The Guilt of Relief


guilt of relief

If, when speaking with a person who has recently lost a loved one to a long illness, I hear the phrase, “I’m just relieved that she’s gone,” it is almost certainly followed with, “It’s just that she was suffering for such a long time. I love my mom, but for those last few years she wasn’t herself. She had no quality of life and I know she would not have wanted to live that way.…” 

….or something along those lines. 

“Relief” is sort of a fuzzy place to be in grief. For those who even have the ability to say it out loud, they certainly can’t say it without following with an explanation as to why a decent human being could ever be “relieved” that someone they love has died.

The fact is, having someone we love get diagnosed with a disease, suffer with its symptoms and ultimately die is one of the most traumatic things we can witness and experience. And as we watch this loved one lose every fundamental ability during an especially long illness, we may find ourselves wishing it would end.

But why is this such a strange concept? When we have struggled at other points in our lives, didn’t we find we could freely express that we wanted it to be over? Wasn’t voicing our relief at the end almost always considered acceptable?

Understanding the Guilt of Relief

Finding relief on the other side of loss is nothing to feel guilty about, and certainly not something that should be hidden or require an explanation. It does not mean that we have less care or love for the person who is gone. It doesn’t mean that the pain we feel is any softer or lasts for a shorter amount of  time. 

Even amongst grievers this may feel like a unique emotion, especially compared to those who lost a loved one suddenly or whose loved one died at a younger age. 

Bottom line, it’s a complicated part of the grieving process that leaves a person with a conflict of emotions that can be hard to shake. And if it’s something we feel we can’t share, say out loud, or even admit to ourselves, it can be especially isolating. 

So, while very few parts of the grieving process could ever be considered simple, in this particular case a subtle shift in perspective could be what makes the difference.

When speaking to someone who reluctantly admits to feeling this “guilt of relief” following the loss of a loved one, I offer one simple idea:

“You are not relieved that your loved one has died. Instead, you are relieved that a time in your life (and theirs), that has been consumed with stress, uncertainty and suffering, is now over.”

Give it a try. See if this change in perspective can make a difference. Don’t make this process any harder than it has to be and let yourself off the hook when you can. 

You have been through one of the most difficult and challenging experiences a person can endure. If you are able to feel even a small sense of relief, it is not something to hide, but to embrace.

About the Author
My name is Karyn Arnold and I am the founder of Grief in Common, Grief in Common is a website designed to connect and match those who are grieving based on background and similar experiences of loss, for online chats and opportunities to meet in person. I have been working in the field of grief and loss for over 15 years, facilitating bereavement groups, providing support one on one, and educating the community about the grief process. I love this work. I love the resilience of human spirit I see in this work and I have always felt honored and grateful to provide an outlet for a person to grieve.Unfortunately, loss is an inevitable part of life. And while it takes time and it’s never simple, I truly believe that within each of us is the strength and courage to heal, to live and to move forward, in ways that we may never have thought possible. So take the first step in figuring out what's next and where to go from here...go to today and connect with those who will understand.
I'm Grieving, Now What?