Grieving What Could Have Been

The holidays are in full swing and the New Year is quickly approaching, making this a great time to reflect on our lives and decide what we want to change moving forward. The posts about New Year’s Resolutions have already started. From finances to career changes, advice on moving forward runs rampant this time of year, but for some of us it can be hard to move past what could have been. 

Whether it’s the end of a relationship, the loss of a loved one, or a major layoff, it can be easy to get preoccupied with wishing the past away. Unfortunately, wishing doesn’t erase the past, it only makes dealing with the present even more difficult. Dwelling on what could have been can also foster resentment and anger, while also allowing present opportunities to pass us by. 

Accepting What Is

As hard as it can be, accepting our current reality is the key to moving forward. Radical Acceptance is the practice of accepting this moment exactly as it is without trying to change it. This is the first step in letting go of the past and moving toward a life that may not be what we thought it should be, but embraces what is and what could be. Once we accept our present reality, we can begin to grieve what we had hoped for. 

Radical Acceptance doesn’t eliminate grief. Grief is inherent in any loss and ignoring it can keep us tied to the past. Grieving what we wanted can be cleansing. It helps us acknowledge the end of relationships, careers, and lives, opening up space for hope and love. Without grieving what we lost, we cannot move forward to a brighter future. The loss will always be with us, nothing can change that, but it doesn’t have to ruin our lives. 

Grieving the Loss of Things Hoped For

Our society has rituals for the loss of a life. When someone who has been living and walking in our lives passes on, we have a funeral, luncheon, memorial service, and permission to grieve. Other losses, such as a career or relationship ending, aren’t supported in the same way. The lack of a ritual for saying goodbye to relationships, jobs, careers, fertility, or unrealized dreams can cause the loss to feel incomplete. 

In these cases closure generally isn’t possible in the same sense as when someone passes away. Chasing true closure after a breakup, lay-off, rejection, or loss can do more damage if we’re expecting that closure from another person; however, creating our own ritual can provide a sense of closure for these events and help us move forward into a new, unimagined future. 

Building Blocks of a Ritual

Building our own ritual can be a fun, and freeing activity. You might be picturing dark cloaks, full moons, and forest glades, but rituals can be very simple activities. Rituals are a part of every religion and spirituality, but you don’t have to be religious to observe a ritual. 

The first building block of a ritual is subject matter. What are you looking to say good-bye to? Are you grieving a job, career, relationship, or your fertility? Journaling can help define the subject matter. For instance, did you get rejected by your top choice school or did your partner break up with you?

The next building block is an item that the ritual can center around. For careers or jobs, you can choose something that is symbolic of the occupation. The easiest thing to do is to find a picture of an object related to the occupation. A calculator for accounting or finance, for instance. You could also take a book you know you won’t use again, such as the MCAT study guide.

Now that you have the subject matter and an object, it’s time to think about what you will do during the ritual. Lots of people choose to burn things, as fire is cleansing, but you might not want to destroy the item you’ve chosen. Rejection letters, goodbye notes, severance packages, these are all things that you may want, or need, to keep for personal or legal reasons. If you’re a religious person you may want to pray over the item, bless it, or put it in a display with other meaningful items. You can also physically embrace the item as a symbol of embracing the end of that vision for your future. Whatever you do, it should be meaningful to you as well as practical enough to preserve the item as needed. 

Finally, you want to decide when, where, and with whom you want to observe the ritual. Including others in your ritual can help by providing support for the loss you have experienced. The literal representation that we are not alone simply because this one part of our life has ended can help us make big strides towards accepting the end of and releasing our connection to what could have been.

Letting Go

If you find you’re having trouble letting go of something that has ended, seek out therapy to help you process the experience and move forward. Any kind of loss can be traumatic and cause pain, there is no loss too small for a therapist to help us with. Therapy can help us process the many parts of our lives affected by the ending we’ve experienced as well as define a new future to work towards. 

I hope this has helped you learn more about grieving what could have been. And if you’d love to know more about ambiguous loss and how to let go of unrealized dreams, our team of therapists at Authentic Connections Counseling Center in Castle Rock, Colorado is here to support you. You can book a session by calling 720-370-3010 x100 or emailing us at