Relief After A Death: the unspoken grief emotion

Whenever we ask people about the emotions of grief, whether it is here on the blog, in a workshop, a group, or a class, the word relief inevitably comes up.  We’ve listed it off a time or two on WYG when discussing common responses to loss, but we’ll admit we’ve only touched on it in passing.  It really wasn’t until the other day, after we received a handful of comments about relief following our recent post about suicide grief, that I  realized the experience of relief after a death warrants its own discussion. It would seem we’ve been remiss for not discussing it sooner.

I’m going to pull a serious 8th grade book report move here and start the conversation by defining relief.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary there are two definitions:

  1. The act of removing or reducing pain, anxiety, etc.
  2. The feeling of happiness that you have when something unpleasant stops or does not happen.

So, I’m not sure I would go so far as to use the adjective “happiness”, but based on this definition feeling relief after a death, in certain circumstances, does kind of make sense.  Death often comes after a period of intense and prolonged pain, anxiety, worry, fear, and suffering.  Although none of you wanted your loved one die, it’s only human to feel relief when their pain and suffering comes to an end.  It’s also human to feel a tinge of relief when the distress you felt as a result of having to watch your loved one struggle has come to an end.

As logical and as common as the emotion of relief is in grief, it seems like grievers often carry it with them as thought it’s a deep, dark secret.  For many, relief feels like something they should be ashamed of, it feels wrong, or as though it’s something they shouldn’t admit to.  This may be the case for a whole slew of reasons, many of which stem back to an interesting assumption about how emotions work.  Well, two assumptions really.

Assumption # 1: People often think they experience emotions one-at-a-time. Typically in any given moment if I were to ask you how you felt, you’d probably identify the most prevalent feeling – i.e. “I am scared”, “I am happy”, or “I am overwhelmed”.  However in many situations, you can (and often do) feel multiple emotions at the same time.  You may even feel emotions that seem inconsistent with one another.  Ever heard of the phrase “mixed emotions”?

Assumption #2:  People often assume that feeling one emotion somehow detracts from or negates another.  So you may think to yourself – “If I am feeling relief, then I can’t possibly be as sad as I should be.”   When in reality you can be super sad and also a little relieved at the same time because emotions aren’t mutually exclusive.  You can have two emotions about two totally different aspects of an experience. You can feel relief that distressing emotions and physical pain have ended, but this relief does not lessen the devastation and intense sadness caused by the death of a person who you love very dearly.

So while we’re busting assumptions and misconceptions, let’s discuss a few common experiences related to relief.

1. The person was physically ill and suffering.  Caring for the person was mentally and physically exhausting and it was terrifying to watch the person lose their physical and/or cognitive faculties.

Myth: Feeling relief in this situation means you wanted the person to die.

Fact: Feeling relief in this situations means you are glad their suffering (and/or your suffering as a caretaker) has ended.  You did not want them to leave you, you would give anything for them to have been cured and to have lived pain free.  However, given the existence of ongoing pain, you wanted their suffering to end.

2. The person was suffering from addiction.  Addiction doesn’t just impact the person struggling with it, but the whole family.  It can create emotional, financial and legal issues for families.  It can keep families in a state of constant anxiety, guilt, shame and hyper-vigilance, always fearing an arrest, overdose or death.  It can be a relief when these experiences end.

Myth: Feeling relief in this situation means you wanted the person you love to die.

Fact: What you wanted was for your loved one’s addiction to end so their suffering could be over and so that they could be the person they were before their addiction.  Your hope was for recovery, not death.  You relief is not because you wanted them to die, but because the toll of the addiction itself has been lifted.

3. The person was battling mental illness.  As many commenters mentioned on our recent suicide post, the strain of mental illness and the fear of a suicide death can be overwhelming for family members.  Like addiction, there can be a continuous sense of helplessness, loss of control, and anxiety.  The person’s death is devastating, but the relief from those constant feelings and experiences is undeniable.

Myth: Feeling relief in this situation means you wanted the person to die.

Fact: Much like with addiction, all you wanted was for your loved one to find manageable treatment for their mental illness so their suffering could end. Your hope was for stability, not death. You do not feel relief because you wanted them to die, but because the anxiety and constant fear has been removed.

