Grieving difficult relationships, by Julie Lockhart, Executive Director, © WinterSpring
The writings about grief and loss so often speak to missing the person who is gone, and perhaps longing for their physical presence again—especially during birthdays, holidays and anniversaries. Yet, more often than we might guess, a relationship may have been difficult. For example, a parent might have been overly critical, and perhaps behaved badly at Thanksgiving dinners. Difficult relationships bring complex and conflicting emotions to the surface, including shame for not feeling “what you are supposed to feel” about the person who died. And especially as we go through special occasions, these difficult emotions may get in the way of simple pleasures. Sometimes our grief isn’t as much about the death as it is about a relationship that will never be how we would have wanted it—a connection that never was loving and now that person is no longer here for us to find some reconciliation.
Writer Andrea Heeres shares that expressing the truth about difficult feelings in a safe setting can help the healing process. “A journal is a safe place…you might write a letter to the person who has hurt you…” (Grieving the Difficult Relationship, Bereavement Magazine, January/February 2004). She also suggests exercise, healthy eating and getting rest, because moving through the long-standing pain takes strength.
Participation in a WinterSpring support group can help individuals process such difficult emotions in a safe environment. “I experienced such relief when my father died, because he was always so mean to my mother and me,” said a recent group participant, almost in a whisper because of her shame for feeling that way about her dad. Her brave comment opened the way for others in the group to share similar difficult emotions. The facilitators reported afterward that because of this honest sharing, the energy of each of these participants seemed brighter at the end of that group session. Many of the participants expressed relief that they could share such heavy emotions.
If you have experienced difficult emotions around the death of a loved one, seek a safe place to share your truth. And if you are supporting a bereaved person, be aware that the emotions they express may be unexpected, even shocking, as they grapple with the complexity of their grief. Most important is kindness and compassion for yourself and others who have endured these difficult relationships with those we love.