Conflicted Feelings in Grief: Reconciling the Present with What Might Have Been

General / General : Eleanor Haley


If I had to choose one word to describe life after loss, I might choose “conflicted.” It’s probably not the first word that comes to most people’s minds when thinking about loss. But, for me, one of grief’s most profound lessons is that our feelings, thoughts, perspectives, and wants are often at odds.

Considering how complex we human beings are, this shouldn’t be a revelation. But ultimately, our complexity is what drives us to try and simplify things by choosing one emotion, one motivation, one explanation, or one truth. These reductions make the world easier to navigate in many situations, but they can quickly complicate things in life after loss. 


Conflicted Feelings in Grief

Some examples of ways people experience conflicted feelings in grief include:

  • Wanting to move forward, but also wanting to hold onto the past
  • Wanting to feel better, but also feeling guilty about feeling better
  • Feeling hopeful, but also feeling hopeless
  • Feeling immense grief, but also feeling relief
  • Loving your late partner, but also loving someone new

The misconception that you have to choose one truth can leave you feeling mixed up. However, we have an easy suggestion to help resolve the discord in the statements above– simply change the word “but” to “and.” 

Sometimes your thoughts and emotions seem contradictory when, in reality, they can all exist all at once. It may feel complicated and uncomfortable to allow two seemingly conflicting truths to live within you. However, over time, the reality that you don’t have to eradicate specific thoughts and emotions to make room for new ones may make grieving a little easier.

All that said, you will probably still be aware of dissonance in your thoughts and feelings. It’s a little like being at a party with people who you know don’t get along. At times you may worry that chaos is about to ensue. Will one side suddenly declare they can no longer be in the same room as the other? Will you ultimately have to choose between them? Even years after learning emotions and thoughts don’t cancel each other out, you may still struggle to let them exist at the same time.

[For more on this, check out Coping With the Conflicting Emotions of Grief]


Learning to Feel Good While Also Feeling Bad

I think something most grieving people can relate to is the tiny (or maybe even massive) sense of guilt they experienced the first time they found themselves laughing, smiling, having fun, or feeling okay after their loss. When an anxious or judgmental internal voice interrupted a rare moment of okayness, saying, “Wow, I thought you were grieving, but it looks like you’re doing just fine. Guess you don’t care as much as I thought you did.”

This voice’s response comes from the myth that when a person is grieving, they must only ever feel miserable, and any expressions to the contrary signal they are “doing better.” On a larger scale, people may feel guilty as they move forward in life and discover new purposes, make new connections, or find a sense of peace or happiness. Feeling okay in their life without their loved one feels like a betrayal.

The reality is that grief is so ongoing that it is impossible to wait for it to end before allowing yourself to experience anything positive. You will likely grieve in different ways forever, so you have to find a way to let it live alongside new purpose, meaning, and connections.


Conflicted Feelings and Conflicting Timelines: Appreciating the Present While Grieving the Life You Might Have Had

Something that is bringing these conflicted feelings into sharp focus for me lately is our forthcoming book. I promise you that this article isn’t a sales pitch, though sales pitches are part of the problem. You see, we’re proud of the book; we think it can be helpful to people, and obviously, part of getting a book out into the world is promoting it. But, we have to admit, promoting it feels a little awkward. 

For starters, we wish none of you needed a book like this. And though we love our work at WYG and are enormously honored to serve people in the way we do, we both know that if our parents hadn’t died, our careers would have gone in entirely different directions. And ultimately, we’d give up all of WYG–book, careers, and everything–to have them back.  

We’re conflicted, caught between two lives, but this is par for the course when grieving. When you grieve someone you love, you also grieve the life you had with them in the past and the life you were supposed to have together in the future. That “future life” is a point you sometimes intersect with as time goes on. For example, thinking “he was supposed to walk me down the aisle” or “we would be celebrating his 60th birthday.” And each time you bump into one of these reminders, you may feel grief.

You also run into these thoughts when events in your current life seem directly tied to your loss. We’ve shared our example of this–our book, and there are countless other ways this plays out. Loss changes you and your life, and many people head in new directions because life necessitates it or because their loss has propelled them to do so.

There’s an inherent conflict in learning to like or appreciate anything that seemingly stems from your loss. You hate its beginning, and there’s a good chance you’d reverse it if you had the chance. Though I would suggest that another way to look at many of these things is that your loved one and their memory lies at the heart of them.


For Those Who Do Not See Much to Appreciate in Their Present

Before I end, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that I’m writing from the perspective of someone who’s been grieving for a long time. I realize that for many of you reading this, especially those early in grief, the contrast between what “could have…, should have…, might have…” been is still too painful to find any source of purpose, meaning, or contentment. 

