The word “family” carries unique connotations for each of us. Ideally, families are a source of acceptance, unconditional love, and support. While the greater culture typically portrays and promotes this idealized, archetypal view of family, the reality is that families are made up of individual human beings who may or may not be able to provide these things for each other. We all have our own personalities, wants, and needs, and the ways in which we interact, communicate or express these with others in our family influence the quality of relationships that we have.
This is true for the actual direct relationship with our family member(s), but it also has an effect on our interactions with others who may in some way remind us of that person. Likewise, complicated family dynamics can color our understanding of what “family” could mean, which is especially important to keep in mind when two people choose to come together into a long-term intimate relationship. A “friendly family get-together” can take on a whole other meaning for the partner for whom family get-togethers were anything but friendly.
So what do you do when you have a strained relationship with a family member and that person dies? Grieving the loss of a family member is difficult even when the relationship has been positive, but what about grief due to the loss of a family member with whom the relationship was anything but positive? Such an experience is complicated because it’s normal to feel ambivalence around the loss. On one hand you feel relief that the person is no longer around, but you may feel guilty at the same time because you feel relieved.
Looking at it more deeply, the death of that person is also more than just the end of the relationship that existed, but it also marks the end of the possibility of experiencing a different kind of relationship with that person. This can be difficult to grapple with because I think that many, if not all, of us ultimately want to have positive familial relationships, and when the relative with whom one would like to have a better relationship dies, that possibility is forever gone.
My own professional and personal experiences with complicated family relationships at end-of-life have led me to see the value in examining what one wants “family” to mean. It’s easy to remain angry and bitter, or feel like a victim, but ultimately that doesn’t serve you. (But don’t get me wrong, I am a proponent of feeling the heavy, painful feelings; I just don’t believe in getting stuck in them.)
By looking at your lost relationship from a perspective of what you don’t want or didn’t want, you can identify what it is that you do want. You can seek out those relationships that do serve you- that do allow for you to feel valued, respected and accepted. Eventually the sadness or anger felt towards the original person can shift into forgiveness and gratitude as it has served as a means for you to experience new, enriching relationships.