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June 27, 2018 Beyond The Dash

Mourning Complicated Relationships

Grief isn't always about lost love

Mourning Complicated Relationships
Even the most loving relationships can have complicated moments. The grief you might feel when a tumultuous relationship suddenly becomes one-sided has its own set of complications. (Shutterstock)

Most relationships aren't perfect. There are bound to be disagreements, confusion and conflict even with those who are closest to you. We want to believe all of these complications will be resolved before we die, but the truth is that there are no guarantees. Death can come at any moment, and some interpersonal issues will never be resolved. 


Even in happy, loving relationships with no significant issues, grief is a complicated emotional mess. But when the relationship itself was chaotic or dysfunctional, the grief of having unfinished business can be tormenting for the one who survives.


What is a loss?


Losing someone means not only the end of their physical body, but the end of their continuing presence on earth. Though you will carry part of them with your forever, their advice, perspective and support are gone. 


Grief has been described as love that has nowhere to go. When you love someone who is gone, that love goes inward and is expressed as grief. Love and hate are passionate emotions that live in close proximity to one another. A complicated relationship embodies this love-hate paradox. When love-hate has nowhere to go, it also moves inward, creating a very troubling and intense kind of grief.


What do we mean when we say 'complicated'?


Even the best of relationships are challenging. Even between individuals who have cared for each other for decades, personality differences and preferences complicate all relationships. When the relationship included trauma, estrangement or strife of any kind, death gets even more emotionally arduous. 


The emotional reaction you will have to a death is impossible to prepare for. There's no way to gauge how your grief will manifest, no matter how expected the death was. However, it's likely grief will be more tormenting if you didn't know where you stood with the person prior to death. Unfinished business is the most haunting factor in grief.


Romantic relationships fall easily into the category of complicated relationships. One of the most common obituary-writing challenges is how to include a divorced spouse in the life story in a respectful and discreet manner. Those that had on-and-off-again relationships, or endured abuse at the hands of a partner may also experience an inner conflict when the other party dies. 


But intimate relationships aren't the only source of conflicted grief. Children whose parents deteriorated due to Alzheimer's or dementia also face complex feelings at the time of death. Seeing a change in a loved one's personality affects the way grieving people process the loss, causing many to focus on 'good' years rather than the later ones. Family or friends that often quarrelled or experienced times of estrangement may also experience difficulty in accepting and processing the loss.


The grieving process


When things get really tough with another person, many people share the same knee-jerk reaction. Wishing the other person would die, or simply go away, is a natural response to prolonged frustration and anger. You probably don't really wish them harm; you just want the pain they bring you to end. 


But when this person dies, this insincere wish takes on a more ominous meaning. First of all, it's important to remember that simply wishing someone would go away does not contribute to their death. Regretting ever making that wish does not mean you took the deceased person for granted for the whole relationship, or that you are a bad person. It simply reflects the turmoil of one point in time. 


Even if you know this on a cognitive level, it's difficult to shake these feelings when you're grieving. Other feelings that might loom around the loss are anger, guilt and dissonance between the grief you expected and the grief you actually feel. Though you may have prepared yourself for this moment, it might be marginally more or less difficult than you expected. 


Another surprising reaction many people have is complete and total ambivalence to the death. It might not hit you that the person is really dead for some time. But it's also possible that you feel so torn over the death that you can't determine how you feel about it. Not being able to pinpoint your feelings makes them harder to handle. 


Strategies for processing complicated relationships


There are endless ways to grieve, and this holds true in complicated relationships too. Here are some strategies to unravel your complicated feelings when someone passes away:



  • Name the difficult emotion you are experiencing. 

    • No matter how ugly it sounds, it's not conquerable until identified accurately and honestly.



  • Determine how emotionally invested you are in the death.

    • It's okay if this death doesn't cause a grief reaction. You don't need to manufacture pain in the absence of grief.

    • You may be more devastated by this loss more than you ever imagined. Be honest about how much it hurts.



  • Remember both the good and bad times as accurately as possible.

    • Relationships come in all shades of gray. Look back over the history of the relationship with a critical eye. Remember the person's good qualities, and the reasons for the relationship. Then recall the times the relationship was complicated or tumultuous in as good of detail. There are reasons you are feeling conflicted about this death, and they're worth exploring. Did you react as well as you could have under the circumstances? Are there things about yourself that you can improve on going forward?



  • Forgive yourself, and the other person.

    • Agree to let go of the unfinished business you have with the deceased person. Your relationship with them will continue long after the death, but you should embark on this grief journey with as clean a slate as possible.




Accept your feelings


While you can process your feelings any way that makes grief easier on you, it's important to accept the reality of how you feel about the loss. When someone with whom you had a complicated relationship dies, you could feel a wide range of emotions, including ones that are difficult to accept, like relief and guilt. 


No grief is easy to navigate. Start with honesty and compassion for both yourself and the deceased person as you begin to make sense of the world without them in it. 

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