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 come 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 though 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!
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