Grief is practically inevitable. If you haven’t been impacted by the loss of someone meaningful in your life, it’s likely you will be at some point. And whether it’s an absent parent, an estranged sibling or an ex who made co-parenting a challenge, you may grieve someone who was a negative part of your life.
Brendon Comer, a licensed clinical social worker at Banner Health in Colorado, said, “Losing a person of importance who significantly wounded us can make our attempts at processing this loss more intense and complex.” When this person was alive, you may have experienced emotions and feelings such as anger, fear, trauma, confusion, shame and helplessness. Now that they have passed, relief can be a predominant feeling. “These kinds of complexities and the fact that every individual’s grief process is different can be very confusing and overwhelming,” he said.
You may be familiar with the five stages of grief that were introduced by Swiss-American psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While these emotions are common during grief, they are not universal. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to the grief process,” Comer said. You could also experience shame, guilt, hopelessness, confusion, disgust, anxiety or relief. Or, you could have little or no emotional reaction.
Ways you can navigate your emotions surrounding this type of grief
Remember that it’s healthy and “normal” to have a variety of thoughts and feelings throughout your life, even when you’re not grieving. “Humans are complex emotional systems with multiple emotional parts,” Comer said. For example, you might think, “A part of me really wants to go out with friends tonight, but another part is concerned about finances and thinks it’s a bad idea.”
Those varied emotions can also emerge when you’re grieving, especially when you’re grieving someone who impacted you negatively. You might think, “A part of me feels like I have to go to my father’s funeral because he was, after all, my dad. But other parts of me are so angry, hurt and traumatized from how he often treated me that going to the funeral is not an option.”
Everyone — yourself included — has inner emotions with different viewpoints. That’s especially true when dealing with complex grief. When you accept that reality, you can open up space for compassion toward yourself. For example, you can allow yourself to accept both the part of you that feels loyalty toward your father and the parts that are still wounded and want nothing to do with him. “All of these parts and perspectives are valid,” Comer said.
People who experience complex grieving can sometimes be weighed down by what they believe they “should” be feeling relating to a loss. Other people who are also grieving the loss may have had a completely different experience with the person and could be grieving in a very different way. “Each person’s grief experience is their own,” Comer said.
What you can do if this experience opens old wounds
The death of a person who negatively impacted your life might bring feelings you experienced in the past back to the surface. You can process these old wounds and pain by slowing down, connecting with your breathing and practicing curiosity by being open to new understanding or perspectives about your experiences. “When those painful memories come up, you want to ‘hug’ that wounded internal part of yourself that has not healed from that painful experience in the past,” Comer said.
For some people, the trauma of the old wounds, in combination with the loss, may be too much for them to take on by themselves. If that’s the case for you, you may want to seek professional help from a therapist trained in issues of complex grief and trauma.
Try these rituals if you don’t feel comfortable attending a funeral
Understandably, you may want to mark this person’s passing in some way, but you don’t want to attend their funeral. Comer suggests these alternatives:
- Journal. Writing down your thoughts and feelings toward this person can be a healing exercise. “You are giving yourself permission to check in, notice how you feel, and acknowledge it through the writing process. You can practice accepting and understanding that your emotional system and its parts need attention and validation,” Comer said.
- Write a letter to the person. No one has to read this letter unless you choose to share it with someone. Writing a letter to the person who has passed allows you to express what you may never have told the person. After writing the letter, you may find value in letting it go in some way, such as burning it.
- Connect with others. If there are other people who understand and accept the complexity and difficulty of the situation, you may want to find a time and space to gather and connect.
The bottom line
You may be dealing with a range of emotions when you’re grieving someone who negatively affected your life. Everyone grieves in their own way. Journaling, writing a letter to the person who passed or sharing memories with others might help.