A Grief Support Blog

This blog will allow you the opportunity to acquire both support and guidance after experiencing a significant loss.

Unresolved Grief: The end of difficult relationships with less than loved ones

In "Killer Clichés" about loss we talked about grieving and completing our relationships with loved ones who have died. While the death of a loved one is painful, we are often complete with loved ones. That is to say that we have communicated our feelings about them, to them. We believe that they knew how we felt and that we were understood. When a loved one dies we may be overwhelmed with conflicting feelings, we may feel disoriented and confused, and we may feel robbed of one last chance to say "I love you" and "goodbye." Even though we are often essentially complete when a loved one dies, after the death we usually remember some things that we wish we'd had a chance to say. We need to discover those unsaid things and say them. The appropriate methods for communicating the unsaid things are detailed in The Grief Recovery Handbook.


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Unresolved Grief: What happens when a "less than loved one" dies?

Perhaps a parent or a sibling, someone with whom we should have had a more loving relationship. We are almost always incomplete when a "less than loved one" dies. Almost always we are left with the awareness that our hopes and dreams of someday having the difficult relationship be pleasant and happy have ended. Even if our hope is simply not to be tormented anymore, the death often exaggerates the torment rather than diminishing it. That is when many of us report being "ruled from the grave."

Incomplete relationships unresolved grief.jpg

You don't have to be "stuck"

Many people labor under the misapprehension that once someone has died there is no way they can complete any unfinished emotional business. Happily, this is not true, or they would have to stay incomplete forever. The Grief Recovery Method helps grievers identify and complete the undelivered emotional communications that keep them tied to past painful experiences with people who have died or with relationships that have ended or changed. This process obviously does not require that the person we are incomplete with be a living or willing participant. Often our attempts to communicate with our "less than loved ones" failed, not because of our unwillingness, but because the other person was unable to listen to or talk about the things that we wanted and needed to talk about. Quite often our attempts to communicate started new and larger battles which may have been added to our list of unfinished or incomplete emotional events with them. Even after they have died, as we replay the events, we keep winding up hurt and helpless. We do not know how to end the vicious cycle. We may attempt to not think about them, but then a reminder will appear, outside of our control. We may see someone in the mall who looks like them, or a car similar to the one they drove. These reminders will often send us back into the pain caused by the incomplete emotional relationship. Most of you will realize that it is not possible to eliminate someone from your memory. You most assuredly cannot control the stimuli that cause you to remember a less than loved one. Even attempts at total isolation rarely work, as even dreams can rekindle painful memories.

Building an accurate memory picture

When a "less than loved one" dies we are often left with an extremely lopsided memory picture, almost exclusively negative. It seems as if we are the victim of these painful, negative memory pictures. We are also confused by our relationship to the painful memories that keep recurring. We must grieve and complete our relationship to the person as well as to our relationship with the pain we generate when we think about or are reminded of the person. And, we must grieve and complete our unmet hopes and dreams and expectations. You must become willing to re-experience some of the painful events, and finally communicate what you would have said had you been allowed to, or if you had known how. It may seem frightening to root around where there has been so much pain. Perhaps it would be more helpful to be frightened of the alternative, a life of restriction and limitation caused by staying incomplete. The alternative of keeping the pain forever, of trying not to remember, of trying to avoid any circumstances or events that remind you of that person. Many people today talk of giving away your power. There is no clearer or more painful example of that then to have your life's actions and reactions ruled by the painful memories of someone who is no longer here.

QUESTION: The above blog relates to a "less than loved one" who has died. What about "less than loved ones" who are still living?

ANSWER: Exactly the same principles apply when the "less than loved one" is still living. In fact, it is probably even more essential that you complete your part of that relationship as soon as you can. If not, you may live in constant fear of any kind of interaction with or reminder of that living person. Completion of your part of a relationship with a living person does not imply that the other person will or should change. Most likely they will continue to be just who and how they are. The difference is that you will be able to live a life of meaning and value, not limited by painful reminders of a relationship that did not live up to hopes, promises, dreams or expectations.

If you found this article helpful, we also suggest these articles from our Grief Blog:

7 signs you're experiencing unresolved grief

Unresoved Grief: How negative relationships can control your happiness

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January 1, 2012 my estranged husband of 22 year hung himself. We were together for 25 years. He was bi-polar. The last five years with him was hell. He left me with two young children (thankfully adopted and not burdened with his illness) and a mess to clean-up. It has taken me a few months to figure out it is ok to grieve that man I loved for 20 years and it is ok not to grieve the man he became in the last 5 years. His family blamed me for his suicide so the kids and I have had to grieve the loss of his family as well. We are going to go on to have a good life despite this.

