Linda Lewis Griffith

What to do when someone we have a strained relationship with dies

Grief is a sad, challenging time in which we cope with the loss of a loved one and adapt to the hole in our lives.

But sometimes we have a difficult relationship with the deceased, and the death unleashes a mishmash of confusing and complex emotions.

For instance, a woman in the process of divorcing her cheating husband learns that he has died in a motorcycle accident. Suddenly, her anger at his betrayal is commingled with sorrow and pity for his family.

Societal expectations dictate that we honor and respect the newly departed. When we aren’t appropriately upset, we feel ashamed, even sacrilegious. Such taboo thoughts are too uncomfortable to share with others; as a result, we feel isolated and alone.

The presence of so many unsettling emotions makes us feel guilty and bad. We worry that we’re somehow not human or that we’re going about the grieving process in the wrong way.

The death of a difficult loved one dredges up painful memories. We recall countless visits to the county jail when our daughter was arrested for selling drugs. Or hear our inebriated father yelling at Mom when we were young. Often, we’ve spent years healing from the un pleasant events. We like to feel that we’ve moved on. But the death puts the pain front and center in our lives. We feel bitter that it’s happening yet again.

Negative emotions also are intertwined with happy ones. Yes, your only child was hysterically funny and witty. But his mental illness and subsequent suicide made living with him a kind of hell. It’s impossible to revisit the joy without also rekindling the trauma. Because death is final, there’s no chance for reconciliation. That long-hoped-for talk will never happen. We’re tempted to feel hopeless and tumble into a downward emotional spiral. Instead, it defines an endpoint, a chance to make things better from here on out.

Of course, all relationships have their ups and downs. No household escapes its share of angst. Gaiety and anguish are both parts of the human experience. Allow your grief to reflect it.


Identify your emotions. Name and experience every feeling as it crops up. Avoid being judgmental. Each one is OK.

Express your feelings. Decide what feels best for you. You may want to paint, plant a garden, run a marathon or volunteer for a relevant cause.

Keep a journal. A journal gives you a safe place to express difficult feelings and lets you keep track of your personal journey.

Write a letter to the deceased. This is a safe, private way to express anger, disappointment, regret or sorrow. You might burn the letter afterward or save it for future reference.

Focus on positive characteristics. The loved one may have been challenging. But there were wonderful aspects, too. Make space for good memories.

Join a support group. Compassionate members will provide a safe environment in which to share difficult feelings.

Plan ahead for emotional triggers. Anniversaries, holidays or special events may reawaken uncomfortable memories. Consider strategies for handling strong emotions.