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When a Relationship is Complicated, So Is the Grief Process

Being honest and facing mixed emotions about a loved one's death can help with healing

By Randi Mazzella

Jacalyn Wetzel, a writer and therapist from Mississippi, recently lost her father. Wetzel describes her relationship with her father as complicated, so it is not surprising that her emotions surrounding his passing are complicated, too.

A woman drinking tea sitting outside. Next Avenue, complicated grief in older adults
"All people are fallible humans, in life and in death, too. We disagree with one another and we don't always get along. But there is always a possibility to get it right when both people are alive. We lose that opportunity when someone dies. We lose the chance for closure."  |  Credit: Getty

Wetzel explains, "Growing up, I had a lot of resentment towards him. My dad made many missteps in his own life and his choices hurt me. When I was an adult, things started to turn around, especially in the last two years. He showed more often than not that he was trying to fill the cracks he had left from years before."

"Grief is even more complicated when everything between you wasn't rainbows and sunshine."

Losing a loved one is always hard. It doesn't matter if the relationship was good, difficult or a combination. Rebecca Soffer, who runs the website Modern Loss (and wrote a book of the same name), explains, "All people are fallible humans, in life and in death, too. We disagree with one another, we argue, and we don't always get along. But there is always a possibility to get it right when both people are alive. We lose that opportunity when someone dies. We lose the chance for closure."

Adds Wetzel, "Grief is even more complicated when everything between you wasn't rainbows and sunshine. It's still grief, just the same."

As a point of clarification, the term "complicated grief" is used to describe a disorder where a person experiences long-standing grief where feelings of grief do not dissipate over time and are debilitating. This article focuses on grief when the relationship itself is complicated.

Fear of Honest Reflection

Psychiatrist Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the "How Can I Help?" podcast, explains, "Funerals are for paying respect to someone. These rituals are about giving comfort and support to the mourners."

People rarely delve into the complexities of a relationship, especially when speaking publicly about a deceased loved one. We have been taught not to speak ill of the dead, so in general, eulogies are focused on discussing the deceased's best qualities and sharing stories that put them in a good light.

Saltz says, "What is said at a memorial is not going to give a clear picture of the total person."

But most relationships are not all good but rather multi-dimensional, especially between family members. Some relationships are fraught or even toxic. Because of the differences in situations, so, too, may be a person's reaction to the loss.

No Rules for Grief

"Different circumstances can lead to different emotions surrounding death," explains Saltz. "Many people think grief is just about being sad. But you can also feel a range of other emotions including guilty, perturbed, lonely or ambivalent."

"The idea that there are five stages of grief that happen consecutively and for a specific amount of time is misguided," says Soffer. "Grief isn't organized; it's a mess and a natural human experience. There is no 'normal' way to grieve."

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The idea that there is a correct way to grieve can impede the healing process. Well-meaning friends and family can make people feel judged about how they are grieving or comment on how a person "should" feel rather than listening to the person's feelings.

"Many people have a picture in their mind of what a mother/daughter or sister relationship should look like," explains Saltz. "But all relationships are individual. If a person had conflicted feelings about a person when they were alive, they will probably continue to have mixed feelings when they are gone."

"Whether tears fall or not, it doesn't mean there wasn't love there. Love is just as complicated as grief and people aren't perfect."

Wetzel recalls that when her stepfather passed away several years ago, some people commented, "Well, he is only your stepfather" or "You are lucky you still have your real father." The comments stung.

Wetzel says, "My stepfather raised me from the time I was a little kid. In many ways he was more of a father to me than my biological father had been. Although people didn't mean it, these types of comments upset me."

Conversely, Wetzel has been made to feel she isn't grieving enough for her biological dad, especially by his extended family. She herself says she has been waiting for the "dam to break" and is starting to wonder if it ever will.

"I try not to judge myself, "says Wetzel. "Whether tears fall or not, it doesn't mean there wasn't love there. Love is just as complicated as grief and people aren't perfect."

Safe Space to Grieve

Soffer believes people do themselves a disservice when they don't allow themselves to fully face all of their mixed emotions about the person and what has been lost.

"It can be lonely when you hide your true feelings or are afraid to speak openly for fear of being judged. Honest reflection can help us learn, build and move forward healthily," she says.        

Well-meaning family and friends can be helpful, but they may also be biased. "People who know you or knew the deceased may have pre-existing beliefs about the relationship or the person," says Soffer. "If they aren't able to offer you space where you can speak honestly without judgment, it may be better to seek grief support elsewhere."

Finding a safe space to share your feelings is key to healing. Peer-to-peer grief support groups (in-person and online) and professional grief counselors are great options. "With a grief counselor, the grief discussed is 'yours only,' and you don't have to worry about another person's feelings," explains Soffer. "It may take a few tries to find the right grief counselor, a person you are comfortable talking to about the tough stuff."

For Wetzel, telling her story on social media proved cathartic.  "I have always tried to be real and honest with my followers," she says. "I needed to explain my absence, so I shared that my father had passed. But then I was getting a lot of condolences which made me feel the need to be transparent about our relationship and my conflicted feelings of grief." 

Wetzel found most people appreciated her candor and many expressed having been in similar situations. "At the time, I was feeling guilty and alone. It was helpful to know others had gone through the same type of experience," she says.

Randi Mazzella
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son.  Read more of her work on randimazzella.com. Read More
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