Dear Valerie,

With all respect for you and your comments, we believe that you have to grieve and complete the entire relationship, the good, the bad, and sometimes, the ugly. Please note the phrase, “grieve and complete.” A lot of people think it’s just about grieving and then somehow they’ll be okay. But it’s the completion that allows the changes that enable us to move forward and have that good life, as you say, despite what has happened.

I have an entire family of less than loved ones. Every single person in my biological family, which includes 8 kids and 2 parents were and are less than loved ones. Some are already dead, and some are alive, but all of them except me do academy award grief performances every April 21, which is the day my biological mom died. April 21, 1996. And even that, in my mind, was a "that figures" moment.

We were taken away from her on April 21, 1975, b/c everyone in the family was abusive in every form. We were beaten, yelled at, starved for food and sexually abused to name a few.

But SHE thought nothing happened to us, and she died thinking that way.

And everyone else goes along with it except me, b/c I saw too much of it when I was a paramedic. I saw other people doing what my parents had done and blaming the kids for it, which is exactly what THEY did to US.

She went to her grave thinking everyone else was the problem. Not her. Not him. But everyone else.

I don't know how I'm going to complete all the times they did things like that to me. I mean the list of memories that I have is pages and pages long. If not the variety of abuses, the number of times I was abused in certain ways is at least 50 incidents long.

I have memories of having my head banged against walls repeatedly during one incident and the incidents are in the multiples of times that it was done. I have multiple memories of not being able to eat (and medical forms to prove it was true), of being kicked out of the house in below freezing weather w/out a coat and sometimes going to abandoned buildings to find shelter after being kicked out by our dad.

How am I supposed to grieve every one of those memories when all the remembrances are in multiples of 10?

A better question is how am I supposed to like what they did, but there's no answer to that.

I don't feel like or even believe I'm going to like what they did even if I forgive them.

Okay, I'm going to admit here that your absolute transparency has made me a bit uncomfortable. I was raised in a family where emotions (even at funerals) were considered a sign of weakness or self-indulgence. I moved on to a church family where any sign of weakness at all was deemed a lack of faith'. So, now as we peel through the layers and allow God to expose lies that have covered up who he created me to be, I am finding that tears and yes grief, can arise at the most inopportune moments. Things that I thought were so far in the recesses of my past that they were buried forever are being unearthed and brought to light. But what God is doing to heal is so healthy and so amazing! THANK YOU! for allowing grief and healing yourself so that others might follow. Transparent people lead others to a place where the truth will make them free. Our God is so much better than we've ever imagined.

Truth. It makes me think of the things I have learend in my own grieving seasons. Grief is so difficult because in order to overcome one must accept the pain of loss, feel deeply things of pain and suffer despair. Eventually as we work through pain God's comfort, peace and love do heal, but only as we begin to accept the reality of the new normal we find ourselves living. Good grief leads to deeper relationships with both God and others. Avoiding grief creates deeper pain for both the bereaved and those who care for them. It is worth the sorrow to realize God's joy on the other side of grief. Thank you for sharing.

I would like to see a response to the above. What does one do when the grievances are so many that are supposed loved one has done to another. Now they are gone. I have the Grief Recovery Handbook. It seems like the letter to someone who has abused me to such a degree would be long but it would not be therapeutic to write a long letter. Perhaps many short ones and go from incident to incident to try to complete?

Hi Georgia,

One of the things we go into more detail about in our Workshops and Trainings is to limit what might be called the “litany” or recitation of each and very time we were hurt or abused. It is the recitation of that kind of litany that can keep us stuck in the grief and cause us to be unwilling to move beyond it, because it has become our identity. Therefore, when doing the Grief Recovery Method Relationship Graph and Completion letter, we suggest limiting the amount of similar or parallel incidents get put into them.

We know the book doesn’t really stress that issue, with only a few mentions. One is on page 175, in the second paragraph, which starts with, “Many people tell the painful story of their loss over and over. They don’t realize that reciting a general litany of of unhappiness is one of the main reasons they stay stuck.”

Also on page 198, in the second paragraph, we say. “We’ve known people who put too many entries on a Loss History or Relationship Graph and don’t get the benefits of the graphs. They became repetitive and listed each and every example of similar things.”

Generally when there has been repeated mistreatment within your relationship with someone, we suggest you include the first major one you recall and maybe two or three others, but not the hundreds or even thousands that may have actually occurred. The reason for this is that you only need a few examples for truth and accuracy to which you will apply the recovery components, which in those negative things is mainly “forgiveness,” along with some accompanying “significant emotional statements” that identify how you were affected by the mistreatment.

