What if someone dies and “it’s complicated”?
Relationships with family and the deceased can be complicated by a sudden, unexpected death, ambivalent feelings toward the deceased, and unresolved situations. Grief counselor Joan Guntzelman offered her insights into complicated grief situations.
“Death is always a time of disbelief anyway, but when it comes as an unexpected shock, the family may have lots of unfinished business,” says Guntzelman. “The hardest grieving is when people didn’t work out their problems, didn’t apologize, or whatever it might be that they needed to do.”
Some of the most difficult grief to deal with involves ambivalent relationships, such as when you love someone 45% of the time and can’t stand them 55% of the time. This “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” situation requires the bereaved to pay special attention to the negative side and address it internally to avoid future problems with unfinished business.
Guntzelman encourages creating a dialogue with the deceased person. Start by imagining the person is sitting in a chair next to you and talking with him or her, with you supplying both sides of the conversation. She explains, “Even though the person is dead, you can still talk to them. Most of us believe that the spirit lives on in some way, and I know of many people who have been able to resolve their grief through these kinds of conversations.”
When a person gradually declines toward their death because of age, illness, or disablement, anticipatory grieving sets in before the person dies. It can actually be a huge help, even though we don’t realize it.
“Anticipatory grieving is a part of the natural human response, figuring out how we’re going to keep on going without this person. It can also be a boon to the person who’s dying, because then we can talk about it more openly,” says Guntzelman. “When it’s expected, there’s time to ask for forgiveness. The biggest pain for many people who grieve is all the regrets, the ‘if only I had’ thoughts.”
“If you have difficult relationships, it’s important to be sure it’s a ‘clean’ relationship, always clearing up unfinished business,” she adds. “I can’t tell you how many times people would say to me, ‘I never told him I loved him. I should have told him more that I loved him.’ After all my work with dying folks, whenever I talk to anybody in my family, before I hang up the phone, I always say, I love you.”