4. The person was an abusive person or you and the person were in a problematic/unhealthy relationship. These relationships are often marital or parent/child relationships, but can be true of any type of relationship where a person feels constantly trapped and controlled by another person.

Myth:  Your relief mean you hated the person and wanted them to die.

Reality:  You wanted to escape the relationship.  In many cases, an outside observer may think you could have ended the relationship at any time, but you may have felt it was not possible for a number of reasons.  When the person dies, the death can cause relief because the painful and problematic relationship has ended, even though you may have wished it would have ended in another way.

This does get a little tricky when trauma or abuse is so severe that you may truly be glad they died because it brings a sense of justice, or because no matter what you would have felt fear and anxiety knowing the person was still in the world.  Such experiences, thoughts, and emotions can be extremely complex, so if you are struggling with guilt in these situations you may want to think about talking to a counselor.

If you have been struggling with guilt around feeling relief after a death,  you are most certainly not alone.  There is no magic way to resolve your guilt, but what we hope you will remember from today’s post, if nothing else, is that relief is extremely common and incredibly normal in grief.  Feeling relief about certain aspects of your loss in no way diminishes or minimizes your love for the person or your grief from that loss.

Keep the conversation going by sharing your question, comment, thought or experience with relief in the comments below.  And, as always, subscribe over on the sidebar to get our new posts right to your inbox!

April 12, 2017

29 responses on "Relief After A Death: the unspoken grief emotion"

  1. My dad passed away this February from cancer. My mom said he was in pain for 3 years, but I knew and saw that it had been many more years (10 at least). He told me when I was 12 that he was ready to die and also kept repeating the line “Life gets worse” over and over.
    To give you a background of it all, my parents are toxic (verbally abusive; my mom is worse). My dad loved my mom, but put her above all else and put up with her narcissism. She treated him terribly and of course that left him always angry and terribly miserable with life. However, despite it all, he stayed with her for 42 years.
    Back in 2008, he came home one day and told me he though he had cancer. I told him to go to the doctor, but my parents were bad about taking care of themselves and sadly he didn’t go until 2014 when it was too late and he was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer.
    The last time we had had a heart to heart, he flat out told me that he had died 2 years ago. I wasn’t sure what to think at the time.
    Also, my parents put me down all the time telling me that I wasn’t going to make it in life, or life would just stop when you get older because (according to my dad) it was going to get worse. I couldn’t cry in front of him because I got yelled at for showing human emotion.
    Fast forward to this year, my dad got worse, but the sicker he got, the more he realized that he was about to get what he wanted. Death.
    Love my dad dearly, but I have cried and been in emotional pain since I was 12 over his mental and physical anguish. I sought counseling, went to therapist, and even started to go to group therapy. I processed the situation, cried, and going through all stages of grief.
    I am 30 years old and now? Relief, finally good sleep at night. Yes. Relief isn’t bad at all. I love him, and miss him so very much and would give anything if he were still here but healthy and happy with life. But I am more relieved that he is no longer in pain and I no longer have to worry. So, thank you for posting this. It really helps.

  2. In 2004 I lost my youngest sibling to alcoholisim. I felt partially to blame because I am a recovered alcoholic and she often saw me drunk. But even though I sobered up, it wasnt enough reason for her to stop as well. At the last stages of her addiction she did some things I was worried would be a threat to my parents, so I was often mad at her or try to help her. When we lost her I did feel some relief, but I of course miss her greatly because I had wished she would had sobered up like I did. She was a wonderful sister and close friend when she was sober.
    But now I am about to lose my mom. She has been battling cancer since 2006. At times they claimed she was cancer free. only to find more cancer somewhere else. I feel greatful we got to keep her since 2006. But I still cry my eyes out at times. This past Monday she spoke to me and said she is ready to go. I told her not to give up, but she told me that even though so many were Praying for her, that she couldnt escape cancer. I didnt realize that was our last good conversation. Being that she had cancer spread in her liver, it was now talking hold. That evening she started sleeping alot and now 2 days later she is now unresponsive. She makes noises with her voice while snoring which indicates she is feeling some pain. The nurse said she will probaby be gone within 24 hours.
    A huge part of me is still in unbelief this has happened. Just last week she was so takative and now nothing. A part of me wants her suffering to end but yet I just dont want to lose her. I know I have no choice. Please Pray I get through this ok

