Note: names of clients and friends have been changed to honor their privacy.
When someone close to us dies, a legacy of love is usually assumed. And therefore it is also assumed that we will grieve that person with warm affection and a sense of loss for their physical absence. But this is not everyone’s experience.
When my mother died I felt relief. And I felt a sense of safety in the physical world I had never felt while she was alive. Before she died I had spent a lifetime grieving what was, what had never been and what would never be and by the time she died I thought there was nothing left to grieve. This is a hard thing to admit – but it is the truth of my experience.
You Have a Right to Grieve Based on Your Truth
While our society tends to support a myth of all-families-are-happy, the reality is many of us are bequeathed a complicated legacy of painful memories, and unresolved hurt and disappointment in the wake of death due to past or on-going verbal or physical abuse, neglect, current or past unresolved conflict, and more. This personal legacy can make it more difficult to both define what we are grieving and discern what a personalized healing path forward might look like. Typical questions that often arise when a person who has hurt us dies can include: Should I talk about my hurt and to whom? How honest should I be? How do I eulogize the person who did me harm? What will people think of me if I voice perceptions and feelings not in alignment with other members of my family or community?
Although there is a societal taboo against speaking ill of the dead, answering these questions in a way that is healing doesn’t lie in pretending the deceased was perfect but rather in allowing for truthful acknowledgment and expression of the individualized nature of our relationship with the deceased and how that individualized nature impacts our sense of loss.
“We all have the right to grieve based on the truth of our experience and we need to afford that right to ourselves and others,” says Rosemary a hospital chaplain I recently met at a workshop I presented on grief and spiritual practices. In her 35 year career, Rosemary has helped thousands of family members work through grief after someone close dies.
“Trying to saint someone after death who wasn’t saintly – someone who has hurt us or was just plain difficult – just so that we don’t make ourselves and others uncomfortable or break any social taboos can cause us to feel invalidated in our loss. And it can complicate and prolong our grieving process because we feel we have no safe place or safe person to express and share the truth of what we feel is lost.”
Honoring Your Truth: Processing Complicated Emotions
An overarching guideline for dealing with loss after someone who hurt you dies is: don’t ‘should’ on your loss. It is important to not judge what you feel and think. Your relationship with the person who died was unique so allow your grief journey its uniqueness, as well. This may require a sounding board such as a grief support professional or compassionate friend or family member with whom you can be real with about who hurt you and about your feelings no matter how messy or complicated. This validation in a safe place with a safe person can be very healing.
For me that safe place and person was a friend, a nun I knew who worked at a retreat center where I often present workshops. I sought her counsel because after my mother died what I wanted and needed to voice felt at odds with what other members of my family were willing to express or understand. With my friend’s help, I spent a weekend crying and writing a “list of hurts” including my grief over feeling relief. Over that weekend and the next several months we explored each of those hurts. Eventually I made three grief masks expressing specific painful emotions. A year after my mother’s death I shredded all I had written about my loss into tiny pieces and then buried those pieces in my garden (this is called grief composting) and planted my mother’s favorite flowers – geraniums – over the shredded paper. Whenever I looked at those seasonal flowers that summer in the fresh season of my grief I felt a deep sense of acceptance of my mother and her flawed humanness – as well as my own.
Honoring Your Truth: Eulogizing the Dead
In his book, The Beauty of What Remains, author Rabbi Steve Leder says “it might seem counterintuitive, but pretending a person was perfect at his or her funeral often makes the family feel worse, not better - as if the funeral were a kind of theater piece that they were knowingly a part of. A show. A scam.”
When a difficult or harmful person has died, Leder urges survivors to “seek a way to say difficult things about someone that those in the know will recognize as truth yet those on the outside will simply perceive as a benign observation…”
When someone who hurt you dies, you are under no obligation to present a eulogy. However, if you chose to do so, below are examples of two clients and a friend who recently followed Leder’s approach to the best of their ability when eulogizing difficult or abusive family members. Their examples are given here to serve as helpful illustrations of Leder’s suggestion.
For many years, Kate was the main care-giver for her younger sister, Dana. Dana struggled throughout her life with mental illness – struggles that were often expressed to others as verbal abuse, contrariness and an unwillingness or inability to follow doctor’s orders regarding a path of best possible self-care. Although Kate was a mainstay in Dana’s life, many other family members found interacting with Dana beyond their capacity to cope for any length of time.
Kate gave Dana’s memorial eulogy, the focus of which was the general nature of mental illness and how mental illness can make life and relationships more difficult.
Lance became a psychologist in part to figure out “how I survived such a painful childhood.” Lance once described his father as “an uncaught criminal” whose behaviors included being a “peeping Tom” and “molester” of girls and women. By the time his father died of dementia, Lance had done a lot of “inner work” in regards to the man who could never be his role model.
Lance gave the eulogy at his father’s funeral. He began the eulogy by acknowledging in unspecified terms both that his father was a deeply troubled and difficult man but that he, Lance, was grateful to his father for “providing the gift of life.” Lance then spoke - again in a non-specific way - about all that his father had taught him by example of “what not to be, what not to say, and what not to do” all of which Lance was grateful for having learned from his father – although he wished there had been a different learning path offered by their relationship. Lance’s daughter later told me how her father’s thoughtful and compassionate eulogy reflected his way of being and that she hoped to someday be “a person like him.”
Both Jenny and her father, Roy, were my clients. Roy first came to me to learn how to better manage his anger – anger that by his own admission usually came out as uncontrolled blistering verbal abuse of anyone or anything in his path. Roy’s hope was that learning better self-control would eventually lead to healing the estrangement between himself and his daughter. Together 20-year-old Jenny and I worked on trauma issues regarding her father’s verbal abuse and physical threats, work Jenny hoped would someday open the door to forgiveness and reconnecting with her father in a healthy way. Then Roy suddenly died.
Four people eulogized Roy at his memorial service, including Jenny. At the service I noted a general theme in each eulogy of “well you know how difficult Roy was” – a theme carried out with humorous anecdotes and forgiving grace. When it was Jenny’s turn to speak, she acknowledged her father’s many good qualities – his love of learning, his zest for life, his great story-telling, the amazing pizza he would make her when she was a child. And then Jenny tearfully let slip (or perhaps not?) the words “I wish my father hadn’t been such a prick.” At her words, a brief stunned silence fell over the room quickly followed by heart-felt laughter. The memorial-goers had extended forgiveness to Roy for his humanness and now seeing his daughter’s pain were extending it to Jenny, as well.