Grief In The Time Of Conflict
Loss of a relationship is painful but how much more difficult is it to mourn the loss of a difficult relationship? Psychiatry experts show us the way to let go of grief in the time of conflict.
Mrs. Y’s husband passed away recently when he was 88 after 60 years of married life. “We used to have our arguments earlier but in the last 10-15 years that was all over, I just went along with whatever he wished. His demands on my time and energy were relentless but he really was not able to take care of his own needs,” she confided in her sister.
Was it really ‘over’ though? Dr Ashlesha Bagadia, Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist with a background in Family Systems and Relationship Therapy observes, “When Mrs. Y says ‘it was all over…’ it wasn’t actually over. She just decided to make it go away because there was no other choice according to her. If it was really over she would have said to him, ‘I really don’t like these things about you, but I’ve decided to let go of my feelings.’ The fact that she voiced this after his death tells us that did not happen.
“Resentments build up over time and then when the person dies, we are faced with our accumulated anger towards him/ her. The surviving partner will be angry for two reasons neither of which is articulated at a conscious level: how dare you go away before I had a chance to tell you how bad it was for me? And how dare you die before I take my revenge on you? Revenge, in the sense of the other person experiencing the same compromises that the victim had to make. Other questions that come up are the fact of their own mortality – ‘what have I done with my life so far and why did I not get a chance to speak my story?’ could be the background chatter in their lives,” says Dr Bagadia.
A Difficult Mourning
The spectrum of ‘difficult to mourn’ can vary from a scale of 1 – 10 depending on how the relationship of the deceased has played out with his/her close family members, especially the spouse. If conflict has been a part and parcel of their daily lives, then it is likely that their death has spelt relief but if the family has been forced to tolerate the conflict for fear of upsetting the apple cart, relief comes with a whole host of painful emotions that leave the survivors unable to move beyond the anger and disappointment of a life less lived. Condolence visits can often lead to an evaluation of the survivor’s life and invariably you hear the spouse say: I could have been/ done so much more if only…
Men and women alike can play perpetrators and victims. Often when men retire and are not the active bread-winners that they used to be, women who played victim earlier will start lashing back. And it’s interesting that even in extreme cases of marital abuse when women are offered the opportunity to separate and create their life anew they don’t take it because staying in the position of victim is for them far more powerful than becoming truly empowered. Conflict between spouses/parents and children/ siblings or even once-close friends can be a tricky space to navigate when the person who cares for you does not do that. It is as if even before they lose the person there is a loss of the person.
Adult Children Bear The Brunt
Unfortunately, conflicted relationship between parents can mean that the burden of sacrifice is huge for the children because the underlying message which is loud and clear is: I’ve given up so much for you and you better turn out perfect. This adult child is already carrying the double burden of losing a parent and caring for the surviving parent. In addition to that s/he has to cope with the burden of guilt: what could I have done to save this marriage that I didn’t do? When grown-up children take charge of the victimised parent and create a caring environment then perhaps there is a sense of resolving feelings of anger and denial but often the children don’t have the space to grieve because nobody else is there to take care of the practical aspects of loss.
Dr Bagadia adds, “There’s also this situation which is becoming more common with demographic migration patterns. Grown children are living overseas and not able to come when a parent dies because their immigrant status or finances do not allow this. If it has been a healthy relationship things may get resolved over time but if not, the survivors’ guilt can be huge.”
Being Ruled From The Grave
Often we continue to be in ‘victim’ mode when the oppressor is no more by continuing to make those choices for ourselves that the oppressor made when s/he was alive. This gives us a justification to stay angry by accepting to be ‘ruled from the grave’. Perhaps, this may also be a way of saving face, so that our relatives never figure out that our relationship was flawed to begin with. What is the lesson for the living in this? “The healthy thing in any relationship is to be able to sit down and speak to the other person about how you feel and control the damage to the relationship and may be even turn it around for good when it is still possible,” says Dr Bagadia.
Typically our grief cycle runs through anger, guilt, denial, depression, bargaining and finally acceptance. Sometimes one emotion gets enmeshed in another one before it gets resolved so there is no chronological order for completion of the grief cycle. And even acceptance is more like a wave, in that it comes and goes with different intensities at different stages.
Dr Salman Akhtar, world-renowned psychiatrist has said that when we experience the death of a loved one, we re-place the person and his/her role in our life. What this means is that we don’t put a different person in the same role, for example that of a parent but we re-place that person’s role in our lives by creating a space of honour or memory of him/her.
How To Let Go
*Writing regularly in your journal helps to understand your loss better. But if words do not bring you relief try something else like gardening that gives you the space to reflect.
* Sharing your feelings with people who care may lead to deeper understanding too and if they have had similar experience these conversations may lead to insights.
* One way to bring out memories is to literally air out all belongings of the dead – as we pick each item used by him or her, memories linked to the how and where will spring up and not all of these memories may be pretty. Make sure that you have a back-up person – a friend or adult child or relative to bounce off your feelings so that your emotions do not get out of control. *It’s okay to go through those bad-sad memories and then to also feel whatever you are feeling. Very often people want to reach resolution without going through the process of acknowledging the underlying conflicted feelings and what they meant to them. Going through the dead person’s belongings is thus a process of acknowledgement of all that there was. Allow yourself to feel those feelings but have someone to hold you if start falling apart – like scaffolding around a construction site.
Next Week: When The Grief Cycle Turns Complicated