  3. Thank you. This has given me the permission I needed to kill myself.

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Sarah,

      I don’t want to presume that I know what you’re thinking or what you’re going through, but I promise you that if you harm yourself it will bring pain and sadness to others, not relief. I am sure that there are many people who love you and care about you and these people would be hurt deeply and profoundly if you were to take your life. This article talks about relief as an emotion that people sometimes feel in grief, but this type of relief is small and minuscule when compared with the intense feelings of pain these same people feel because their loved one is gone. After a loved one’s death most people feel that they would trade anything to have their loved one back and I am certain this is the case for those who loved you.

      Please reach out of someone for help immediately. You can walk into your local emergency room or call the suicide hotline 1 (800) 273-8255 (if you are in the US) and +44 (0) 8457 90 90 90 (if you are in the UK). If you are elsewhere just google suicide hotline and your country name. It is so common to feel as if there is no way out other than suicide, but please know there are ALWAYS other ways.

      Sincerely,
      Eleanor

  4. Eleanor, That is right. For some reason I am not getting the regular posts. I miss them! Thanks, Kathy

  5. I somehow dropped out of the list to

    Receive this invaluable blog. I miss you and need you now in my second year of grief over my son’s suicide. I have told many about WYG.

  6. I am so glad I ran into this article on feeling relief. The night we found our 25 yr old son dead from an overdose, I felt a moment of relief. I have been so ashamed of feeling this emotion, but finally came to understand it wasn’t for his death but for the hyper-vigilant state of fear, worry, anxiety, etc. about the known risks of being a heroin addict that I was living. Your article completely confirmed that for me and I feel even better now about that emotion of relief. Unfortunately this feeling of relief in my case was quickly filled with shock, trauma, and pain so unbearable I didn’t think I would survive. The definition of:The act of removing or reducing pain, anxiety, etc. fit the emotion I felt that night, even though it was a fleeting emotion.
    I have watched my mother now for years go through the stages of Alzheimers and have already grieved over the Mother I once had. With this situation, I wish that something takes her before she goes into those very last stages of this disease. It will end her suffering. Also wanted you to know how helpful this site has been for me in the last 41/2 years since my loss. I share it to every parent and parent groups that has lost a child. Thank you.

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      Oh Melinda, I am so sorry for the death of your son but so glad the site has been of support. Relief is an emotion I think many do feel ashamed of, despite how common it is. We are glad to give a space for people to share that they can relate to this feeling. Thank you so much for the kind words about the site. Knowing that it has been a help is what keeps us writing!

  7. When I read this posting on relief I was so grateful that your wonderful blog was dealing with something weighing so on my heart. Today I re read the posting and decided to read all the comments as well. I had determined not to comment myself because I did not want to upset my beloved husband. And there he was, the last to write! This is a good example, I think, of why this site is so valuable. Yes, we are talking to each other and walking through this together, but it is sometimes so hard to tell someone even as close as a spouse that one of my grief emotions is relief. Thank you for the way you are helping us all.

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      Oh my gosh Kathy, thank you SO much for commenting. This just made me so happy and a little teary. It is a reminder of exactly why we wanted WYG to exist when we started it. Wishing comfort to you both.

  8. This posting spoke so directly to me as the first anniversary of my son Steven’s suicide (June 6th) approaches.
    Steve suffered for over twenty years from alcoholism and bipolar disorder. When he was sober and stable, he was a sensitive, loving, happy poet. When he was drunk, he was an abusive monster. He and we often spoke about the “two Steves.” I deeply miss the “real Steve.” I cry daily wishing that I could walk with him, laugh with him or go to a ballgame with him.
    Yet I feel relief that I don’t have to see the alcohol ravaged Steve, to endure his abuse to our family, or to cringe when the phone rings wondering what new crisis was happening.
    Thank you for your post about feeling two seemingly contradictory emotions at the same time.

