Grief is a process that’s highly personal and unknowable until you’re in it.
And though experts say there’s no right or wrong way to mourn someone, when the person who died is someone you had conflicted feelings about ― say, a toxic parent, or an ex-spouse with whom you begrudgingly co-parented for years ― it’s easy to feel like you’re doing it wrong.
“When this type of grief shows up with clients, they are confused and not sure what to do with how they feel,” said Michelle Chalfant, a licensed therapist and holistic life coach based in Nashville, Tennessee. “They want guidance on how to navigate their emotions — or lack thereof — around the loss.”
Chalfant described a client she once had who came in for help after her abusive, narcissistic mother died. The woman, an only child now in her 40s, had distanced herself from her mom over the years out of self-preservation. Upon her mother’s death, the client felt an odd mix of feelings: sadness because it was her mother who died, but also gratitude that the abuse would cease.
“I have seen children come to funerals who haven’t seen their parents in decades. I’ve tried to convince others to come and just be present, and they refused.”
“She felt ashamed to feel this way and wanted clarity on if she was a ‘bad person’ for, on some level, being happy about the abuse ending,” Chalfant said. “She also needed help processing the death of the relationship she hoped to cultivate with her mom one day.”
More than anything, the woman was looking for validation in her disparate emotions.
“That’s a common theme with people in this type of scenario,” Chalfant said. “They wonder how they ‘should’ be feeling, but the truth is, there is no particular feeling they should feel. It’s unique to each person experiencing grief.”
Jennifer Kaluzny, a rabbi at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan, thinks the experience is so difficult because it reopens old wounds ― including some that you may believe have already healed. You may have already worked through trauma that you attribute to your estranged sister, for instance, but now that she’s gone, it crops up again uninvited.
“Unfortunately many families have significant tension or an estrangement,” Kaluzny told HuffPost. “I have seen children come to funerals who haven’t seen their parents in decades. I’ve tried to convince others to come and just be present, and they refused.”
These issues frequently surface when parents die. If abuse, abandonment or extreme favoritism of another child were present in someone’s childhood, a grown child isn’t always looking to honor the person who was the source of that deep hurt.
“Many choose a ritual of their own and perform it surrounded by people who love and support them instead,” Kaluzny said.
For those who choose to attend the funeral, though, Kaluzny tells them they can participate — or not — in whatever parts of the service they wish.
“I am very open with the families I serve, and I let them know that they can share what they wish, and we can highlight the good, and downplay or not even mention the bad,” she said.
Clearly, this is knotty, complicated stuff. If you’re in this position right now, we have some advice from grief experts like Kaluzny on how to deal with your feelings.
Double up on the self-compassion.
There’s a strong cultural taboo against speaking ill of the dead, largely because they can’t defend themselves. If you feel relief that someone is gone, or you can’t help reflecting on the not-so-wonderful parts about the person, it’s easy to be self-critical.
Instead of doing that, cut yourself some slack, said M. Katherine Shear, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and the founding director of the Center for Complicated Grief at the Columbia School of Social Work. It’s really OK to have minimal or absent grief, or even to feel relief when someone who hurt you has died.
“Treat yourself with compassion,” Shear told HuffPost. “Most of us, even those of us who show compassion to others, have a hard time treating ourselves kindly and recognizing that emotional pain is a universal human experience. When we judge ourselves negatively, it only adds to the pain of a difficult experience like this.”
Slow down, breathe and check in with yourself.
When we have unpleasant emotions, we often try to busy ourselves to avoid the feelings. In the immediate moment ― say, after hearing the news of the person’s death ― give yourself permission to feel everything, and slow down and make time for yourself, Chalfant said.
“When we take the time to slow down, emotions tend to rise up, which is a good thing here,” she said. “Deep, slow breathing helps as well. Breath helps to move emotions. If you feel wound up or stressed, go for a walk or just sit quietly and check in with how you are feeling.”
Staying curious, and having no preconceived notions about what you think you should be feeling, is also beneficial when checking in with yourself, she said.
Don’t compare your grief to other people’s.
While you might not even be sure you want to attend your dad’s funeral, your brother, who dealt with the same haranguing and mean-spirited comments growing up, may be eager to speak at the service ― even reverentially, about the good parts of the man. You have to be OK with that. Grief is personal, and it will do you no favors to compare your grief with someone else’s or judge them for their response, Chalfant said.
“We need to remember to go at our own pace, not compare our process to others,” she said. “Taking care of yourself and tending to your specific needs is always important, but especially when you are tending to the wounds of grief.”
Find a way to express your feelings, like through journaling.
It’s important to find a way to tap into your feelings and thoughts, whether it’s talking to a therapist (here’s a helpful guide on how to find affordable counseling), talking to a close friend, expressing it through a beloved creative hobby, or journaling.
“Journaling can be a gateway into our grief and emotions,” Chalfant said. “When we take a pen to paper and begin to write, our inside feelings are able to move through us and onto paper. It’s very cathartic and an easy tool to use with grief.”
To begin, ask yourself what you’re feeling. If you feel numb, write about it, Chalfant said. If you feel sad, write about it. If it feels like you’re going long on either subject ― dwelling on the good, or dwelling on the bad ― don’t feel like you have to balance it out by writing more about what you “should” feel.
“With journaling, it’s a personal experience, and anything and everything you write is perfect,” Chalfant said. “You can’t get it wrong.”
Better yet, write a letter to the person you lost.
When working with people in mourning, Kaluzny occasionally suggests they write a letter to their loved one and not send it. Say everything you would have said if they were standing right in front of you, she tells them. This exercise works particularly well if you’re dealing with complicated, seemingly-at-odds emotions.
“Some people say it’s a very cathartic experience,” Kaluzny said.
Be OK with experiencing “absent grief.”
It’s almost always helpful to give a name to something we’re experiencing. What you may be going through right now could be “absent grief.”
According to the American Psychological Association, “absent grief” is a form of “complicated grief in which a person shows no, or only a few, signs of distress about the death of a loved one. This pattern of grief is thought to be an impaired response resulting from denial or avoidance of the emotional realities of the loss.”
With absent grief, the emotional states we (rightly or wrongly) associate with mourning ― denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance ― may never manifest, or may manifest much later on, even years down the line.
“Absent grief is something that I think many people experience over time,” Kaluzny said. “They realize that they can live their life again and it doesn’t hurt so badly ― then, all of a sudden, it strikes when you least expect it.”
Grief is sly that way, she said.
“You could feel fine, even right after the death, and then you are standing at the grocery store and you see your loved one’s favorite ice cream and you fall to your knees in the frozen food section,” Kaluzny said. “It’s entirely normal.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.