Death ends a life—not a good or a bad relationship
The bereaved often find first-year support group sessions comforting because they are with others who also feel the pressure to hide their sorrow and pretend they aren’t disoriented, sleep-deprived and anxious. While it is common to hear people express relief that a loved one no longer has to suffer, seldom do individuals say they feel set free by a death.
The book Liberating Losses: When death brings relief by Jennifer Elison, EDD and Chris McFonigle, PhD opens up the subject of “relief grief” and supports those who live in silence for fear of being judged and ostracized.
Not every death is tragedy
“Relief grief” is an important subject and one that has had little attention from the academic death and dying community prior to Elison and McFonigle’s research. The authors have both walked the walk and describe themselves as “atypical grievers in a society that assumes death is a tragedy.”
The book’s personal narratives start with the silence that commences with the printed obituary and funeral service eulogies that offer no mention of the years of heartache the deceased partner, sibling, parent or child brought to a family.
One of the authors tells of her experience when speaking to a roomful of parents who had lost teenage children. When she brought up the subject of relief, the parents became openly hostile. However, later people “thanked her individually for giving them permission to be grateful they no longer had to stay up half the night, waiting for a phone call.”
In fifteen years of working with spousal loss groups, I have had several group members who were adjusting to the loss of an unloved spouse, a subject that is covered in-depth in Liberating Losses.
A woman in one group shared how she was overwhelmed by listening to people discuss their losses only in terms of loving relationships. She went on to say she had not been in a loving relationship. Instead she had been in an unloving difficult marriage. People looked everywhere—but at her—as she spoke.
Their shifted gaze didn’t go unnoticed. After a brief pause she said “I guess I can’t relate to this group, and I think everyone will be better off if I don’t return.” No one ventured a word of assurance even though they had known her for six months. This point is reinforced in the book: “when someone is suffering on one level yet feeling major relief on another, no one comes to put their arms around you.”
After the session I told her that I was sorry she wouldn’t be returning, and that the odds were that others in the group identified with her, even though they didn’t speak up.
“When lives change for the better, it is normal and desirable to acknowledge these changes as good.”
In another instance, I was asked to facilitate a split off spousal loss group of four women. It was a last minute switch, and I had little information prior to our first meeting. However, it took only a few minutes to understand why the four would profit from having a separate group: they had all been contemplating a divorce before the diagnosis and, in one case, one woman had filed for divorce after her husband’s terminal diagnosis. She said she couldn’t imagine caring for a man who had been abusive their entire married life. Ultimately she decided against the divorce to spare her two teenage children from suffering through both a divorce and a death. It should be noted that while these woman were relieved, they were having a tough time accepting
- the fact that they had not valued their own life enough to leave the relationships earlier, and
- guilt over having put their kids through so much strife.
Elison and McFonigle confirm that even when there is relief, recovery from a death is not likely to be easy. Most often it is a mixed bag of unfinished business filled with regret, anger and guilt.
The authors use the example of addiction and how disorienting it can be for relief to stand beside sadness as “it is possible to adore the sober side of an individual and hate them when they are not.”
The last paragraph of the Liberating Losses reads:
“If nothing else, we have learned about our complexity as feeling, thinking human beings. We know that fiercely opposing emotions can live within the same heart. Marla (a woman from the book) says: “I think it is just… I don’t know what it is. There are things you are supposed to feel, and people spend a lot of time trying to feel what they are supposed to feel instead of accepting what they do feel…”
I highly recommend Liberating Loss for providing:
- support for those who struggle with admitting relief after a death, and
- guidance for rebuilding their life in chapters “Honoring the Self” and “Moving On.’
Note: The authors wisely warn that if someone is not grieving in a way that we would expect, it does not mean that the relationship was necessarily a bad one. In the last few years research has found that some individuals are able to handle loss exceptionally well.
Authors also warn readers that some in the psychotherapy community have not kept up with the evidenced-based research on bereavement, and may interpret the relief aspect as pathological because it doesn’t fit into their preconceived notion of how healthy individuals grieve. Specifically they may not consider it possible for an individual to have had a healthy attachment to the deceased and still be relieved that they have died.