When someone dies who you had a complicated relationship with, you may experience confusing and mixed emotions. There are many different ways that this scenario can play out, but the fact is that everyone dies, even people you didn't like or had conflict with. And when you have mixed feelings about someone in life, you will continue to have mixed feelings about them in death.
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. The reasons why you may have had a difficult relationship are endless. Maybe they were mean or hurtful; perhaps they were violent or abusive; they could have been toxic or emotionally manipulative; maybe they betrayed you or someone you love.
We get it, it feels weird to sort through feelings about the death of someone you didn't always 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.
6 Reasons You Might Experience Complex Emotions When Someone Dies that You Had a Complicated Relationship With
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. Check out our definition of grief here for more.
You feel happy or relieved
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. Luckily we have a whole post on feeling relief in grief
Your feelings of relief are in conflict with other people's feelings of sadness
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 were 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.
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.
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.
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.
It is still possible to 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 imagined when that person was alive (if you were 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.
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!
We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books: