Relief is a powerful emotion. It is also common. Many individuals experience relief, or a feeling of reassurance or relaxation, following the release of anxiety or distress. It’s akin to a breath of fresh air, like smelling flowers for the first time. But it is not an emotion typically used to describe grief or loss, because most people do not feel relieved when a loved one dies. But I did, and I still do.
When my mother passed in June, I felt comfort and happiness. There was both respite and reprieve. Why? Because my mother was a complex woman. She was mentally unwell, and struggled with addiction later in life. Because my mother was a mean woman — she regularly said “fuck this” and “to hell with that” — and because my mother was abusive, through and through.
For 36 years, I was a victim of her emotional manipulation and verbal abuse. Her death brought me closure. My mother’s death brought me solace, and yes, relief.
Of course, I am not proud that this was my initial reaction. Rather, I am angry; ashamed. I mean, what type of person feels gratitude and relief over death, especially their own mother’s? But in order to understand my reaction, you have to understand the person my mother was and the type of life she lived. It’s also important to understand the relationship we did (or, rather, did not) have.
You see, my mother was — as I mentioned — a complicated woman. She struggled with undiagnosed and untreated depression for years. Weeks of my childhood were lost to her illness, to its misery and manipulation. She was cold and callous. Growing up, she told me I stupid and worthless, a disappointment, a fuck-up. She criticized and cursed me. Once she called me a mistake. And my mother was sick. She turned to alcohol in her fifties, consuming 10 to 12 beers every day. And this made our relationship difficult, at best.
I didn’t hate my mother, but I did hate the person she became — and the things she did. Our relationship was a constant struggle, fraught with perpetual trauma. I never felt like I was enough. I was always less than. By maintaining a relationship with her, I remained something of a victim, never able to overcome years of neglect and abuse.
Loving an addict is fucking hard. I felt like I needed to help her and save her. It was my responsibility, a cross I felt I needed to bear. And that is why, when I got the call that she was “missing” on June 24th, I was calm and composed. The thought of her (possible) death brought me relief because there would be no more pain, for her … and for me.
We would finally be free.
I tried phoning her at 1:00pm, but like my sister, each call went unanswered. My texts were unread. My husband and I drove to her house at 3:00pm. She was home but no one answered. I used a key and let myself into her apartment building. I slowly ascended two flights of stairs, knowing what I would likely find. And then I took a deep breath before opening her door; not because I was scared, but because I could finally breathe. Because the ocean was finally calm. And because I knew that, if I found her, it was over. She would be “at peace,” and I would be safe.
Make no mistake: I didn’t wish death upon her. In fact, despite feeling relieved, I wish she were still alive — because if she were, things may have ended differently. I still yearn for the relationship we could have had, should have had. I mourn the memories we will never make. I also feel immense shame and guilt. Again, I didn’t help her or save her; I didn’t save “us.” And while I am not alone, since millions of individuals experience death-related relief, mine feels dirty and wrong. It is seemingly taboo.
“As logical and as common as the emotion of relief is in grief, it seems like grievers often carry it with them as though it’s a deep, dark secret,” an article on What’s Your Grief explains. “For many, relief feels like something they should be ashamed of, it feels wrong, or as though it’s something they shouldn’t admit to… [but] emotions aren’t mutually exclusive. One emotion [does not] detract from or negate another. You can [also] have two emotions about two totally different aspects of an experience.”
In short, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. But knowing doesn’t necessarily make things better. Hearing your reaction is not “bad” does not make it feel less powerful or intense, but knowing you are not alone may.
Knowing I wasn’t alone helped.
So if you find yourself grieving the loss of a complicated loved one, and feeling relief in the process, understand you aren’t bad. You aren’t crazy, and you aren’t alone. Your thoughts and feelings are valid, no matter what they are, wherever in the grief process you may be.