Coping with Difficult Relationships When You are Grieving - A Guide to Navigating Through Pain

Coping with Difficult Relationships When You are Grieving

By Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

Posted: June 19, 2023

In every relationship, even the most challenging, lies a hidden opportunity for growth and transformation. Compassion allows us to uncover these opportunities, not to permit further harm, but to liberate ourselves from the heavy chains of drama and pain. It is through this understanding that we offer ourselves a profound gift - the freedom of reconciliation with our past and present, absent of resentment and filled with inner peace.

The relationships you share with others, whether they're still living or have passed away, play a significant role in shaping your life. They can either be nurturing, filled with warmth and kindness, or they can be challenging, marked by conflict and misunderstanding. 

But what happens when a relationship becomes difficult to manage? How can you find peace, even when reconciliation seems impossible? Or is impossible because the person is no longer mentally or physically present?

This is where compassion comes into play. Applying compassion towards yourself and others can significantly help in easing the strain of difficult relationships, providing a framework for understanding and healing.

Difficult Relationships and Grief

Reflecting on the person who died

Grief, it's important to remember, is not exclusive to easy, loving relationships. Quite the contrary, it can often be complicated and messy, particularly when it involves relationships fraught with conflict, misunderstanding, or hurt. You may find yourself grieving not just for the person or relationship as it was, but for the relationship you wished it could have been.

This kind of nuanced grief needs a particular kind of understanding and care, one that acknowledges the complexity of your feelings. This is where compassion, both self-directed and from others, becomes an essential tool in navigating the choppy waters of such complex grief, leading you towards healing and peace.

Reflecting on people still living

We all know that relationships can become strained, particularly with grief. When we are navigating the depths of loss, our emotions can be heightened, making it challenging to maintain strong bonds with those around us.

The people who are grieving alongside us may also be experiencing their own waves of sorrow, which can add further complexity to the dynamics of our relationships. In an ideal situation we would all navigate the complexities of grief together, finding solace in the shared experience and nurturing the bonds that bring comfort and healing during this challenging journey.

But the reality is this doesn't always happen. 

Compassion Reflection for Difficult Relationships

This process of compassionate reflection, Inspired by Kristen Neff's book Self-Compassionan be effectively incorporated into your regular meditation or journaling routine. First, ensure your environment is safe and serene, a place where you feel secure to explore your thoughts and emotions without fear. Remember, it's okay to pause if the reflections become intense, ensuring your safety and emotional comfort.

Self-care is paramount throughout this journey. Be patient with yourself, recognizing that a range of emotions, from anger to relief, is natural. Begin slowly, focusing on one reflection at a time, and always consider seeking support if emotions become overwhelming. This gradual, thoughtful approach ensures that the process fosters understanding and healing rather than adding stress.

No matter who you are choosing to reflect on in this practice, it's essential to remember that you're human, and it's okay to hurt, to not have all the answers, and to need time to heal.

1. Understanding Their Stress and Pressure

Begin your compassionate journey by reflecting on the level of stress and pressure the other person might have been under. People often behave in ways that reflect their internal struggles, and when under immense stress, they might not act in their best interests or in the interests of those around them. As you begin to empathize with their situation, you also start to comprehend their actions and choices better.

Were they dealing with work stress, financial worries, or personal hardships when conflicts arose? Remember, this reflection isn't about excusing their behavior, but about gaining a deeper understanding of the circumstances surrounding it.

2. Examining Their Behavioral Regulation

Next, consider their ability to regulate their behavior. Did they have effective coping mechanisms, or were their actions reactionary, driven by their inability to manage stress, frustration, or anger? The root causes of this could stem from numerous sources such as childhood trauma, mental health issues, or a lack of emotional education. Recognize that everyone carries a hidden narrative, often affecting how they react and interact with the world.

3. Exploring the Roots of Selfishness or Cruelty

It's painful when someone you care about becomes selfish or cruel. However, taking a moment to reflect on why they may have turned this way can be enlightening. Most often, people become self-centered or unkind as a defense mechanism, to protect themselves from perceived threats or pain. Did they experience insecure attachments? Social isolation? Did their life history or genetically inherited traits influence their behavior? This understanding can provide context to their actions, paving the way for empathy.

4. The Impact of Understanding

Finally, ask yourself: Knowing all this, does it make it easier to let go of the resentment, anger, or disappointment? There's no right or wrong answer here, only your personal truth. The intention isn't to minimize the hurt you've felt but to shift your perspective, allowing you to see the situation through a more empathetic, compassionate lens.

5. The Power of Self-Compassion in Healing Relationships

Finding compassion for others, especially those who've caused pain, is not a simple task. It requires understanding, patience, and resilience. However, it's equally important to extend this compassion to yourself. Self-compassion, as Dr. Neff beautifully encapsulates, is the act of acknowledging your own suffering, understanding its universality, and nurturing yourself with kindness.

Seek Out Community and Support 

I warmly invite you to join the Awaken Grief Support Group, a nurturing community of individuals who understand your struggle and genuinely care. By sharing your experiences and receiving empathetic feedback, you can find peace with difficult relationships, realizing you are not alone on this journey towards healing and reconciliation.

Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

About the author

Heather Stang, M.A. is the author of Living with Grief and the guided journal, From Grief To Peace. She is the creator of the Mindfulness & Grief System that is featured in the Handbook of Grief Therapies (2023) and is the founder of Awaken, a mindfulness-based online grief support group. Heather also hosts the Mindfulness & Grief Podcast, and offers mindfulness-based grief support online through her organization, the Mindfulness & Grief Institute. She holds a Masters degree in Thanatology (Death, Dying, and Bereavement) from Hood College in Maryland, and is a certified Yoga Therapist. She currently lives in Falling Waters, WV.

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