Good Grief

When someone close to us dies, society expects us to grieve. But death can affect us in curious ways. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that nearly 75 percent of those acting as caregivers for a relative with dementia experienced relief when their loved one died.


Jennifer Elison and I examined this relief felt by caregivers and those in relationships that were troubled or abusive in our book Liberating Losses: When Death Brings Relief. We found that while relief is a natural and understandable reaction to the end of a difficult period, it often leaves survivors feeling guilty and isolated.

To counter such negative emotions, it’s important to cultivate compassion for yourself. A first step may be acknowledging the relief and celebrating—either privately or publicly—your own return to “normal” life. In fact, whether a relationship was happy or unhappy, almost every person we interviewed had performed at least one personal ritual to create a sense of closure. The examples that follow offer a few ideas for honoring the self.

PURGE. Over time, certain possessions become symbolic of what was good or bad about the relationship. Purging the bad symbols can be a powerful way to set things right again. When my husband Don died after struggling with multiple sclerosis, his wheelchair, the symbol of our mutual imprisonment to his disease, was the first thing to go.

PRESERVE. Hold on to happy memories by setting up a table with mementos or visiting a place that has special meaning from time to time.

CLEANSE AND RENEW. It’s not uncommon to want to completely overhaul the physical space in your home. Rip up the carpet, paint the walls, or sell the furniture—do whatever you need to do to reclaim your place.

IMPROVISE. Create a ritual that reflects your unique relationship. Stephanie Kellogg’s mother always told her that a surefire way to banish the blues was to paint her toenails red. When her mother died, Stephanie painted her toenails with “Red Siren.” And she didn’t stop there. All the guests at the memorial—men, women, children, even the dog—wore red nail polish in honor of the mother. Even now, Stephanie gets out the Red Siren polish as a reminder of her mom’s optimism and humor.