Grieving Someone You Didn’t Like (because it happens)

Let’s be honest, sometimes people die who you…well…hated. That sounds really harsh, but sometimes it’s true.  Or even if you didn’t hate the person, maybe you really didn’t like them…or you had a love/hate relationship…or you found them very difficult…or your relationship with them was difficult.  There are a number of ways this can play out, but the fact is that everyone dies, even people you weren’t very fond of.

The reasons why you may have had a difficult relationship are endless. Maybe they were mean or hurtful; maybe they were violent or abusive; maybe they were toxic or emotionally manipulative; maybe they betrayed you or someone you love.  I could go on and on and on.  No matter what the specific situation, grieving someone you didn’t like can leave you feeling isolated and confused.

People talk all the time about losing someone they deeply loved and cared for.  As for grieving someone you had negative feelings towards, people don’t talk as much about that.  We get it, it feels weird to sort through feelings about the death of someone you didn’t like and it can feel even weirder to talk about it.  So, today we’re going to talk about some of the circumstances that are unique to grieving someone you didn’t like.  Then we’re going to answer some of the questions that come up in those situations and talk about how to cope.  Ready?  Okay, good.

6 Reasons why the death of someone you didn’t like can cause complicated grief emotions:

  1. You’re not sure if what you’re feeling is grief.  If we understand grief as a natural reaction to loss, you may be thinking that it isn’t a “loss” that this person isn’t in your world anymore. You might think if you didn’t like or want them in your life, it can’t be grief.  This can leave you confused about how to categorize the feelings and isolated in discussing the emotions.
  2. You’re relieved and happy about the death.  Or, you’re at least not sad about it.  In circumstances when your physical or emotional safety (or that of someone you love) was at risk because of the person who died, you may be feeling an immense sense of relief that your safety is no longer in jeopardy.  At the same time, you may also be feeling some guilt that you’re relieved or happy or not sad.  Like we said, it’s complicated!
  3. Other people are not relieved, happy, or not sad.  Sometimes you have a bad or complicated relationship with someone, but other people in your life don’t.  After that person dies, you may be left to sort through complicated negative feelings, while others work through more traditional grief feelings.  This disconnect can leave you feeling isolated and alone, and also ill-equipped to support your grieving family and friends.
  4. You thought your relationship with them might eventually get better. This thought might have been conscious or it might have been subconscious.  Either way, when someone dies who you didn’t like it isn’t uncommon to suddenly feel the weight of the reality that you know will never get an apology, have a chance to apologize, or have a chance for the relationship to change and improve.  Even if those were things you never consciously wanted, knowing they are no longer even an option can be difficult.
  5. Your grief isn’t validated by others.  If people in your life knew you didn’t get along with this person, that you had a strained relationship, or had a falling out, people may minimize the validity of your feelings.  That is a little thing known as disenfranchised grief.  You may still be having intense grief feelings, despite that bitter divorce, painful custody battle, or even history of abuse.  People around you might be saying, what do you have to be upset about?!? You hated him and hadn’t talked to him for years!
  6. Death doesn’t bring closure. You may have imagined that all those complicated feelings would somehow get resolved once the person died or was completely out of your life.  But there is a good chance the complicated emotions are still there, even though the person isn’t.  You wouldn’t be the first or the last.  The reality is the pain of a difficult relationship doesn’t die just because a person has died.

6 ways to understand and cope with these complicated feelings.

  1. Remind yourself you have the right to grieve.  When someone is removed physically from our lives there is an impact, no matter how we felt about them.  It changes the relationship, and it can impact our understanding of the past and the future.  Even if the hole left in your life is a hole you believed you always wanted, that doesn’t change its emotional impact. You can deeply miss someone you had a really complicated relationship with, so give yourself permission.  The human heart is funny that way.
  2. Remember that it is okay to feel relief. If you feel guilty that you’re relieved, happy, or not sad about a death, let’s think through the feelings.  What you are relieved or happy about is that you are now safe and no longer fearful.  This is different than being glad someone has died.  If there had been another possible way for you to feel safe, you would likely have wished that to be the outcome.  For more on this, check out our post about relief.
  3. For better or worse, relationships continue after someone dies.  If you had a good relationship with someone, that can often continue through good memories and carrying on their legacy.  If you had a complicated relationship it often remains, well, complicated!  You may have imagined a person’s death would make you feel better or resolve some of the feelings you were having.  In some cases that’s true, but in some cases it isn’t.  You may find you still need to carry on efforts to explore your own feelings about the person or find ways to forgive (keeping in mind that foregiveness is not about saying someone’s behavior was okay!).  You can read more about forgiveness here.
  4. Communicate about the entire relationship, the good and the bad.  The old saying “don’t speak ill of the dead” can, unfortunately, make people feel like they have to keep their mouths shut about the problems in a relationship after the person has died.  We’re here to say, it’s okay to keep processing and talking about these issues if you need to, you may just want to choose your audience wisely.  Depending on your situation, friends or family may not be the best people to support these types of conversations.  If that is the case, a grief counselor or support group might be helpful.  What isn’t helpful is avoiding, stuffing, or ignoring the complicated emotions and memories.
  5. Realize you may be grieving the relationship you wished you had.  We all have ideas about what a mom or dad or friend or spouse or child is “supposed” to be.  Unfortunately, what we want a relationship to be is not always what it is.  Who we want a person to be is not always who they are.  If you are struggling to understand your own complicated emotions about the death, consider that you may be feeling grief around not having had the [mom/dad/husband/wife/friend/child] you wanted or needed.
  6. You can still finish ‘business’.  When grieving someone you didn’t like, or with whom you had a complicated relationship, there can be a feeling that any “unfinished business” will now have to be left unfinished.  It may not get finished in the way you had imagined when that person was alive (if you had been planning for a direct conversation, obviously that just isn’t going to happen).  You can still find ways to say the things you wanted to say.  That could be in the form of a journal, letter to the person who died, artistic expression, or with a therapist.
  7. Consider all the ways the relationship has impacted you.  Though many of these may be negative and painful, you may also see ways you grew from the strains in the relationship.  It may be in your own commitment to not being like that person or it may be in your growth and avoidance of other negative or toxic relationships. It may even be in your ability to find forgiveness or empathy in an impossible situation.  Whatever it is, take some time to appreciate yourself and your own growth.  This is not being grateful to the person or for the hurt or problems they caused, but taking the time to give yourself credit for the growth that can come from adversity.