  9. My husband passed away on May 29 after a very long illness which caused him to have to spend the last 3 years of his life in a nursing home. I prayed that he would just not wake up one morning and when I got a call from the nursing home at 5:30 In the morning I knew before even answering the phone. It’s hard to describe the intense sense of relief I felt, yet so many people could not understand and still expected me to cry and carry on. I couldn’t do it. So when I opened my email on June 1, just 2 days after his death, and saw your article I was so pleased. I felt like you were speaking directly to me. Thank you.

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      Oh Jo, timing is an amazing thing sometimes. I am so glad this post came just when you needed it. We will be thinking of you and hope our site is of some support in the months to come.

  10. Thanks for validating my feelings of relief, though you are not the only ones. I have not had the feeling yet that I had to apologize. I truly am one of the lucky ones. After my husband’s cancer diagnosis last July, he was given weeks to months to live. He chosen no treatment but continued to go on living as if he was going to live much longer. He lived til May 9, recording music in his studio , doing projects around the house and visiting with friends and family. Hospice care was incredible and helped me so much along the way to be prepared for having him die in my arms. Since that moment I have not hesitated to tell anyone that I, and everyone who knew him, have grieved since the moment we learned of his illness and now it is time to celebrate him and his life well lived. Sure I miss him and cry sometimes and will continue, but I feel joyful in knowing that he is no longer in pain and suffering. And I feel so blessed that he was not ripped tragically from me with no time to even say goodbye, nor did he linger in prolonged illness in an altered state of mind or body. To those of you who have had to endure those experiences, my heart goes out to you and I sincerely pray for your healing and that one day you may feel relief and the ability to rejoice in the peace that now enfolds your loved one and allow that peace to enfold and mend your broken heart. Peace and love be with you.

  11. I was relieved when my father passed away. He was chronically ill for fifteen years, and increasingly difficult as his mental and physical abilities withered away. My mother stayed home and cared for him until she literally couldn’t do it any longer (physically or emotionally), when the effects of his Parkinson’s were complicated by a stroke. Was I sad when I got that phone call? Yes, of course. But that day was a long time coming, and preceded by a ton of heartbreak and worry and the continued mourning that people do when someone is alive, but has a disease that will kill him or her. For a long time I was mad at the universe for delivering this unto my father; he was a good guy, he didn’t deserve to be so profoundly debilitated, but generally, who does? There’s no use in shaking your fist at the sky. I think feeling a sense of relief that it’s over, and that now, finally, we can start to move on, is natural, and normal. Selfish? Maybe. But also healthy. It means we’re still here, and we know that life goes on.

  12. The only “relief” I’ve ever felt was when they found Osama bin Laden, one of the jerks responsible for planning the operation that killed him and thousands of others. I’ve certainly never felt any relief for how the death occurred and having ghastly last images (and now sounds from the tape) in my mind of his last moments hasn’t helped me. Nothing before or since has sounded even remotely like his last moments, least of all how people react in fictionalized accounts of what it’s like to die in a structure fire.
    I can’t find relief bc I can’t find any sense in what happened – not even “in reverse.” That’s what a spiritual person called Faith – trusting in advance something that will only make sense in reverse. I agree with Richard, my daughter’s godfather, who said that certain things “won’t make sense in reverse, forward, sideways, up or down.” He was referring to his two sergeants he saw die in Vietnam and he said it on Memorial Day.
    I feel relieved Osama bin Laden is dead for several reasons but the main one is that he was going to live out the rest of his life being like Hitler and just having had killed anyone he didn’t like. He was worse than Lord Voldemort that way.

  13. Deanna Clark WillinghamMay 31, 2016 at 1:17 pmReply

    Thank you for this post. I’ve felt a lot of guilt over the relief I have felt at my husband’s passing. I have worked through much of it but it still jumps up at me once in a while.
    He was ill for over 30 years, the last few were increasingly stressful and the caretaking was intense. I was blessed to be able to retire early to care for him full time the last 3 years, but it was very hard. Soon after he passed someone asked me if I felt relief and I said yes, and we were both shocked.
    I have found a lot of education, support and understanding in your blog and appreciate what you do very much.

