Is that what I’m feeling?
When someone close to us dies we’re expected to feel a void, a profound sense of loss. And most of the time we do. Friends tell us they understand. Their greeting cards say our “sorrow runs too deep for words to convey” and that “our loved one’s beautiful life will live on inside us.” Researchers predict we will undergo “profound sadness.” But is this always the case? Is it predictably that linear?
Let’s be honest, there are times when we have (or will have) ambivalence about someone’s death. Perhaps the person was very difficult to get along with in life, even abusive, and their death signals an end of the friction - and hope of attaining an improved relationship. Or, the deceased may have been very sick, depressed, and in great pain at the end. And then there are times when someone’s death unlocks well-hidden and hurtful secrets which cast an entirely different slant on our relationship with them.
At times grief leaves us feeling confused, alone and guilty for concealing a private sense of relief that they have passed away. We aren’t even sure there is a name for what we’re feeling. We ask ourselves if we’re even in mourning. Afterall, truth be told, we don’t feel profound sadness, let alone wish things could go back to how they were. This disconnect is made more vivid when others around us weep and wish them to still be alive.
Grief is hard enough, but when we don’t feel understood or validated by other mourners and cannot genuinely validate their reactions, we feel disenfranchised, bewildered, sheepish and, well… twisted. What’s going on here?
In the case of a strained or abusive relationship, the reality is the pain of a difficult relationship doesn’t die just because a person has died. Their death impacts our future. The hurtful actions stop, but the bridge we always wanted to build to them will remain unfinished. We will experience a bewildering array of emotions – relief, anger, sadness, guilt, confusion and rejection.
And, when we helplessly watch a loved one fade away from health, undergo painful medical procedures, undignified emergency interventions and hear them wish they could die, it’s natural to want their suffering to stop. None of us desires to watch a treasured friend or relative writhe in pain, become totally dependent on others for basic needs nor have their mind rearranged and clouded by medical treatments when there is no hope for a return to their baseline.
Or, in the case where we discover, upon death, that we never knew our friend or loved one at all, there is a tsunami of unanswered questions, self-condemnation, public scrutiny and a crushing blow to our sense of what is true and good and dependable. The mountain of lies released through their death are rejected at first. “He wouldn’t do that to us!” “She’s incapable of doing what you say she did!” But when disbelief yields to acceptance, the floor caves in below our very feet. Love is eclipsed by animosity. Trust is overcome with doubt. Words like “devoted” and “loyal” and “honest” are forever disconnected from their memory. Deception, subterfuge and duplicity (especially planned and carried out repeatedly) leave us out in the cold with nowhere to turn. Questions haunt us. “How could I not have known?” “What did we do to deserve this?” “Will I trust again?”
In all three scenarios what we are is relieved. We now feel safe from abuse, released from watching a treasured person suffer or free to live an honest life. This is not the same as being happy someone has died. Not at all. Relief is just a softening of what troubled you. It is not glee or retribution or indifference.
At some point we’ve been told to “never speak ill of the dead”, and “if we can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” These admonitions now stare us down, especially in quiet times of reflection. We shrink from speaking the truth.
But rather than insincerely mourn their death with other mourners, or stuff our truths, it seems there is a third option. We need to simply choose our audience wisely and speak the truth. Friends or family may or may not be open to hearing us. In that case a support group, more distant friend or professional may be the most prudent path.
In all three situations we are grieving the loss of what we wish we had but don’t. We are still entitled to our feelings and our right to share them in some form with some other person or group. We should give ourselves credit where it is due. We don’t wish ill of anyone, not the deceased nor survivors who do not understand our complicated, mixed emotions. We merely seek sincere validation of our emotions, a genuine acknowledgement of our intricate reactions to the death.
This essay is not to advocate for outbursts, retaliation or arguments with fellow mourners who feel differently. It is to openly ask why the mourner, who is already burdened with loss, should be expected to wear a grief mask to comfort a society who prefers lies over honesty? Why should we please others untouched by the death? Is it right that our complicated grief reactions be answered with platitudes? Or is it preferable to have complex grief reactions validated? To hear healing words like “"I'm sorry for the pain he caused you. It must be complicated" is a breath of fresh air. “Watching her battle the pain and confusion must have been very difficult.” The mourner is likely to feel heard and, validated – no longer “twisted.” Our conflicted emotions can then start to be woven into the fabric of our lives, and eventually recede into the background. In stepping out from the shadows and selectively speaking the truth, we also pave the way for others to do the same when their time comes.
Have you ever experienced conflicted grief?