Q & A Today: Grieving A Conflicted Relationship
Updated: Jan 19, 2022
By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC
Posted on February 21, 2021
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Q: My uncle died last month from cancer. He was my father’s brother, and he lived next door to us for my entire childhood. For me, growing up with him was not your typical uncle/nephew caring relationship. For some reason, he never liked me. He bullied me, and being a child, I didn’t understand why he treated me that way or know how to stop it. When I got angry he’d say he was just playing around with me, that I was too sensitive, couldn’t take a joke and should toughen up. It affected my self-esteem and probably was the cause for not doing well in school and being afraid to get too close to other people. It angers to think of how much of my childhood was stolen from me.
It was difficult when he died because people would say things to me like, “I hope you find comfort in your fond memories.” I actually felt relief when he died, but now, with the passage of time, I find myself becoming more and more conflicted. Sometimes it just infuriates me that he knowingly hurt me psychologically for so many years. And then at other times I think about incidents that occurred between us, and the many hateful things I said to him. I now wish I’d handled myself differently. If I had done so, perhaps he would have been nicer to me and we could have had a relationship of quality.
I’m feeling a little bit lost right now, and don’t know of anyone else who has had this type of painful family dynamic. I’m interested in your thoughts. – Name withheld by request
A: When we lose a family member we usually think about the meaning that person brought to our lives and what the absence of that person will mean to us. We all react differently to death, but if the relationship has been positive and important, the loss will likely be a painful experience in which we experience strong feelings of grief. Our sadness can be intense, even overwhelming because along with the sadness can come stress and anxiety, making the grieving process a lonely and sad time in our lives.
When someone we love dies, the positive memories of shared experiences tend to bubble to the top. The negative memories receive less of an emotional reaction from us. But, as we all know, some relationships in our lives are messy. Sometimes it is with a parent who was abusive or emotionally unavailable when we were growing up because they had an addiction or psychological disorder. Or they were physically absent because they were incarcerated or divorced and living far away. Conflicted relationships can occur with any number of people; an in-law, teacher, neighbour, family friend, or as in your situation, your uncle. We are often unprepared when these individuals die because the grief we experience is so different and more complicated than if grieving a satisfying relationship.
Mourning a difficult relationship such as that of your uncle carries its’ own unique challenges and complicates how you can grieve for him now that he has died. The death of your uncle who inflicted emotional pain on you for years means that you are now grieving that which you never had, that which might have been, and that for which you no longer have any hope of experiencing.
It is fully understandable to have contradictory feelings. You mentioned the hurt from years of bullying, but then you also reflected on your guilt at not having done more to correct the direction of your relationship. You also speak of years of pent up anger from being victimised by your uncle, which can explain relief that he is gone and can no longer hurt you, while you also feel hurt that you never got to learn why he treated you so badly.
You’re still early in your grieving process, but I encourage you to move forward by letting go of your anger towards your uncle. Forgiveness is hard work, but holding onto your anger, even though it is justified, will hurt you.
Anger can fester inside of you, grow and become toxic, robbing you of your well-being and threaten your health. Perhaps you’re familiar with the saying, “Forgive others not because they deserve it but because you deserve the peace.” You most certainly deserve this peace.
Forgiveness does not excuse your uncle’s behaviour. While we can all agree that bullying is never acceptable, and emotional abuse of a child is even worse, your uncle was a family member, which makes the hurt and violation of trust an even greater injustice. However, if you can reframe how you view his unacceptable behaviour, it may help you redirect your feelings of anger into pity or compassion. Think of what he missed in life by the choices he made. Be curious about what could have possibly occurred in his life to have made him relate in such an unhealthy way to you. It is often said that hurt people hurt others. What do you know about his experiences growing up that contributed to him hurting you?
And then finally, consider the value of self-forgiveness. You have to remember that you were a child when the abuse first took place. You did the best that you could at the time with what you knew. You can’t take back what you said in the past or redo your actions. Continually revisiting memories in which you engaged and feeling bad about what you said and did as a child creates feelings of shame. Such feelings can become unbearable and zap you of the peace of mind you deserve.
I encourage you to instead practice self-compassion, which will counteract the hurt that is attempting to take up permanent residence in your heart and mind and will thereby help you heal. Journalling can help you understand the whole of you, both the good as well as the parts of yourself that can change with the benefit of being open to unvarnished 20:20 hindsight. Tell the little child within you that you understand the pain that was endured, and that the child deserved better.
Revisiting your feelings of self-blame will allow you to honesty look at yourself and decide what feelings or behaviours you would like to change from today going forward. In the future, when you encounter a similar situation in which someone is trying to bully you, you won’t have to respond as you did as a child. You can choose healthier ways of coping.
While everyone has to grieve in his or her own way, and in their own amount of time, grief is not a place in which you want to plant roots. Nor is shame. By forgiving your uncle and yourself you can discover joyous pathways in your life, including trust and closeness with others, which have up to now remained shut and undiscovered.
Be well and find inner comfort going forward.
Wishing you well,
Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC is author of Overcoming Adversity: Conquering Life’s Challenges, by Australian Academic Press. Eileen is a life and business coach and public speaker residing in the United States. She has spent her professional career working in medical and psychiatric hospitals and in her private practice, counselling people experiencing emotionally traumatic events.
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