Sometimes the intense grief we experience when someone dies is expected. You can’t imagine living without your devoted mother or your beloved son. Their presence in your life was enriching and comforting and special, so to lose that is obviously painful.
But what happens when we lose someone with whom we had a bad relationship?
When intense grief follows the death of an abusive estranged spouse, a mentally ill sibling or an absent parent, we are usually caught off guard.
“I wasn’t even that close with them!” I hear.
“They tormented me for years so why am I so sad?” is another common response.
Very often when the person who died fell far short of our hopes for their role in our life, we get hit by grief like a Mack truck. We have lived perhaps for decades with their shortcomings and even at times learned to accept that they are not the loving mom, the protective father, or the loyal sibling we always wanted. Yet when they die, we are wracked with the pain of losing what never was… and now can never be.
In my experience, as long as someone is alive, no matter how dysfunctional they are or how toxic they are in your life, there is always the tiniest hope or wish that they could “come around.” It seems like there is a chance, no matter how infinitesimal, of redemption and a new experience with them “one day.” When they die, that one day can never come. It is a certain and final fact.
This grief experience is often not recognized as such by other people. They are shocked to find out you are sad over the death of your absent parent. They can’t believe you happily divorced someone ten years ago, and now cry daily after their death. Very likely, they don’t even know you are grieving because they assume that this death was not particularly meaningful or hurtful to you. Since you may have spent years complaining about this person or intentionally distancing yourself from them, you may not even feel able to share your grief with others. It feels… odd. To say the least.
I want to assure you, as a therapist and grief counselor who has worked with dozens of clients experiencing this sort of surprising grief, you are not alone. You are not odd. You are having a very natural reaction to the finality of a loss that you have endured perhaps for your entire lifetime. Talk to friends who can understand. Go to therapy or counseling to process some of this complex reaction. Journal about it daily.
Now is the time to grieve what never was. This loss is just as valid.