What are your thoughts on grieving someone you didn’t like, or who you had a difficult relationship with?  Leave a comment to let us know! 

March 28, 2017

8 responses on "Grieving Someone You Didn't Like (because it happens)"

  1. Thank you for the article, with interesting aspects of different grief. I can relate to much of this. My Mother passed away last month and I had had an enormously close relationship with her as a child as she was a single parent and fought to keep me, having to work for a living to do so (in those days), as a nanny, and later nursing. I was her constant companion, with interludes of being ‘farmed out’ with strange people to help care for me whilst she was working, I even spent many of my Christmas Days on a medical ward with her when she was nursing. Then along came other relationships, she chose, unstable needy men, with mental health problems it seemed and I was rejected in favour of her partners, left to my own devices for long periods and they became her significant ‘other’. this happened over and over and when her adult relationships failed I was there to pick up the pieces for her as she turned to me. I have such mixed feelings, struggled with self worth and now she is gone I don’t seem to know my role or identity in life any more. Was supporting her perhaps partly my purpose? Now it seems I can grieve for all the hurt she caused me, which I dared not acknowledge previously, just because she was my Mother and I was not allowed to blame or criticise her in any way. I still don’t want to find any fault in her, but know the truth of how she treated me in making a succession of step-fathers and their children, more important than me. Complicated grief indeed.

  2. My brother died in November. We had a distant relationship, could tolerate each other in social environments, but no we were not close. I cried when I found out he died and a little at the service. But I grieve more for the dog I had euthanized 2 weeks before my brother died. I worked in Hospice for 5 years and the experiences I had made me realize that it was ok to be estranged or to not like someone or to grieve differently. I do feel bad for my other siblings, though. They were so distraught and are so angry at our nephew – he himself had a tense relationship with his dad – and I just don’t feel that way. They say they understand but I don’t think they do.

  3. I really don’t get this bloody nonsense about “closure” – must be more rubbish we’ve imported from the U.S.

  4. Thank you so much for this article. I’ve never read info on something like this. It really validates what I’ve experienced.

  5. Thanks again so much ladies, for all your hard work and for always putting things in ways that are easy to read and understand. I am working with someone right now who had a death in her family that fits this whole post. She found endearing and tender moments with this family member but also found this person to be abusive, manipulative, embarrassing at times, and made life very hard for everyone. I am going to be sharing this with her soon (as I do with many of your posts and materials we’ve ordered at my work :)). This was really timely and I appreciate all you do so much!

  6. Thank you for this. I lost a family member almost 6 years ago, and it was a complicated relationship. We were semi-estranged (due to the person’s mental illness). I feel different from other grievers because of the circumstances of the death (sudden death). I know mine is a complicated grief.

  7. a poem I found quite some time ago and have shared often…
    Today I Talked to the Urn
    It sat on my dresser for over a year,
    A symbol of a relationship that is no more.
    I could barely acknowledge its existence,
    The ashes within were a symbol of things
    I wanted to forget.
    I tried to bury pain, frustration and anger in my heart,
    Telling myself, “It’s over now; time to forget,”
    Forcing the truth deep down,
    So it wouldn’t hurt me anymore.
    But the truth refused to stay buried.
    Pain, frustration and anger
    Kept surfacing in odd ways,
    And I wondered why I couldn’t heal.
    Little by little, bits of insight
    Have made themselves known.
    Bit by bit, I’ve learned about myself.
    Fragments of truth shed light in my darkness.
    Today, I talked to the urn,
    So long ignored.
    As I faced the truth about my anger,
    And about my part in the misery past.
    Acceptance and affection for the one now gone
    Washed over me
    And I asked for forgiveness
    When today, I talked to the urn.
    By Margie Casteel, Littleton, Colorado

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