Grieving an Estranged Family Member
There is no denying that grief is a personal, difficult journey, and that no two people approach it the same way. The loss of a beloved parent or the death of a dear friend is likely to hit you hard, and you won’t know how you will cope until it happens to you.
But what if the person who dies is neither beloved nor close? What if your relationship was strained, unpleasant, or unresolved? You may think that this will make their passing easier, but this is not necessarily true. For some people, the loss of an estranged relative or friend is actually more difficult than the loss of someone you loved unabashedly.
What is Unresolved Grief?
When someone you did not get along with dies, you might not be impacted by the actual loss. After all, it might have been years since you’ve communicated; even longer since they had any say or presence in your life. In these cases, the grief you experience is more about what might have been.
While a relative lives, there is always a chance that someone will have a change of heart or apologize. There is still an opportunity for a repaired relationship, there is hope. With death you lose all of this. Any disputes or issues you had will remain forever unresolved, and there is no chance to say any of the things you might have always wished to put into words. This is known as unresolved grief, and it is not likely to abate right away—especially if you do not allow yourself the time you need to mourn your loss.
Of course, your grief might not take this form. Instead, you might feel relief or even joy at their passing. Other people might hold you accountable and expect you to make a grand gesture. You might also fail to find any kind of closure, allowing your grief a continual open door. No matter what anyone tells you, all of these are valid ways to feel after this kind of death.
Dealing with Unresolved Grief
Coping with unresolved grief is similar to dealing with any other type of loss. In other words, you have to carve out a space for your grief. For many people, finding a professional counselor, therapist, or support group makes all the difference. For others, it is more about internal reflection. Choose whatever way makes sense for your life.
- Allow Yourself to Grieve (or Not): There is no “rule” about how you have to feel after someone dies. If you want to grieve, grieve. If you don’t, don’t. Every single one of your feelings is a valid one. It doesn’t matter whether you decide to journal your feelings, talk with a counselor, take up running, or change nothing—anything that helps you is a good idea.
- Be Prepared for Guilt: In this kind of death, guilt is common. You might feel guilty that you did not repair the relationship. You might feel guilty for not trying harder to forgive them. You might even feel guilty for not feeling guilty. Although this might not hit you at first, it is likely to make an appearance at some time or another.
- Understand that You Will Always Be Connected: When someone dies, the relationship you had with them continues to live on. So too do all the memories you have. Although you might want to sever all ties and move on, this is rarely how it happens. In most cases, all those unresolved issues and hurts will continue to exist, and you will have to find a way to deal with them.
- Remember the Good as Well as the Bad: In a bad relationship, we tend to focus on all the negative aspects—the bad times, the hard times, the times where you were hurt. But people are more complicated than just “good” and “bad,” and it can often be beneficial to discover both sides of the story. Building an accurate picture of the deceased can be painful, but it can also help you heal.
You might also wonder whether it is appropriate to go the funeral—and this is another question that only you can answer. Not attending the funeral could leave you with even more unresolved issues, but it could also put you in contact with people who are not great for your emotional well-being.
If you do not go, don’t worry too much about what this says about you as a person. It is one hundred percent possible to grieve without participating in the usual traditions.