Coping with Feelings of Relief During Bereavement

Dealing with difficult emotions after the death of a loved one

Last updated: 24 October 2016

Those who have never lost a loved one often assume that grief is mostly just a feeling of sadness. While sadness is a large part of dealing with grief, you will likely experience a huge range of different emotions as you begin to move towards healing.

Perhaps worst of all are those feelings which you feel are unacceptable, or ‘bad’. You may feel this way because of unspoken expectations about how you should feel. The result is that you may feel ashamed of certain thoughts or feelings. You might feel as though these emotions should be ignored. You might be scared of being judged if you express them.

One of the biggest emotions that people feel bad about having is a feeling of relief. People who are coping with grief can find this emotion one of the hardest to admit to, as there is the implication that feeling relieved means you are glad that person has passed away. This is not always the case.

Why do you feel relieved?

It can never be stressed enough that everyone experiences grief differently. Many people do not experience relief as part of grief, but many people do. Sometimes it depends on the circumstances, other times on your way of coping with grief.

Relief may be a natural reaction to the circumstances surrounding your loved one passing away. For example, if your loved one had a long illness leading up to their passing, it is perfectly reasonable for you to feel relieved that their pain is over.

If you were their carer, this may be mixed with relief that you no longer have to be strong for them. It may be the relief that you can finally grieve and express your pain, rather than putting on a happy face in order to provide practical and emotional support.

People who have lost someone to drug or alcohol addiction sometimes report feelings of relief. Again, this is not because they are ‘glad’ that their loved one has died, but they do feel that the disruption and suffering caused by addiction has now come to an end. Mixed in with feelings of sadness and longing, there may be relief that the addiction is over.

In some cases, you may feel relieved that someone has passed away because they have treated you very badly. Perhaps they were abusive, to yourself or others, and a part of you is relieved that they can no longer hurt anyone. This may mean that you are having very mixed feelings, and you may find it helpful to talk this over with a counsellor or bereavement support specialist.

Guilt and shame

Normally, relief is a positive emotion. It means you have avoided something bad, or some burden has been removed. However, when relief is part of grieving, it can make you feel as though you are not as sad as you should be.

You might think badly of yourself and constantly criticise yourself for feeling relieved. Or you may try to ignore the feeling of relief and push it to the back of your mind every time it surfaces. You might have intense feelings of guilt or shame.

This guilt may be, in part, because we do not talk about relief as a part of grief. We expect sadness, crying, loneliness, maybe even anger, but feeling relieved after losing someone is rarely talked about. Unfortunately, this leaves many people feeling as though they are ‘bad’, ‘selfish’ or ‘wrong’ for feeling relieved. This is not the case.

Be assured that many people feel relief after a bereavement, for many different reasons. Though it may be an uncomfortable, even painful thing to feel, it does not mean that you are not sad to lose that person. It does not mean that you are a bad person.

Grief is made up of many complex emotions, all happening at the same time. It is possible for you to miss that person deeply, and love them with all your heart, while also feeling relieved that they no longer have to suffer.

Accepting how you feel

It can be difficult to deal with feelings of guilt and shame if you have experienced relief after the death of a loved one. You may want to bury your feelings and ignore them in the hope they will go away.

In the long run, this is likely to only cause you more pain. Giving yourself permission to feel whatever you might be feeling is a vital part of coping with grief.

Although easier said than done, being kind to yourself in the weeks and months after a bereavement is important. Whenever you begin to feel guilty or ashamed of your feelings, try to remind yourself that relief is a normal, natural part of grief and you are not a bad person for feeling it.

Expressing how you feel may help. If you are worried about telling a friend or relative about these particular emotions, try writing a journal about how you feel. Talking to a counsellor or support helpline can also be beneficial – they will not judge you for anything you are feeling.