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Unresolved Conflict in Grief and Loss

A side of grief we seldom consider is the death of someone with whom we have had unresolved conflict or emotional distress. We may not have had a chance for reconciliation or resolution.

What if you had been a victim of past abuse, abandonment, rejection or injustice; or lived with years of misunderstandings or conflict with this person who has now died. So, when that person dies, it might seem as if death has cheated you from finding resolve. Does all that anger and resentment get buried with the person or will that bitterness continue to be a part of your life?

Death doesn’t automatically release us from our resentment. As with any “grievance” we might have, however legitimate it may be, if we hang onto that grievance, we are the ones who continue to suffer from it.

It can be difficult to work through unresolved conflicts by ourselves and a trained therapist or pastor might be able to assist you. (Upcoming blogs will focus on the importance of forgiveness). 

If you are experiencing conflicted emotions with the loss of someone with whom you had unresolved issues, consider the following questions.

• How did my past involvement with this individual create the pain I am now feeling?

• When did my anger and resentment begin?

• What other emotions is my anger covering up?

• What is preventing me from letting go of my grievance from the past?

• What part of my anger and resentment do I want to hang on to and why?

• How are the losses from my past keeping me locked in continued feelings of resentment and anger today?

• What unanswered questions from the past continue to influence my current feelings of anger and betrayal, rejection, neglect, abandonment or neglect?

John James and Russell Friedman in their book, The Grief Recovery Handbook, laid out a program to work through our past relationship losses so we complete our “grief recovery”. They, along with others, have suggested writing a letter to the individual you no longer have contact with in person. Although we no longer have the opportunity to share our thoughts and feelings in person, we can write them a letter.

Address the letter to that person by name: Dear . . ., and write down all the things you may have wanted to say to him or her. What do you want that person to know? How did that person hurt you? What did you want from that person? Read it several times to be sure you have written everything you want to say.

Ask a trusted friend if they would listen as you read your letter out loud. Tell your friend you just want them to listen and be present as you read. Their nonjudgmental support is all that is needed. After you have read your letter, make a conscious and purposeful choice to let go of all the resentment. Then burn the letter and scatter the ashes to the wind. As you do, “see” your bitterness disappear with the ashes. Experience the peace of letting go.

Now, write a letter to yourself. Address it to you. In this letter, tell yourself why you no longer want to hang onto the grievances of the past. Tell yourself the reasons why you felt angry and bitter and why it is no longer necessary for you to hang onto those feelings. Write down how good it feels to be free of all those toxic emotions. Explore ways you will be able to live a happier and more productive life with this freedom. You are no longer held in the grips of your past.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

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