Note: Client names and details have been changed to protect their privacy.

Bethany felt relief after her mother died; a year later relief emerged again when her father died. She felt other emotions too: sadness, anger, regret. But it was the emotion of relief that troubled her, leading her to seek professional grief support.

“I’m so ashamed, I feel such guilt,” Bethany said. “What kind of person feels relieved when their parents die? Not a good person, that’s for sure.”

In our first grief support session 50-year-old Bethany told me of her mother’s “life-long battle with mental illness” and her father’s “life-long battle with alcohol addiction.” In childhood and throughout her adult life Bethany had been her parents’ primary caregiver – a “job” she found overwhelming.

“I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop – waiting for something to go wrong – because it always did. Hospitalizations. Binges. I always felt as if I was failing them and myself – that no matter what I did, it wasn’t enough, I wasn’t enough,” said Bethany.

What Relief Is Telling You That You Need to Know

The emotion of relief can be defined as a feeling or sense of optimism or release that follows after a source of anxiety, pain, stress or distress is removed. The word optimism connotes something positive or renewing - which can feel wrong when related to a loved one’s death. As you navigate your loss experience, if relief is present it is important to keep in mind that there are no good or bad, right or wrong, emotions. All emotions are informative, telling you something you need to know. What relief is telling you is this: the long-term or recent history with your loved one was in some way complicated, difficult or deeply draining, taking you to the limit of your ability to cope – perhaps even totally depleting your resilience capacity.

Factors That Can Cause Relief to Arise

There are three main factors that can cause relief to arise in the wake of a loved one’s death:

Release from a painful circumstance or history. If the nature of our relationship with the deceased was difficult, complicated, or abusive, a sense of release at their passing is not uncommon. As was with Bethany’s experience, difficult or complicating factors can include a loved one’s struggles with addiction and mental illness that leave us feeling helpless and hopeless regarding finding a right solution or avenue of care for ourselves or our loved one. A sense of release from fear into optimism, hope and a greater sense of inner safety can also arise if our history with the deceased was marked by physical or emotional abuse. Death as an end to a loved one’s history of criminal behavior can also bring forth relief.

Release from overwhelm. Resilience is the capacity to prepare for, recover from and adapt in the face of stress, challenge and adversity. Challenging people and challenging circumstances marked by stress and adversity can take us to the limit of our ability to skillfully cope, resulting in a sense of overwhelm (not knowing how to effectively deal with a situation) that negatively affects our physical, mental, emotional – and even spiritual – sense of well-being. Relief is a common and normal emotion when we are released from overwhelm.

In my work with Bethany, we focused on tools for self-compassion (see the blog post Mindful Self-compassion is Essential Self-care for Grief) as a strategy for healing feelings of guilt and shame flowing from a sense of relief. Self-compassion opened the door for Bethany to understand that she was placed in a situation beyond her capacity to cope, and that feeling “always on the verge of going under” as she once said was a symptom of overwhelm. She was then able to frame relief as a natural and normal response to her experience of long-term care-giving in a complicated situation for two people she found difficult.

Release from witnessing suffering. Relief can arise when we witness a loved one’s long-term suffering due to illness and/or physical deterioration come to an end.

Anticipatory Loss, Compassion Fatigue and Caregiver Burnout

Anticipatory loss, compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout are three terms important for understanding why relief often emerges when a loved one dies after a long-term illness or prolonged physical or mental deterioration:

  • Anticipatory grief (sometimes called anticipatory loss or preparatory grief) is related to distress and grief-related emotions such as sadness or anger a person may feel in the days, months or even years prior to the death of a loved. In my work in grief support, I have come to view anticipatory loss as a sort of grieving-as-you-go, beginning with a loved one’s life-changing or fatal medical diagnosis and ending at a loved one’s end of life.
  • Compassion fatigue is a term usually used in relation to professional healthcare workers that can also be applied to family members or friends engaged in the long-term care of a loved one. Often called “the cost of care-giving,” compassion fatigue is characterized by severe physical, emotional and mental exhaustion and a profound decrease in the ability to empathize. It is a form of secondary traumatic stress as the stress occurs as a result of helping or wanting to help those who are in need due to illness or trauma.
  • Caregiver burnout is a hallmark of severe stress depletion resulting from long-term care-giving.

Seeing a loved one in pain is hard. Watching a loved one’s health deteriorate is hard. Experiencing changes in a relationship with a loved one as they move toward death is hard. When a loved one’s suffering – and our own suffering as witness – is alleviated by death, relief is a common and normal response. But that does not mean that our grief or sense of loss is at an end but rather that relief is just one of many emotions to be navigated as part of our loss journey.

My husband Michael’s mother died of brain cancer when he was in his early twenties. Over a seven-year period, Michael watched as his vibrant, loving, once healthy mother slowly lost her sight, the ability to speak and eventually the ability to walk. He witnessed her experience of struggling to live even as terrible pain consumed her. When she died, Michael was shocked by the relief he felt; it took him several years to understand the extent to which he suffered watching his mother’s suffering. And it took him years to understand that the relief he felt did not mean that he wanted his mother to die – he just wanted an end to her suffering.

Feeling Relief Is Not the Same as Wanting Someone to Die

Feeling relief in the wake of someone’s death does not mean that you did not love that person.

And it does not mean that you wished or wanted that person to die – this fear was at the root of Bethany’s feeling that she was no longer “a good person,” and also at the root of Michael’s delayed processing of other grief emotions such as sadness.

Rather relief indicates a wish that the experience – the situation, the relationship, the other person - had been somehow different, less difficult, less draining, more understandable. This very human desire speaks of your individual desire as father, mother, sister, brother, son, daughter, spouse or friend for peace for yourself and your loved one.

Suggested related blog readings:
Grief and the Language of Emotions
Grieving the Death of Someone Who Hurt You
Estranged Losses
The Process of Accepting Difficult Grief Emotions