Abby* entered my office on a blustery cold winter morning. The crisp, cool air had left her cheeks bright red which matched her mittens. She was middle-aged and wearing woolen mittens, I liked her style.
This was our third session together, but today felt different. She curled up on the couch, hot chocolate in hand and said, ” I am a horrible wife because I am relieved he died.” Her breath barely allowed her to finish the last word before tears poured over her rosy cheeks.
This is the part of grief people do not talk about. The guilt that so many of us experience for feeling relief upon the death of a loved one. We can pour over articles and read a hundred books that point us in the direction of the stages of grief. No where will it mention the feeling of relief or guilt. It is a very real and valid part of grief. People are afraid to let those words fall from their lips.
There is a new mom grieving the loss of her baby, but relieved that very sick child won’t need 24 hour nursing care. She is afraid to speak about that out loud. There is an exhausted son who has been caring for his ailing father with Alzheimer’s for the past two years who is grieving but, is also getting the first full nights sleep. He will not speak those words out loud.
To be glad someone has died is taboo in today’s culture and when the bereaved don’t abide by society’s expectations they are ridiculed and shamed. We slap on the straight jacket of the stages of grief and woe unto the person who doesn’t fit the mold.
So let’s talk about some of the reasons we might feel relieved someone has died.
The person was battling mental illness. The strain of the disease and the fear of suicidal death can be overwhelming for family members. As with addiction, there is an ongoing loop of loss of control, a sense of helplessness and anxiety. The person’s death is devastating but the relief from those constant feelings and roller coaster emotions can’t be ignored. You never wanted this person to die. Your hope was for stability not death. You do not feel relief because of the death, but because the extreme uncertain emotions and fear that went along with their illness has ended.
The person was physically ill and suffering. Being the primary caretaker is physically and mentally draining, and it is devastating watching the person slowly lose their own abilities. When you feel relief in this situation it means you are glad their suffering and yours has ended. You did not want them to leave you. You wanted them to be cured and live pain-free. Knowing that was not an option, you wanted their pain and suffering to end.
The person was suffering from addiction. This disease affects the entire family. It creates emotional, financial and legal issues for all involved. It keeps all in a state of hyper vigilance, constant anxiety, fearing an overdose or death. It can be a relief when all that ends. You never wanted this person to die. You wanted treatment so this person could be who they were before they were an addict and their suffering could end. Your hope was for recovery not death.
The person was an abusive person or you and the person were in an abusive relationship. This can be a partnership or a parent/child relationship. Any relationship where the person feels trapped or controlled. You wanted to end or escape this relationship but for reasons did not. When the person dies, you feel relief because the painful relationship has ended. This becomes more involved if trauma is so severe that you are truly glad they died because it brings a sense of justice or if you would have felt fear and anxiety knowing this person was still alive. Spending some time speaking to a professional would be beneficial.
To put it bluntly if I may, when someone dies the bereaved family members must be forgiven if they are pleased to be getting their lives back, even if they can’t say it out loud. It may make us uncomfortable, or even anger us, but we must realize that it’s never our place to force someone to grieve in a way that we find acceptable.
Much Love ❤