Emotional completion is the by-product of the Graph and Letter when done that way. When people list every single event, they wind up re-owning the pain.

Re: the length of the Completion Letter. Here ‘s what we say on page 147, the second paragraph: “Generally, two or three standard written pages is sufficient. It is okay to write a little more or a little less. If you write more than five pages, you probably need to consider whether you’ve turned the letter into a newsletter, or if you are repeating the same things. “

As to Vicki’s comment, “I don’t feel like or even believe I’m going to like what they did even if I forgive them.” There’s nothing in the book that implies that you have to wind up liking someone who harmed you. That is not the goal, nor would it even make sense.

The goal is to become emotionally complete with what happened so that you don’t need to be a current victim of what happened in the past. It’s bad enough that you were mistreated and harmed, but you are the only one who can remove the burden by what you do now so you don’t just keep telling the story over and over and reigniting the pain.

From our hearts to yours,

Russell and John and the Grief Recovery Method Team

"The appropriate methods for communicating the unsaid ...",

How about rephrasing to state: "Some examples of appropriate ..."

It smacked to me as sounding very presumptuous for you to imply that YOU know what is APPROPRIATE ... leaving one to believe maybe they have been "doing it wrong".

Just sayin' ...

I lost my brother in June this year when he took his own life. We hadn't spoken for 3yrs, due to another family members jealously of our previously very close relationship. It has then been suggested that I should become overwhelmed with guilt, and that because we hadn't spoke for 3yrs my grief should be less than others in the family. I've also received a letter from my parents saying due to my brothers suicide, they didn't have the emotional capacity to deal with me as I too am mentally ill. My mothers grief counsellor told her she's to make herself no.1 in order to heal, yet my mother says, unless I get better, or put other people (meaning her) before myself then there will be no relationship. I ha suffer from severe continual depression & have done for 6 yrs and so because of that they've just disowned me. My 2 remaining brothers won't speak to me either, for no reason. I am seriously dreading Xmas, its the 1st without my bro, the 1st my parents won't be involved in, plus dealing with depression. I don't know how the hell I'm going to cope & I wish I could die too.

I lost my dad which was devastating, but the loss that has had the most negative ramification for me is the divorce and betrayal I experienced. I trust no one now and it's in my way at every turn. I can't seem to get beyond it. I wanted to order the book having to do with relationships, but I need it to be on a CD as I am not a good reader. I see the Grief Recovery Handbook mentions divorce and that kind of emotional loss, but it seems to be more about death. I want to make sure I'm getting what really I need. Thoughts? Thank you.

Hello Barb,

Thanks for your comment. Here is a link to our Audio version of The Grief Recovery Handbook on CD. http://www.griefrecoverymethod.com/books/the-grief-recovery-handbook-una...

This can definitely help you with both of the heartbreaking losses that you mentioned.

Also, please try and meet up with a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist in your area. Here is a link to the directory to find one in your area. http://www.griefrecoverymethod.com/outreach-program/

My ex husband of 12 years and father of my 3 sons killed himself 3 months ago shot himself in the head he was a part of my life for 20 years. Ppl don't understand y I'm hurting and can't get over it because we would fight a lot about child support but he was my kids dad and we married young we were apart of each others life's no matter what we didn't hate each other and I hope he didn't think I hated him I mean he knew it but I can't move on cause I feel awful for things we had done in the past. He was a good dad and no matter I knew he had my back. His family don't talk to me as much so I feel they blame me some too for his depression. It's hurts so much I cry every day wishing I could of seen it coming so I know how u feel

Summer, we are so sorry for your loss. What you're feeling is very normal. The Grief Recovery Method allows you to communicate all that was left unsaid, to forgive, and to apologize, and complete your loss, so that you can begin to heal and feel better. If you are interested in finding support and help to do this, please go here: https://www.griefrecoverymethod.com/grief-support-groups. You can search for one of our Grief Recovery Specialists in your area who can help you.

Another resource for adults who were abused or neglected as children is www.adultchildren.org.

Grief is all the same, no matter the cause. You will be helped by this method. Just do the work and watch it unfold.

