Grief over the death of a loved one is often fraught with deeply buried, complex emotions that bubble to the surface. No matter who it’s for, grieving is rarely a simple task. But for individuals who lose someone whom they are not on good terms with, the grieving process may be even more confusing, riddled with conflicting thoughts and emotions.
The young sister of a 19-year-old brother who recently died from a heroin overdose wrote The New York Times’s “Dear Sugars” column and asked how she could understand — and ultimately resolve — these feelings.
“Dear Sugars” is an advice column and podcast moderated by Cheryl Strayed, author of “Wild,” and Steve Almond, author and essayist. Together, they addressed her sensitive and complex question.
Calling herself “Confusedly Grieving,” the sister wrote:
Every time I close my eyes, I see him in the casket. The thing is, I hated him more deeply than I’ve ever hated anyone. He terrorized my mother and me, stole my money and medication, and made my home feel unsafe. I often wished for his death, which makes me feel like the worst human being on earth.
She continued, explaining that his death has left her with tremendous pain and sadness:
And yet I’m still in pain. I feel guilty about my grief, like I shouldn’t be allowed to mourn because I was cruel to him and hated him when he was alive. I don’t know what I miss about him or understand where my sadness is coming from.
Almond responded that she was focusing on her feelings of guilt and anger, and by doing so, it distracted her from feeling pain. He quoted author James Baldwin who wrote:
“People cling to their hates so stubbornly because they sense, once the hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
Strayed acknowledged the sister’s right to mourn, advising her that her hatred of him doesn’t erase her pain and sadness, but instead, “complicates and magnifies it.” Strayed validated her feelings and tells her that her grief will continue to evolve. This corresponds to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s widely-followed “Five Stages of Grief” model which includes: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
According to Grief.com, guilt corresponds to the “Bargaining” stage, in which the person thinks about what they could have done differently:
The “if onlys” cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt. People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another and back again to the first one.
Almond hypothesized that maybe the sister is using her feelings of self-loathing, hatred, and pain to keep her brother close to her since those are feelings he harbored toward himself.
This is how it works with those whom we love most deeply: They find a way not just of showing us how they feel, but of making us feel as they do. Death doesn’t bring an end to that dynamic … Like all mourners, you are searching for a way to keep your brother alive, even if that means absorbing his riotous anguish.
Both authors agreed that the bottom line is that death doesn’t stop the feelings; it amplifies them. The sister’s anger and guilt keep her brother alive. Strayed recommended a therapist or grief group to help her manage her feelings, adding:
Be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to have the feelings you have without questioning why you’re having them.
Almond wrote that she could move forward through forgiveness.
Here’s the thing that may be hardest to face: You were stronger than your older brother. You wanted to save him, but he wouldn’t allow it. Instead, he kept you and the rest of the family at bay. His failure … was a failure of mercy. He couldn’t forgive himself, so he destroyed himself instead.
Almond continued, writing that facing the same underlying emotions her brother chose to bury and ignore makes her brave. But mostly, he told her, she must forgive herself:
It may not feel like it at the moment, but you’ve taken a braver path, which is why you’re feeling every bit of this loss. It tells me that you’ll find a way to forgive your brother — and yourself. In this mercy, salvation begins.
While the sister may deal with these feelings for a long period of time, by addressing them head-on, it will help her eventually make peace with her brother and herself, and in doing so, will heal.