  14. There was more than one occasion when I counseled a friend or family member that it was OK to feel relief that “X” was over. Even though it meant that it ended in death.

    That didn’t stop me from feeling that a horrible person feeling relief when my husband passed from an accidental overdose. I have described him as being ‘passively suicidal’ for the last 3 years of his life–when a MRSA infection started complicating chronic pain, mental health and addiction issues. Each reason you listed above was a check mark in my head. There was a relief on all 3 fronts – 1. chronic neck injury and recurring MRSA infections, 2. Pain killer addiction, and 3. Bipolar disorder.

    I felt so selfish that I was so relieved I didn’t have to take of or worry about him anymore. But that relief was also married with a relief that he was no longer in pain – mental and physical. It felt like I was not only marring my grief, but also marring what the relief I was feeling “should” be. (And don’t we all love those “should” statements when it comes to grief?)

    It’s six years later and I feel like I’ve come to grips with a lot of it. I’ve really been forging a new path in life for myself–but a majority of the grief landmines I run into come from the relief I felt. As much as I know that guilt is not healthy or fair to myself, I still feel it a lot.

  15. Loved this post and how “relief” is framed here. It’s what I’ve been saying myself for many years now. I’ve worked through many types of relief regarding several, very different kinds of losses, and can attest to the fact that, as you say, all these feelings are not “mutually exclusive” to one another.

    Re: #4, yes, I’ve felt GREAT relief over a couple of family members’ deaths. They were both highly abusive people, ruined many people’s lives (and even caused other loved ones to die prematurely), AND were a menace to society at large. To me, it seems a logical conclusion that in light of all that, I’d feel relieved, and personally, not even sad that they’re gone. In fact, I was glad that I and the world were finally rid of them and their destructive actions. There was much relief that at last, they then couldn’t hurt ANY more people.

    Most people don’t want to accept that’s how I feel, however, to which I inwardly respond, “Too bad, you don’t have to like it. It is what it is, and with good CAUSE.” That doesn’t make me a bad person, but more of a realist in this situation. There may be a bit of regret that over the course of everyone’s lifetime, things turned out this way, but given the huge length of time these people were so highly mentally disturbed and wreaking such havoc, I have an overriding compassion for myself for feeling as I do, and am not about to apologize for it. I also view it as having “saved” me more grief, as I’ve had far too much of that already, and largely because of these family members.

    • Deb – My father was a pedophile, so even though I loved him on some level, I was relieved that he would never abuse another person. Talk about mixed emotions.

      • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

        Sue, I imagine mixed emotions is exactly the term for it. It makes sense that there would be a tremendous sense of relief with this loss, but that doesn’t change the pain that comes when someone close to us, and someone we care about, dies.

  16. I lost my husband in the floods in Houston tx April 18 2016 I am having a lot of flashbacks of his death please help me

    • Deanna Clark WillinghamMay 31, 2016 at 1:20 pmReply

      Deborah, I’m so sorry for your loss. I will keep you in prayer and hope you are comforted by friends and family in this stressful time.I hope you have a faith community to lean on, if not, know there are others praying for you and your well being.

    • Deborah, this site is not meant to be a substitute for local supports. When someone dies suddenly in a situation like your husband’s, it is common for people to experience trauma themselves. Please contact someone locally and get some help for what you are experiencing. If you are in the Houston area, here are a couple of places to start…https://crisishotline.org/http://www.legacycommunityhealth.org/services/behavioral-health/
      If you aren’t in the Houston area, doing a web search for crisis services in your area and making a call to find out what resources are available would be a good idea. Please take care of yourself.

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      Deborah, I am so sorry for what you are dealing with. Have you connected with a counselor or a support group? I would strongly suggest that as a first step if you have not done so and it may be helpful specifically to look for someone who works in not just grief, but also trauma. If you have not read it, we do have a post about traumatic loss here. If you need help locating a counselor please let us know.

  17. Thank you. I didn’t know how much I needed to see this until it was laid out in front of me in this post.

  18. Most beautiful n needed email in a while <3

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