In talking to our clients and other bereaved in our community over the past couple of weeks, we have heard a theme come up again and again. We have heard it in hushed and apologetic tones. We have heard it following “I feel awful for saying this,” or, “I don’t even want to say this out loud,” or “I know this sounds terrible, but.” And we want to say something. We want to say: it’s okay. It’s okay if you’re glad that your loved one isn’t here right now; it’s okay to feel relieved that your loved one is not here during this pandemic.
The truth is, even under “normal” circumstances, relief is a common experience in grief. Let’s be clear about this: feeling relief after your loved one dies in no way, shape, or form means that you wanted them to die, or that you didn’t love them, or didn’t love them “enough.” There are a number of reasons why we might experience relief after the death of a loved one, and most of them have to do with gratitude that our loved one is being spared pain and suffering.
Relief may also come because death often follows a long and excruciating period filled with sadness, and fear, and pain – not only for the dying person, but for all those who love them. Feeling relief that this period is over is understandable. It does not mean that you wanted your loved one to die, or that you are “glad” that they are dead; any relief you feel is a validation of how incredibly agonizing it was to watch them suffer, and to say goodbye to them – it’s a validation of your immense love.
It’s also important to note that, in grief, we experience a multitude of emotions – and often simultaneously! You may experience sadness, anger, numbness, disbelief, anxiety, despair, gratitude, and, yes, relief. You will probably experience more than one of these emotions at the same time. Relief, gratitude, and even joy, can coexist with immeasurable pain and longing; they are not mutually exclusive, even though, on the face, they might seem to be opposite. This flux and dichotomy are part of what makes grief so confusing, overwhelming, and utterly exhausting!
Admitting if we feel relief often invites another emotion, and a very unpleasant one at that: guilt. We want to say something to you now, to absolve you, if we can: if you have ever felt relieved after the death of your loved one, you are not alone. Feeling a sense of relief is normal and natural and understandable, and has nothing to do with how much you did or did not love your person. In fact, feeling relieved probably reveals some of the depth of your love: that you would rather endure the pain of living without them than to see them suffer.
As we struggle to confront the reality of a global pandemic, we encourage you to be gentle with yourself. Try to allow whatever emotions come up to exist without judgment. We encourage you to embrace this truth: any relief you are experiencing does not come from an absence of care, but rather, from an abundance of love.