Many of us have family members we love by default: They’re your blood, sure, but you don’t really get along. Spending time together is an obligation, not a choice — were they not related, you would never choose to spend time together. So what happens when they die? How are you “supposed” to feel about it?
“The grieving process is private,” says Reverend Barbara from Harlem, who stresses that this is the first thing you need to understand about the situation. Grief counselor Amy Olshever agrees, emphasizing that each person is different and will therefore react differently to each death: No two experiences are the same. “Even people from the same family and who are crying at the same time, they’re experiencing two different things, and people have a hard time understanding that.”
By understanding that your grief is a personal process, you may begin to grasp that there’s nothing wrong with what you’re feeling. “It could just be that the person was an ***hole,” says Olshever. So if you suddenly don’t have to see this person at the Christmas dinner table anymore, it’s okay to be, well, okay with that. “Not everyone deserves the same level of grief,” Olshever emphasizes.
Part of the difficulty of this kind of loss is, in part, due to societal expectations. Olshever points to something called “narrative theory,” which basically states that everyone constructs a story for themselves and their lives — if things don’t go according to the script, we may have a hard time dealing with it. “The societal expectation may be that you’re really close with your siblings, but I can’t tell you how many people have come into my office that aren’t close with their siblings or immediate family at all,” says Olshever. Basically, part of the confusion you may be feeling is because you have a notion of how that relationship should have felt, rather than how it actually did.
To help deal with this, Olshever suggests you adjust your expectations and understand that no one really has a “normal” family — dysfunctional relationships are, in fact, the norm. “Some people may share a biological heritage but nothing else,” says Olshever. “Understand that it’s perfectly normal.”
In therapy sessions, Olshever gives examples of a few coping strategies she may try with a client, in addition to talking and trying to process their feelings. One tactic is to write an “unsent letter” — where you draft a letter stating your feelings to the deceased — about your grief, or lack thereof, or why you had a complicated relationship with them in life.
If you’re comfortable with role playing, she also cites an exercise known as the “empty chair,” where you tell the “person” (aka, an empty chair in front of you) what you’re feeling. You may even decide to play their part of the conversation too, with the goal that you’d have to understand where they were coming from. For both of these exercises, while you don’t actually get to speak with the person, Olshever explains that, in a way, your brain perceives that you did.
Reverend Barbara, meanwhile, tries to focus on the positive, citing her late brother as an example. “I had a brother that passed away, and we had stopped speaking completely before he died. But I reflect on the good times we had growing up together and I sympathize with the children who are now without their father. That’s the best I can do. I ask God to please help me focus on the good, because there’s good in everyone.”
But what if you really can’t find that good, no matter how hard you look? Olshever says that there’s nothing wrong with a sense of relief from their absence. It may require therapy to sift through all of these different feelings about any death — let alone in cases where abuse was involved — but Reverend Barbara tries to encourage you to not “let those feeling control you. Because if you carry bitterness and resentment around, it does more harm to you personally. It poisons the hater.”
It’s also totally normal to feel a sense of guilt due to your lack of sadness. “There can be guilt or shame about the feelings that you’re having, because you don’t have the feelings that others are expecting of you,” says Olshever. Again, this ties into societal expectations and your own narrative perception, but it’s important to understand that this is normal, and that maybe this person doesn’t deserve more from you personally.
Publically, things can be a bit different. Whether or not you need to attend this person’s funeral is likely dictated by the norms of your family. For Barry Bernstein of Morse Funeral Home, it would be wise to think about whether the deceased — or those closest to them — would even want you there, and to not make things about yourself. Going there to tell all your cousins what a douche their dead dad was is clearly not the way to go, but if you do end up stuck at a wake or memorial for someone you didn’t like, try to keep quiet, and if needed, Olshever says to employ the old stand-by line, “I don’t know what to say,” or, “I have no words.” These are useful because people can perceive them however they like, Olshever notes.
In time, hopefully you can learn to deal with these complicated feelings by reminding yourself that grief is a complex and highly personal process. Also, that Uncle Derrick really was a total jerkbag.