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Ambivalent Loss

Ask an Expert Question My husband died back in October so I’m still new at figuring how to do this, but I think I have a dirty little secret. Everyone thinks I’ll go to pieces when Valentine’s Day comes, but I feel a lot of freedom now that he’s gone. I don’t miss how controlling he was or his meanness to me, especially when he was drinking. Money decisions are now my own. The last year he’d become so intolerant of everything, which upset me. We kept up a good front, so few people knew how hard it was for me. I feel guilty for not missing him more. Is this common? Answer I am sorry for your loss and appreciate that you reached out. Though it is not easily acknowledged, there are circumstances when grief brings relief. Your situation of losing a spouse with whom there were relationship difficulties is certainly not uncommon. Often a piece of the grieving process is the acknowledgement that there were conflicts that make grieving complicated. When, as in your case, those difficulties were somewhat hidden, it can be hard to seek support since it involves disclosing this dimension of the relationship. However, you may be surprised to discover that others actually did sense some of these dynamics and will be understanding of the mixed thoughts and feelings you are coping with. Grief is also mixed with relief when a spouse dies following a long illness. Even if a caregiver willingly and lovingly provided regular care, she or he may be shocked at the feeling of relief following the death. There may have been impatience regarding the demands of the illness or wishes that it would have been over soon, mixing sorrow and relief and guilt for a triple whammy. The commonness of these experiences led authors Jennifer Elison and Chris McGonigle to publish Liberating Losses: When Death Brings Relief (Da Capo Press, 2004), which details the contours of grief when the relationship or circumstances of the death were complex. They found many widows and widowers who acknowledged the reality of relief in the midst of sorrow. Relief in grief is not, of course, only experienced in spousal loss. Ambivalent and conflicted relationships with parents, siblings, children, and other significant persons in our lives can also lead to very mixed responses to loss. Death ends a particular life, but it does not close the memories of conflict, anger, and disappointment that need to be sorted out in the grieving process. Such mixed feelings can understandably extend the grieving process as each of the many threads is explored towards coming to peace with the relationship. The website has a helpful entry on “Relief After A Death.” You seem to feel alone with what you call your “dirty little secret,” but others who knew your spouse can be partners with you in appreciating the complexities and finding meaning in the relationship despite the bittersweet difficulties it included. Of course, bereavement professionals can also be a good resource, even if they never met the person who died, because they have studied the dynamics of ambiguous and ambivalent losses and grief. Since it is not even six months since your husband’s death, be patient with yourself, knowing that grieving always takes longer than we anticipate. However, the outcome of a thorough consideration of a loss will lead to good outcomes in grief. I wish you the best and trust you will seek and receive the help you need. By The Rev. Paul A. Metzler, DMin, an Episcopal priest and psychotherapist, is semi-retired following over 40 years of service as a clergy member, therapist, and hospice-based grief counselor. Journeys with Grief: A Newsletter to Help in Bereavement, copyright Hospice Foundation of America, 2018.


Mimi Rothschild

Mimi Rothschild is the Founder and CEO of the Global Grief Institute which provides Certification training programs forGrief Coach, Trauma Coach, End of Life Coach, and Children's Grief Coach. She is a survivor who has buried 3 of her children and her husband of 33 years. She is available for speaking engagements and comments to the press on any issue surrounding thriving after catastrophic loss. MEDIA INQUIRIES:

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