Have you ever noticed that everyone’s obituary is filled with a list of their loving relatives, education and accomplishments, military service, business or employment success stories and talents? It presents a summary of the wonderful parts of a person’s life. Eulogies also extol the virtues of the deceased, and is given by someone who knew them best or who was closest to them.
But what if, in reality, the deceased was not always wonderful and loving to their family members? It certainly is not appropriate in an obituary or a eulogy to say so. But the truth is, none of us are as wonderful as we are presented to be after death. It is as though upon death, all the family problems, heartache, shame, or hurt the person may have caused their family is somehow magically washed away.
In reality, that is not the case. While most of us love and are loved by our family members, no family is perfect. We all have our family issues, some more significant than others. But it is often difficult to acknowledge negative feelings that persist in regard to the deceased, because to do so can bring shame and guilt upon us.
You may wonder how I dare to still feel angry at the deceased for any unfinished business between us? I must be a terrible person to have loved them but disliked them at the same time. Yes, we can love someone but dislike them, or love them but dislike their behavior. Perhaps the deceased had addictions to alcohol or other drugs which made the family miserable, even terrified at times. Perhaps the deceased was abusive to their spouse, children or others. Perhaps the deceased gambled away the family’s money, or was unfaithful to their spouse. Perhaps the deceased was just a plain old difficult person, hard to live with or talk to without starting an argument.
Any of these issues can leave us feeling angry, guilty, embarrassed, shameful, or otherwise conflicted after the death. That’s all right. Having conflicted feelings about the person who has passed is a normal part of processing grief. Sometimes a surviving family member is angry at the illness or disease that caused the loved ones death. Or perhaps they are angry about years of their own lives spent caring for the loved one, and feel as though their efforts were not appreciated by the deceased or by other family members. A family member may also be angry at the deceased just for dying and leaving them alone, especially if that person didn’t take care of their health. There’s added angst if they didn’t have a will, power of attorney, executor, or life insurance. There are many things that they may have left undone, which then become the problem of the surviving family members.
Whatever the emotional, legal, financial, or other problems left behind by the deceased, it is OK for the living to struggle with a mixture of feelings: love and hate, for example. No, things are not always the way they appear to be in an obituary or eulogy. Only the positive side of the deceased is presented, and sometimes other things are just shoved under the rug. No one is perfect, in life or in death. People are not angels or demons. Therefore the surviving friends and family members of the deceased should not hesitate to express their conflicted feelings to friends or family who will listen, or in a bereavement group. Bereavement groups are not hard to find, and are often held in hospitals and churches.
If you are struggling with conflicted feelings about someone who has died, don’t keep them inside. You cannot heal by pushing feelings back or trying to just forget about them. Begin your own healing process by getting your feelings, good and bad, off your chest among others who probably can identify with your experience. To do so is often a great relief, sometimes even a lifesaver. Start today, and I wish you well in your healing.
Jane V Milardo, LMFT
Marriage and Family Therapist