My grandma passed away 2-12-2007 so 10 years ago. I dream of her monthly which is hard but I also feel lucky to see her so vividly. In every dream I have had she is alive but ill. She passesd from pulmonary fibrosis and was on oxygen, but in the dreams she isn t using oxygen she is just ill but alive. Sometimes other family members are in the dream as well and I am running arpund telling them she is okay and getting better. I like that I dream of her but when I wake and recall the vivid dream I am just reminded she is gone. I get emotional. I am wondering if these dreams are my minds way of telling me I haven't accepted her death? My grandma was more like a mom to me and we were very close. I was blessed to spend a weekend with her 2 weeks before her death. Pretty lucky although the night before her death we spoke on the phone briefly and I was going to call her back but didn't and the next morning I got the call she was gone. Cliche but it definately bothers me still. Are my feelings of guilt and dreams of her living unresolved grief. I am really good at detachment and putting issues on a shelf but want to work towards accepting her death as I work on clearing this shelf.
Dealing with the death of my father-in-law and also my mother-in-law. My father-in-law was a sweet man, and though he became depressed in the final few years of his life, he was an overall good person. I do think he and my mother-in-law had some issues in their marriage in the final years as well. She also deals with some very severe depression, and she is now living in a nursing home. Although our memories of him are mostly positive, there is so much complicating his death for us -- namely the very poor relationship we have with my mother-in-law. She refuses to communicate at all with my husband and me, badmouths him to people around her (including her pastor, who thought that it was all my husband's fault), and in the past, when she did communicate with us, would often get into huge arguments with my husband, leaving him livid, angry, and upset for days. She's pretty much become a toxic person. She adopted my husband, who has a permanent disability, as a young child, and she blames him for all of her health problems and has left him feeling ashamed, like adopting him was one of her greatest regrets. It's somehow HIS fault that she has diabetes (* note that she never ate well or bothered to monitor her glucose levels prior to the nursing home). It's somehow HIS fault that she has bad knees (forgetting the fact that she is obese and won't make efforts to lose weight). Anyway, you get the picture. My mother-in-law lives all the way across the country. People there are telling my husband not to even bother coming out there because they don't even know if there will be a funeral for my father-in-law and reminding him of his "strained relationship" with my mother-in-law. Nobody wants to have an autopsy performed on my father-in-law, who was found dead in his bed all alone after at least 4 days, which leaves my husband in a further state of grief. But my mother-in-law doesn't want to have an autopsy performed, even though she will have at least some inheritance from him.

I guess part of the situation leaves us both feeling frustrated, confused, and angry. My husband says he hasn't even had a chance to cry yet over his dad's death because he's so busy trying to contact people out there and get answers -- and his own mother won't return his calls or talk to him, yet she "sees" his Facebook PMs. How do you handle grief when you won't be able to understand what happened? And how do you handle the passing of someone who clearly is a less-than-loved one? (We honestly were shocked that his dad died first... had expected it to be his mom and were expecting her to go at any time over the past two years... but she keeps on living and now his father is gone... :( ).
Three years still grieving loss of parents I loved but never got along with. A grief counselor through mother's hospice suggested I was family scapegoat. Wondering why my parents are heroes to me post death. I have forgiven them, but still feel guilt feeling I didn't do enough. Flooded by memories of them and their life histories and compassion and empathy and forgiveness for them. The memories of maltreatment that haunted me before their death have faded and now I only feel guilt and empathy and protectiveness for the vulnerable humans they were and what their issues may have stemmed from. I feel they were not capable of loving me, but the anger has dissolved into providing them excuses and guilt for not having been able to do this while they were alive. Now thoughts of them and constant memories of my first 20 years of life consume my mind. Memories, inconsequential meaningless ones, not the traumatic good or bad ones, flood me all day. Depressed and in tears constantly. Can't relate to others who miss their dear mothers and fathers, but still feel guilt and lost opportunities that would not have been successful anyway per history. Wondering why my grief is taking this form. The memories are not only to do with them, simply bland memories of briefvinconsequential events in my childhood. They say your whole life passes before you when you drown? Its like I am drowning slowly ha
Barbara - My relationship with my parents was also very complicated. In my case, as I got older and did not meet their expectations in ther choice of my career, our relationship became even more difficult. I worked on those relationships using the Grief Recovery Method and it really made a difference. I can now remember them for the valuable things that I actually got from those two relationships, and in the position where I have let go of the painful memories and any guilt that I carried. I can see the difference, thanks to the work that I did, in how my sisters still carry all of that pain and guilt from the past with them today. I have suggested that they take the same action that I took with Grief Recovery, but they both see themselves as "victims" and think that that is their lot in life. Life is too short to remain a victim of anything, and I refused to let that happen to me. I encourage you to see if there is a Grief Recovery Specialist in your area and or to buy a copy of "The Grief Recovery Handbook." The fact that you are dealing with this sense of guilt indicates that they still control your happiness on some level. That was the case for me. Once I did this work, I was able to take back that control and I really want the same for you! You can check on weekend workshops and to see if there is a specialist in your area at www.griefrecoverymethod.com.

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