Q: My husband has been dead for seven years and I'm still saying things to him in anger, things I should have said when he was alive. But I kept everything inside to keep peace in the family.
When he was in a convalescent home his last two years, I didn't want to argue then either. I visited almost every day but I thought, why say nasty things to him now, he has plenty of troubles.
My two sons don't want me to say anything bad about him -- one for religious reasons, and the other needs someone to idolize because there are no other family members.
I would like to forget how he neglected us -- bragged that he was a "lover" until his health failed. Do I keep quiet until I die? Should I leave my sons a letter (I'm 72) telling them how things really were? Or do I let them think as they want to and I just pray to God to help me forget and forgive and be as happy as I can with the time I have left? -- A.C., California
A: Grief counselors have found that when there is no unfinished business in a relationship, a survivor's grief can be much simpler than it otherwise would be.
Unfortunately, human relationships are never free of tension and stress, and death doesn't always pick a convenient time to interrupt. Too often, many important things are left unsaid -- whether it's "I do love you," or "You make me angry when you treat me that way."
Even though there were many things wrong with your relationship and even if you never deeply loved your husband, you did share two sons and you probably had tender family moments. It may be that you had many conflicting feelings about him -- fondness or the comfort of familiarity mixed in with anger or sometimes even rage. That kind of relationship complicates the mourning process. Counselors often refer to feelings like those you describe as conflicted grief.
Judy Pollatsek, director of counseling at the St. Francis Center, a non-profit center in Washington, D.C., specializing in grief counseling, says that conflicted grief is common. Although it can result from the death of a spouse, she also frequently sees it in parent-child relationships -- especially when adult children lose a parent who has been distant or in some way abusive. That makes sense because, as she points out, "death takes away the possibility of change," the chance to make everything right between you.
Pollatsek says death often makes us want to "tie up" our relationship to the deceased in a nice, neat package. But with conflicted grief, that's impossible. "What you're dealing with is a messy package," she says.
But life is often like that -- messy and complicated.
Part of what you are mourning is the lost opportunities in your own life for a fulfilling marriage. You may be wondering whether it is too late for you to claim any happiness.
That is largely up to you. Do you blame him? Do you blame yourself? Do you get stuck in your bitterness or do you try to resolve it and move on? You need to think about the consequences of each of these choices -- and they are choices you will make, if only by default.
You would probably benefit from seeking some help in sorting out your feelings. I would recommend that you find a professional who understands grief -- especially conflicted grief. Your local mental health association should be a good resource for locating such a person.
If you talk to your sons, do it without bitterness and without expecting them to take sides. Even adult children resent being forced to choose between parents -- and rightly so. That only sets them up for conflicted grief later on.
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.