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September 23, 2020 Beyond The Dash

Is it Normal to Feel Relieved After a Death?

Yes — and it's linked to guilt, too

Is it Normal to Feel Relieved After a Death?
The death of a loved one can simultaneously feel like a curse and a relief. Learning how to accept opposing emotions is a key to healing from grief. (Getty Images)

A healthy grief reaction typically involves a number of unexpected emotional reactions. Perhaps the most misunderstood of the many feelings grievers commonly experience is relief. 

Many grievers report feeling a sense of relief when a loved one dies, particularly when the death was the result of a terminal illness or other long-anticipated loss. It can be confusing and upsetting for a person who loves and misses the person who has passed. Why and when do grievers feel relief following the death of a beloved friend or relative? 

Why do people feel relieved after a death?

There are several reasons a grieving person might experience relief following the loss of a friend or relative. This list reflects the most common reasons for relief after a death; remember that grief is a highly personal experience, and there are many valid explanations for grief reactions that may seem inappropriate or feel uncomfortable.

  • Anticipatory grief

Anticipatory grief refers to the grief mourners experience before a loss has occurred. This often happens to those who anticipate the death of an elderly or terminally ill relative. A terminal diagnosis gives loved ones the chance to prepare for a death, but this preparation isn't emotionless, and sometimes involves grief that feels as intense as if the death has already happened. 

While anticipatory grief isn't a universal grieving experience, those caring for sick and dying loved ones are often shocked by early bereavement. Not only is it unexpected and untimely, but others may not understand the grief, making the person experiencing it even more alienated:

"One experiencing anticipatory grief is already moving through the stages of grief, even though the loss hasn't happened. The result is odd. Someone suffering from anticipatory grief might take the news of an illness hard, and react to it in a way that seems disproportionate to reality. 

For example, the affected person might be irritable or angry with a dying loved one. Many people are angry at their dead loved ones for leaving them. This in itself seems odd, but when the person is still alive this reaction seems even more absurd. Unfortunately, these are typical responses to emotional pain and impending loss."

Anticipatory Grief, Beyond the Dash

Even healthy grief hurts, a lot. When death finally arrives, it can mark the end of a painful time. The subsequent relief is a natural response, but may induce guilt for the person who experiences this. 

  • Exhaustion

Caring for an ill or elderly loved one is emotional and difficult work. The logistics of planning medical care and ensuring dignity to the dying loved one causes stress for all involved, all while the threat of death looms. It's no surprise that many find themselves emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted when preparing for a death. 

When a loved one dies after a period of illness, the intensity of caring for them is suddenly over. It's time to leave the hospice, plan the funeral arrangements, and get back to some semblance of normal. While there is no erasing the pain of grief, it is normal to be relieved that this part of the tragedy is over. The prospect of being able to grieve at home, away from the pressures of medical decisions and the prying eyes of outsiders, is reason enough to feel relieved. 

Anticipating a loss is incredibly stressful; knowing that the worst has now happened is a natural relief. Those who are involved in the dying person's routine, or who are responsible for their well-being, often experience a form of relief and guilt when the death occurs.

  • Relationship shift

When people grieve in advance of a death, they are mourning the loss of a shared future with the deceased person, as well as the loss of a carefree present. Knowing that the coming months will be full of medical appointments, tears, and end-of-life planning changes things.

While there are many stories of terminally ill people fulfilling their bucket lists before dying, this is not the reality for everyone. Being sick saps emotional and physical energy. Anticipating a world which no longer includes a loved one is uncertain. Financial constraints from medical bills and end-of-life accommodations can leave everyone feeling lost and broke. 

Although the dying loved one is still alive, the relationships they share with others can go through a shift. Personality changes, as seen in Alzheimer's patients, depression, and other issues can change the ways the dying person interacts with even their closest loved ones. These changes are rarely pleasant, and can contribute to a sense of relief when death does finally come. After their death, remembering the deceased 'as they were in life' can resume for those who want to remember their loved one well. 

  • Family turmoil

Complicated relationships lead to complicated deaths – and complex grief reactions. No one is perfect, but there are some people who cause more than their fair share of pain and destruction. When a loved one who was estranged, avoided, or feared passes away, relief is a common part of the grief reaction. 

Unfortunately, this kind of relief often turns out to be no relief at all. Thoughts of missed opportunities to repair the relationship can be guilting-inducing, and unresolved issues are now left solely for the survivors to deal with. It often takes time, introspection, and a nuanced perspective to heal from emotions that seem, at least on the surface, to be paradoxical. 

The stigma of relief in death

Misunderstanding grief reactions contributes to the alienation of mourning in a death-averse society. Relief is a complicated emotion to experience in the wake of a death, but that does not mean it is unnatural or unnecessary. Conflicting emotions are part of healthy grief, and help open the door to healing.  

Unfortunately, these kinds of complex grief reactions are often subject to judgment from others. Feelings of relief, guilt, excitement, and extreme depression may necessitate reaching out to trusted loved ones for support. It's important to choose carefully the people to share grief feelings with, and to seek out a qualified grief counselor if necessary. 

The takeaway

People who are grieving are processing new and threatening emotions as they adjust to a new state of normal. Accepting all emotions — including the uncomfortable ones — helps most grievers understand themselves on a deeper level. People who can acknowledge their relief in conjunction with other emotions that arise may be more able to move through their bereavement in a healthy way. 

Ultimately, the relief a grieving person experiences usually is more related to the stressors that accompany long-term illness and the impending death of a loved one. Regardless of the circumstances, those who are grieving a recent death should give themselves a wide berth, and focus on surviving the first weeks and months without self-judgment. 

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