If this is how you feel, know it’s normal. Though many paths lead to okayness in life, it’s hard to see this when your forced off your path in the middle of a dark and dense forest. You have to find a new route, alone, without your loved one–and this takes time and a lot of hard work. A simple article like this can only be of so much help, but if you take anything from it, let it be that you don’t have to “get over” grief or let go of your loved one to experience moments of peace and purpose in the present. 

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

Let’s be grief friends.

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10 Comments on "Conflicted Feelings in Grief: Reconciling the Present with What Might Have Been"

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  1. Andreia  June 10, 2022 at 6:38 pm Reply

    This is an accurate translation what I was felling and I could not explain.
    I am living now a different I was, supposed to live if my sister was, alive. It hurts, sometimes I feel so angry. Than sometimes, I have that old feeling to be happy and than I remember she is not here and then I get so upset. It is, as you perfectly described, a conflict feeling that make me feel overwhelmed and I know this will always happen and it will be a part of me.

  2. Alex  June 7, 2022 at 10:02 pm Reply

    What a timely, on target and poignant article.

    This was incredibly meaningful for me as a new widower. The author really helped me to understand my own conflicts I’m feeling. This piece was very validating. Thank you to the author for being thoughtful and conscientious.

  3. ~k  June 7, 2022 at 6:03 pm Reply

    Thank you for this!
    Once again, spot on….

    1
  4. Naomi  June 7, 2022 at 5:32 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for this article……I lost a dear close friend suddenly to depression 4 years ago….since then my life has a constant reminder of the life that I was envisioning with him. At 31, he had so much more time. He left on the 4th of June and his birthday is on the 20th….all in all, this is the hardest month of the year to remain “okay.”

    Then this last week, I lost my pup. He was there for me constantly, nonjudgemental, supportive, soft & adorable. And a reminder of a moment that I treasure with my friend, when I managed to invite him over to meet my dogs. I wasn’t there when he passed which feels so…not right. He meant the world to me and was the best antidote to my own depression or cynical feelings about the world.

    Anyways, I’ve been struggling about how to just “be” this week…and this article/email felt like a soothing balm. Even though my heart still hurts…when I wish it wouldn’t have to.

    Thanks for all your work <3

    1
  5. mitchel  June 7, 2022 at 1:14 pm Reply

    I can relate to this article body and soul. I’m caught between the life I lived (loved) and the life I have been given. Every day that goes by is a day that memories fade just a bit more and my past becomes more ethereal. I’m in a place that allows for no joy in the present. No hopes for a future without the woman I loved more than I love myself. Conflicted doesn’t quite cover it……

    2
  6. mitchel  June 7, 2022 at 1:14 pm Reply

    I can relate to this article body and soul. Im caught between the life is lived (loved) and the life i have been given. Every day that goes by is a day that memories fade just a bit more and my past becomes more ethereal. I’m in a place that allows for no joy in the present. No hopes for a future without the woman I loved more than I love myself. Conflicted doesn’t quite cover it……

    1
  7. B.  June 7, 2022 at 5:59 am Reply

    “When you grieve someone you love, you also grieve the life you had with them in the past and the life you were supposed to have together in the future. That ‘future life’ is a point you sometimes intersect with as time goes on.”

    I am intersecting with what should have been quite often these days. My son was 20 when he died 11 years ago, and I see his friends at the stage of life where they are marrying and having children. I am their Facebook friend. I have recently been pondering whether remaining in contact with them is helpful to me. If I didn’t know of their life events, I could avoid these intersections with what could have been.

    1
  8. Terri Jenner  June 7, 2022 at 2:28 am Reply

    Hi .
    I lost my true love , my darling husband 12.12 .21 after 2 years fighting cancer . He passed in bed at home with me.
    I also lost my parents 3 and 4 years ago and my 2 dogs recently , old age . So now I’m alone although I have family support.
    I have no regrets about my husband . He did, had ,got everything he wanted . I cared for him alone. I work full time , I managed both with home working so I had something for me after…
    My issue is I’m not sad . I miss him so much. But a I am moving on and I feel bad, but I feel I need to live my best life for him for everything we worked for .
    Why do I feel disloyal ….

  9. Janice Urbsaitis  June 6, 2022 at 10:15 pm Reply

    I don’t fit in anywhere anymore.

    4
  10. Linda  June 6, 2022 at 5:05 pm Reply

    I am trying to hold on to what I can because my spouse of 53 years is in ill health now.

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