A couple of years ago, I received a call from a very dear friend late in the evening. She was in tears and had trouble talking. Between sobs and gasps, she told me that she had received a call from the coroner’s office in her hometown informing her that her father had died. I was just as surprised as my friend given that we had spoken about her father earlier in the day and she had expressed so much gratitude that they were finally beginning to have regular conversations.
You see, my friend and her father had been estranged for years and had only recently began to reconnect. In fact, he had sent her a care package that week full of food items so that she wouldn’t have to go to the grocery store during the pandemic. My friend and her father had very different belief systems that caused a tremendous amount of tension between them and I think my friend never felt truly accepted by him because of it. She found his beliefs to be rigid, unforgiving, and short sighted. On top of that, her parents had divorced when she was a child and her father wasn’t there for her regularly and he hadn't kept up with her in her adulthood.
Despite all of that, my friend was the first person contacted by the coroner upon her father’s death. She was asked what to do with her father’s remains and told that he had more than likely died of COVID-19. Last time they spoke, just days before, he mentioned having a small cold.
In the days after his death, she was asked to write his obituary and struggled to come up with nice things to say. She felt a searing anger towards him and, despite all of her efforts, she was only be able to focus on the difficulty within their relationship. She had so much self judgement for these feelings with only seemed to make her mourning more difficult to cope with. How could she be expected to write nice things about someone who had abandoned her as a child, who held such a different life values, and whose death had left her in the position of never, ever having the possibility of a loving father/daughter relationship?
Sometimes when we have complicated relationships with loved ones, their death can bring about unexpected and difficult feelings of pressure on top of the sadness, anger, and shock that often accompany grief. We like to think that when someone in our family dies that the feelings we feel will be straight forward. We expect sadness for an “appropriate” amount of time, we expect to go to their funeral, mingle with other family members and share happy memories and funny stories about the time they played that prank on a neighbor. We expect to work and our lives and think of our lost loved one with fondness occasionally. We think we will be sad because we lost someone who shared love with us and who made us feel good to be with them.
However, when we lose someone who we have a more complicated relationship with, the nature of grief can be very disorienting. We might have judge ourselves for the negative associations and memories that accompany the deep and profound sense of loss experienced. We might want to paint a picture in our minds of all the wonderful times spent with them but are left with an incomplete or blank canvas. We mourn for what we had and what we never could.
The truth is that all relationships are some degree of complicated. Love is rarely like the movies and neither is death. It is okay to feel all of the complicated truths that exist within you. I believe in a way, that might be the best way to honor who the person was and who you are, not who we wanted them to be or who we want to be.
Lura Hawkins, LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist practicing in California. Lover of animals and poetry.