Have you ever lost anyone close to you? A parent perhaps or even a spouse? If you’ve been there, you will know that grief is a strange thing. At first you feel totally and utterly broken hearted – devastated. Then you go into the guilt stage, where you are angry with yourself for not being a better son/daughter/husband/wife and finally you enter just a sad phase when you sort out your memories. But grief can be an even more complex process if you had a difficult relationship with the person who died.
I have written before about my parent’s problem drinking. They came to Australia as migrants from Italy and struggled to make a new life for themselves. They had their own hurts, their own demons. They were anything but ideal parents. Is it right for me to remember them with all their flaws and problems, or should I just idealise them in my memories? The experts say that you should have realistic memories of the dead. People are usually kind and remember the best qualities straight after someone’s death, but long-term you do need to remember people “warts and all”. You can acknowledge that they were kind and generous but also had a bad temper.
Your relationship with the person continues on after death
I read a great article on this subject on the ABC website recently. It quoted Dr Zoe Krupka, a psychotherapist and lecturer at the Cairnmillar Institute, who said we still have a relationship with people even after they died.
“It’s an internal relationship, but it’s one that evolves over time if you allow it to,” Dr Krupka told the ABC. “Even if you absolutely loved someone unconditionally, who you had no unfinished business with, you have to be able to in the process of grieving, also come to accept there are things about them that drove you mad, or that you really didn’t like.”
If your parents were less than perfect like mine, you have to be honest about that. That is a long process, and you may need to see a counsellor to work through your memories. Essentially you need some time to grieve if you were deprived of a happy childhood. You need to feel anger towards your parents, but eventually you need to have an adult-to-adult relationship with your parents, even if they are dead! That means that you have to look at them through adult eyes, not the eyes of a child. I know my parents struggled after they came to Australia. They were poor and they had little support and they turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism which impacted me. I reached a point of forgiveness long ago. But you don’t have to forgive your parents. You might conclude they were horrible people, and that will always be how you remember them. It is down to you, not anyone else, to work out how you feel.
Remember your memories will differ from others
However I will remind you that your relationship and experiences with that person might not be shared by anyone else. You might have had a horrible father, but his workmates and neighbours may remember him as good humoured and fun. Talking about how the person hurt you might not be well received. People may even judge you harshly and see you as the ungrateful son or daughter.
People know people in different capacities, so when someone dies we all lose a ‘different’ person. You may have lost a mother, but your aunt has lost a sister and your mother’s best friend lost a good mate.
Don’t vent immediately after death
Immediately after a death is not the time to vent. People are shocked, hurt and grieving. Also, what is achieved by rubbishing someone’s reputation after they have died? Perhaps the person was a bully and you want the world to see that. I would urge you to tread carefully. If you want to speak ill of the dead, perhaps it’s because you are angry. First speak to close friends or a counsellor about your anger. Even if every word you say is the truth, you could regret saying it later.
Also be guided by how others are feeling. If everyone in your family remembers the departed fondly, you risk alienating yourself from your family if you speak unfavourably. It is not just a case of respecting the person who has died, but also respecting and being sensitive to the people left behind.
This is difficult terrain
Remember that you are also feeling irrational and emotional and it is not the time to make big bold, dramatic statements. Even if you have lost someone you dislike you will still be feeling tender. After my father died someone said this to me – “You need time to grieve for the father you had (a less than perfect man with a drinking problem) but you also need time to grieve for the father you never had (a strong, loving supportive man who always looked out for me.” That is the truth if you had a less than perfect spouse or a less than perfect parent, you need time to grieve for who they were and who they weren’t, what they gave you and what they failed to give you.
Again, this is complex and difficult and if you are recovering from an abusive relationship I’d suggest seeking professional help after the death, because death has a habit of bringing up old emotions and feelings.
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ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.