A difficult life; a sad ending: Complex grief

My spring 2014 article in Dovetales, the newsletter published by The Dove Service.



Coping with grief complicated by a difficult or troubled relationship

He or she is gone. Could have been your life partner, husband or wife; could have been a brother or sister, son or daughter, or close friend.

Gone before their time. You are stunned. At first nothing seems real. Could they really be gone? Truly never coming back?

Days, weeks, months pass, and the reality of their permanent departure gradually becomes more real. You attempt to pick up the broken threads of your life.

Friends and family are generally supportive. They offer sympathy; but there is a part of you that is unsure how to react.

You never noticed before just how many deaths are reported in the local newspapers. You read the obituaries; countless lives are remembered with pride and love.

And here comes your particular pain and confusion.

Your loved one or friend did not have a good life before they died. Perhaps they’d been in prison; perhaps they were addicted to drugs or alcohol; perhaps they had betrayed you in some way; perhaps there had been a long period of mental health problems and hospitalisation. Perhaps you hadn’t even seen them for a long time because of their life’s choices.

Their death was sudden, maybe even a direct result of those life choices.

You had no opportunity to say goodbye. There was no resolution between you. No apologies. No making peace; no explanations, hugs and tears. Instead there are terrible memories of what went before. Arguments, raised voices, slammed doors. Episodes that are so painful you would rather forget.

In some respects, this person’s life was lost even before their eventual passing. You are grieving both their life and their death.

You have mixed emotions. Deep down, perhaps there is a little relief—a relief that your loved one’s suffering is over, and even shades of relief for yourself. No more worries; no more sitting anxiously waiting for the phone to ring; no more dread of the policeman’s knock on the door.

With that relief comes guilt. You had a role in the story of their life. Could you have done more? Been there more often? Not done “that”, not said “that”? Been a stricter parent, been a more tolerant parent? Been a more understanding wife or husband? Been a more supportive friend?

On the other hand, you may also feel angry. If he or she hadn’t done this, or said that, their life would have been better—and so would yours. They hurt you profoundly while they were alive, and now they’ve hurt you again by leaving. Their death may have also left you with practical problems—arranging the funeral, clearing up their belongings, perhaps paying bills. There could be an inquest, which may intensify your pain.

You struggle to remember the good times, the good memories, but the guilt, anger, regret and unhappy episodes seem to have cast a cloud over everything.

If any of this sounds familiar, then you’re dealing with a type of complicated grief. It is not surprising that it is more difficult to adjust to the sudden loss of a loved one under these

circumstances. If this is your situation, then you might find the following helpful.

  • What you’re going through as a result of your loss is not surprising, nor a sign of weakness; it’s part of the natural process of grief. Although it might not feel like it at the moment, in time you will find it easier to cope.


  • Every person ultimately has responsibility for themselves. You may deeply regret your loved one’s choices or feel ashamed of what they did. Yet it was their life and their choices; don’t take any guilt of theirs upon yourself.


  • Every life is valuable and worthwhile. Your loved one brought smiles to others. In case you’re shaking your head in disagreement, consider -what parent doesn’t smile at their newborn baby? He or she was a baby once. No matter how difficult their eventual life path, there were moments when they loved and were loved; when they enjoyed themselves, when they did or said something that made someone else’s day better. As time passes, you’ll find yourself more able to appreciate the good qualities and happy moments of your loved one’s life.


  • You may find it helpful to join a support group for those who face loss through similar circumstances.


  • Unresolved anger and guilt can make it difficult to go forward. Finding a safe space where you can express your feelings and get some outside perspective can be a great help. You might want to look into getting professional counselling, such as you could receive at the Dove Service.



The foreword to my Valley Journal book was very kindly written by Joanne Speed, the CEO of The Dove Service, a charity working here in the West Midlands, providing counselling and specifically, support for the bereaved. Or as they say on their website: “Offering counselling and support to those struggling with the impact of bereavement, significant loss, or life changing/limiting illness.”

I was a beneficiary of their support for a long time after I lost Catherine. I can’t quite describe how helpful it was to have a safe, confidential space to share my deepest thoughts and concerns. It wasn’t always easy but it was a part of my journey. I think I realised just how much it helped when I lost my brother and mother in quick succession, as I wrote about recently. Thanks to the help I had received earlier, I was better equipped to deal with these latest bereavements. Thank you, Dove Service!

I was fortunate, Not everyone who is bereaved has the opportunity to receive counselling, and not everyone finds it helpful. There are many variables–your own situation, your counsellor, how much time has passed, etc., etc., and there’s no guarantee it will help. But if you’re reading this as a bereaved person and if you’re struggling, it might be something you’d want to consider.

If you’re here in the UK and looking for counselling support, here are few links.

The Dove Service serves Stoke-on-Trent and the surrounding area.

Cruse Bereavement Care is a national charity who also provide counselling

If you’re desperate and need to unburden, the Samaritans are there 24/7 on 08457 90 90 90   (As they say on their website, you don’t have to be suicidal to call up to talk with them.)

If your grief is difficult to manage, I’d also recommend talking with your GP, as counselling support can also be available on the NHS.

Of course, having family members and friends whom you can talk with is invaluable, but sometimes it helps to talk with someone outside your own circle… and sometimes your friends/family aren’t available to you.


Inside a small chapel of remembrance in Paphos, Cyprus


One thought on “A difficult life; a sad ending: Complex grief

  1. Pingback: Judgement, criticism and grief | A Valley Journal

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