The relationship with the person who died is a primary determinant of the grief reaction. It is usually straightforward when the relationship was healthy, loving, and up-to-date. Who and what has been lost is acknowledged, understood, and cherished, and there is no significant backlog of complaints, resentment, and “unfinished business”. Sadness, longing, emptiness, joy, and whatever else characterizes the grief can unfold without guilt, regret, and other feelings becoming obstacles.
A complicated bereavement period is likely when ambivalence, conflict, abuse, or estrangement characterize the relationship to the deceased. The reaction to the loss is often one of complex, mixed emotions, and internal conflict is more common.
Physical, sexual, psychological, and verbal abuse are damaging to people and relationships. The grief following a loss in which these existed is often difficult to acknowledge and understand. It is not straightforward. There is usually a substantial amount of outstanding complaints, resentment, anger, guilt, regrets, missed apologies and amends, and other “unfinished business”. There is a great deal to sort out. Shame can be a primary obstacle to facing the truth about the experience with the person who died.
The painful mix of feelings that arise in the aftermath of conflict-laden relationships can be confusing and paralyzing. The response to the loss may be so unlike that of healthy relationships, and what might be expected, that you may not know how to mourn or where to turn for support. Friends and others may not understand why you are reacting as you are, and privacy and shame may inhibit you from disclosing details of the relationship to make yourself more understood. Support groups often don’t allow for the time needed to work through the complications caused by conflicted relationships, and again, privacy, shame, and lack of trust may be effective barriers to disclosing the truth. Often much more time is needed to think and talk about the relationship. A professional therapist, to share the details of what happened, and to experience the range of feelings associated with the person who died is advised.
Relationships devalued and scorned by family, friends, and society may precipitate complicated grief. Societal attitudes can be so powerful that even the person suffering the loss may devalue the relationship, and thus delegitimize the grief. Lack of acknowledgment for the significance of the loss, and stigmatizing the relationship, diminishes availability of support and the opportunity to mourn. Isolation, alienation, and confusion are likely complications.
It is important to realize and remember that a loving, healthy, socially, and legally sanctioned relationship is not the criteria for grief. Grief is the natural result from the loss of someone or something significant to you. You must do your best to acknowledge the importance to you of who or what you have lost, and allow for the natural, individual grief reaction that arises. Professional help can provide the expertise needed to enhance your understanding of your grief reaction, diminish your suffering and risk of harm, and facilitate your healthy progression through this difficult and painful time of grief.
Read more about Complications on the following pages.