How unfinished business can complicate grief

5 min read

When a loved one dies before you resolve an argument, conflict, or resentment

  • It is common to feel a confusing mix of emotions after the death of a loved one with whom you have unresolved issues.

  • You may grieve intensely for someone you were feuding with—or even dislike—because the lack of resolution adds emotional complexity to the situation.

  • Faced with an open-ended situation that now will never be resolved, you may feel immense guilt.

  • Be patient with yourself, since you are grieving the loss of the person, as well as the loss of closure.

Sometimes when a loved one passes away, you have unfinished business with them. This can include unexpressed, incomplete, unresolved issues, either because of a rift that kept you apart for years or maybe just because of ongoing conflict—or even dislike.

We tend to live in the moment, thinking that unresolved problems with someone will eventually be resolved. Or, we dread having to face these issues—and thus, we never do.

But then when that person passes away, you may be stuck with profound guilt. Guilt is a common emotion to feel during grief, as we struggle to make sense of what has happened.

When unresolved conflict or unfinished business is involved, it is common for those feelings to be much more intense. You may feel guilty for carrying a grudge, or for clinging to past arguments. Or you may simply feel devastated by grief, for someone with whom you were feuding—which may be a surprise.

This complex emotions are completely normal, though they may feel unfamiliar and confusing, or even disturbing. But there is no single right way to grieve, especially when the person who has passed away was someone with whom you had unresolved issues.

Grieving a relationship that was difficult

When someone passes away, you lose the possibility of making amends. Whether you had plans to eventually make peace or had zero intention because you were so hurt or triggered by what happened, the fact remains that this person is gone and you can’t take back what you said or what you did—and neither can they.

When things are unresolved, it can feel like an albatross around our neck. When things are unresolved with someone whom we can’t resolve them with, then that albatross can feel like the weight of the world.

You’re not just grieving the loss of the person, but the loss of resolution and closure.

As a result, you may feel a mix of emotions that are daunting to navigate.

Maybe you were hoping that a family member who had abused you or abandoned you would have apologized before they passed away. Or maybe you wish you could have done or said things differently to make amends.

No matter who did or said what, the weight of that guilt over unresolved issues is there.

Another layer of grief

In these situations, keep in mind that you’re not just grieving the loss of the person, but the loss of resolution and closure.

This can result in deep feelings of confusion, guilt, anger, and regret, on top of the grief from the death of a close family member or friend.

You are essentially process two different losses, and it’s easy to feel alone and isolated as you deal with them.

It can also make you feel like you’ll never come to terms or get the closure you need to move forward without that never-ending pang of guilt.

But you can. Be kind to yourself, whatever you did or didn’t do in regards to your relationship with your loved one. No one deserves to carry around guilt forever.

Dealing with complicated feelings

The first step involves communicating with the person who has passed away.

This isn’t “communicating” in the spooky sense of the world, but about trying to resolve the complicated feelings that came with their death.

It’s about internalizing a version of the person who has passed away and speaking to them, either out loud or by writing it down.

In either scenario, tell them how you feel, tell them that these are the things you wanted to say—or wanted to hear—before they passed away.

Speak out loud, or write down, the things you wanted to say—or wanted to hear—before they passed away.

When you’ve said or written down everything you need to say, take some time to sit in silence and reflect. Imagine what their responses would be.

You may actually find that orchestrating this release of emotions can begin to satisfy your need for closure.

If you find that trying to make amends in your own way isn’t working to soften the feelings that come with unfinished business, then getting professional help may be something to consider, as a way to ease your mind and your heart.

Give it time, and give yourself permission to let go of the conflict, the resentment, and the sadness associated with this relationship.

It is a difficult challenge for anyone in this situation, and understandable if it takes you some time to move on—so be compassionate with yourself.