She is 37.

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Janet

Posted on February 11, 2017 at 1:35 am

Brilliant article, I can identify with all that is said.

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Vivienne

Posted on February 11, 2017 at 8:48 pm

This is so spot on. It’s been two years since I lost my dad after 3 years of illness without diagnosis. I have four big “if I had” issues. If I had been around more, I’d have noticed sooner he was sick. If I had fought the Dr’s more we would have had a diagnosis sooner which might have helped his quality of life. If I had paid attention more, I would have realised how close to the end we were at Christmas and made the effort to go down for his birthday in January. And the biggest, If I had only not gone for a sleep (after 3 days and nights in a chair by his bed) or at least if I had got up at 9am when my alarm went off and gone back to the hospital, I would have been there when he died.

Two years later and I’m still haunted by these.

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sue

Posted on February 28, 2017 at 3:41 pm

my greatest regret is that i was exhausted , over my limit trying to juggle 6 kids as my husband was dying from metastatic lung cancer … the hospice folk tried every which way to get me to stay .. i just couldn’t … he died without me about 6 hours later … it haunts me … it haunts me … it haunts me ….

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Carol

Posted on February 19, 2017 at 3:03 am

Me too. I am haunted by what I could’ve done to save my dad. I keep replaying the last year of his life. Time went so fast. But I did not recognize he was dying. I thought he was just being a grumpy old man and I took our time together for granted. I was responsible for caring for him. I feel like I failed him. I failed to save him. I regret not being there on the last day of his life. He was alone in the hospital when he died. And all he wanted to do was go home and I didn’t even honor that.

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Brandy

Posted on February 20, 2017 at 1:49 am

I can understand how easy it would be to give our minds the power to always think about the what if”s, my mother was crossing the street, she had made it half way when a car hit her, she died 30 minutes later, it was my birthday, but I look at the situation differently because my mother had finally stopped drinking after 22 years of battling that demon she had been sober for 2 months when she died. After she died I found her monthly planner, under each Saturday in Sept and Oct she had wrote ND {no drinking} and a happy face was drawn next to it. Although her death was sudden and I miss her so much, I do not give power to the what if’s because if I did I would have to ask myself what if she lived and could not fight her demon (alcohol)? It is so much more comforting for me to know that she will never have to fight that battle again, it was hell for her, now she has the peace she should’ve had here. The questions that run thru my head are how far did she fly when the car hit her because it knocked off her shoes and a sock and her walkman was located so far from her body that initially the police did not realize it belonged to her, was she in pain, was she aware she was dying, these are the questions that I can not get away from.

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Kimberly

Posted on February 21, 2017 at 11:48 am

I find that the what ifs are so paralyzing that they keep me from doing EXACTLY what I need to do , which is be in the moment…be more present, connect, don’t let depression steal hope and joy…
My mom lived with me after the death of her husband. She lived with depression…that I could not understand and that I found myself fighting to keep it out of my home… I could not. I became angry and frustrated with circumstances that I had no control over. In that I stepped back from being responsible for others… as no one else felt the need to be there and I was exhausted. I was encouraged to stop being an enabler.. 2015..my college son had a depressive episode, returned home.. my brother in law,died in motorcycle accident..and my mom was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer stage 3..and died in 6 months time. “What if” is the quicksand that I live in everyday.😟

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Mona

Posted on March 5, 2017 at 10:57 pm

My biggest what ifs …. if I had only followed my gut and asked my son what was wrong that last night when he stood in the kitchen in the shadows and didn’t turn on the lights; if only I had told him l loved him one last time that final morning; if only I had noticed that he had given up caring about his weight.

But then I ask myself, Would anything I said have made a difference? It became clear after the fact that he had been planning his death and making his to-do lists. He was determined. But I still wonder…what if?

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