Grieving a Difficult or Conflicted Relationship

Grieving a Difficult or Conflicted Relationship by Jacque Amweg, LSCSW, LCSW
Grief Support Specialist KCH&PC

Grief usually brings to mind feelings of sadness and loss for a beloved person. The difficulty of missing that person and what they meant can be very painful. But, that’s not always the case. Sometimes death comes to someone in a difficult or conflicted relationship – and that can be complicated.

There’s a story of a man who put unwanted clothing and items into his truck. Before he could donate them, there was a fire that destroyed much of his home. He lost treasured items and family heirlooms, and was left with a truck-load of things that no longer seemed to fit in his life. He didn’t feel they belonged to him anymore. In his mind and heart, he had already given them up.

Similarly, there are situations in which families have lost all that they considered valuable in the relationship with a spouse, parent, sibling or child even before a death. Families may already be grieving:

  • A distant, indifferent relationship with an abandoning parent.
  • An angry, abusive relationship within a marriage.
  • Outdated family memories that make it painfully clear that a relationship broke down years before.
  • Emotional and physical scars of past hurts.

If there’s conflict, positive aspects of the relationship may be a distant memory like packed away mementos. Or the memories may have been destroyed by years of tension or neglect. There can even be a mix of positive and negative feelings about the person who died. Even those who had the most loving and healthy relationships may still have conflicting feelings about some aspects of the relationship.

To lose that person to death, no matter how disconnected or angry the feelings, is still a life-altering set of losses. There may be a sense of losing all hope of mending the relationship, that’s grief, too. Family members may be unable to trust moving into the future in a healthy fashion even though there is a new freedom to do so. There could be a painful longing for an unknown relationship. There may be feelings of relief after the end of this burdensome relationship. There could be guilt about what might have been. It wouldn’t be unusual to feel confusion and ambivalence as part of the grieving process. Recognition that these feelings can all exist in the same grief and mourning experience will help you move through grief.

If you’re faced with such a loss, here are things to keep in mind:

  • Put away ideas of what you “should” be feeling. Every relationship is unique and your grief will be unique too.
  • Find someone you can talk to openly about difficult emotions. Sometimes those closest to us have the hardest time supporting us in grief. A counselor or support group may give you the help you need.
  • Know that it’s not too late to take care of “unfinished business” to move forward. Seek help with rituals or activities that promote healing. Journaling, letter writing or a ritual of release may help.
  • Know that it’s okay to keep it real by remembering the good and the difficult parts of the relationship as you grieve. Most relationships are a mixture of both.
  • Be gentle with yourself by eating well, moving your body some each day and getting plenty of rest. Self-care goes a long way toward healing.

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