What If the Deceased is Despised?

In the grief support groups that I’ve led, I frequently refer to the person who died as, Your beloved.

A while back, my boss attended a hospice conference. After returning to the office, she posed a question from one of the workshop presenters: what if the person being grieved was not loved?

Should everyone be called a “loved one” or “beloved?”

When friends and family die, wounds we never imagined impact our hearts. Eventually, with time and tending to our grief, most will cherish their memories like family heirlooms. Indeed, those memories are likely more valuable than any inherited object. They can become the laugh-out-loud subjects featured at holiday dinners, private moments recalled with a cup of coffee in the early morning, or family myths passed along while chatting with relatives at a joyful wedding or another sad funeral.

Nonetheless, some recollections and relationships are tainted. What about,

  • A verbally abusive parent that would spoil anyone else’s success?
  • An always-angry grandparent that could turn any conversation negative?
  • A child that lied to everyone, wrecking lives as he or she ruined their own life with addictions?

This person may have been the sibling who taught you how to ride a bike or the parent that loaned you money for a first house, but they also curdled the infrequent good recollections with destructive actions. You do love them, and you do despise them, carry regrets, or harbor anger.

Is it possible to grieve someone you mostly struggled with, where only a few positive memories leaven the negative truths? I suspect—maybe for a parent that gave you birth or a child that once held such promise—there could be authentic feelings of grief over the loss of what-could’ve-been. But what if the strands of long-ago hope have been shredded by the accumulation of anguish?

Because no one knows the details of a grieving person’s history, should I call those who have died a family member instead of beloved? (I think that’s what the workshop presenter suggested as an alternative.) Some, if honest, may delete any upbeat description before publicly recalling their now deceased wonderful spouse or generous parent. All adjectives, negative and positive, are scrubbed from any reminiscing.

Mostly I agree with the “family member” phrase, but it stirs uneasy reactions. I naïvely and optimistically want everyone to be revered as “beloved,” though suspect some should never have that label linked to their name and memory. In my decades of ministry, there were people in various churches that appeared so nice while grinning from the pew or chit-chatting in the church potluck line. But I would later learn about old (and fresh) scars caused by their casual infidelity, random rages, passive-aggressive behaviors, selfish decisions, and more.

I don’t know why certain people act awful, hypocritical or manipulative . . . but they do. I’m not much of an expert on the faithful facts of heaven, but there are those that unleash hell on earth for family and friends.

It can also be hard to talk about someone who was truly loved, but does prompt feelings of guilt, regret, or anger. Everyone is a mixed bag, and the time of grief should include honesty. That supportive, caring spouse that died from lung cancer and coulda-shoulda quit smoking can cause a surviving spouse a sense of profound loss . . . along with contradictory emotions. Why didn’t they take better care of themselves? Of course, the surviving spouse is angry! I encourage you to speak about that anger to a trusted friend or a supportive counselor. I would prefer to help the griever live the rest of their lives recalling the treasure of abundant good memories, rather than hoarding a storehouse of repressed hurt for some problematic (and understandably human) flaws.

Please, let all the feelings come out. Though I wish it weren’t so, referring to the deceased as “your beloved” may be more hypocritical than helpful for certain grievers. I believe words matter.

How we name and claim our memories influences our current state of mind and future healing.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. I have never attended a grief support group. Probably never will.
    Your essay made me think about the relationship I had with my mother. I had been estranged from my mother for 20 years when she was diagnosed with emphysema. I went to see her. Then life went on. She died a year later. She was not “beloved” to me. I had to separate her from me and my family in order to have an ordinary adult life. I acknowledge she was my mother but not a “beloved” mother. I have heard many times the words “loved one” or “beloved” or whatever other nicety we use to make others feel better. I have said the words since I work in hospice and with the elderly for many years. The words have no meaning to me. I let them roll off my back and tell myself that it makes the person who is saying them feel better and they are sharing what they can. People truly are stymied when I tell them that I had not spoken to my mother in 20 years. They really do not know what to say. My mother has been gone for 12 years now. She will never be those wonderful words to me and that would mean so much to know the meaning of those words. She is my mother and I miss having a mother around or having that relationship. But do not miss the woman that was my mother. Life continues… I go on…. Our families will only allow us in so far. Many do not want to heal the pain or the pain cannot be healed but only lived with. Coming to terms with what we are given is sometimes only what we can hope for.

  2. Thank you Ms. Mendenhall for sharing your experience. Your words spoke to my experience too. Professionals really need to listen, hear and accept that this is reality for some and that the professional’s acceptance can be so healthy. I find myself doing what I can to ease the burden of those who are trying to help me accept a different reality that fits their ‘loved one’ narrative so they can give me the outcome that they believe I should want. It does not serve me. I have all I can handle without having to carry their expectations too. Thank you Larry for this one.

    • Thanks, “Sierra!” Appreciate you taking the time to respond. And you shared good words to remember for everyone:

      “I have all I can handle without having to carry their expectations too.”

  3. I am grateful for this article — and to the colleague who sent me its link. I am relatively new to end-of-life care and resources; I find this work powerful and healing for me. The kindness I now see commonly is a balm to my soul. I find the folks working in hospice and care settings to be dear and intriguing people. They do, however, usually assume family is “beloved.”
    My family of origin is a train wreck; I’ve separated myself from them as fully as I can, without belaboring the point. My deceased parents were ruinous for us all — one an implacable narcissist, often violent and insulting in public, physically and psychologically abusive of his children in any setting; the other a depressed alcoholic & drug abuser, a vain, secretive, resentful and neglectful woman. I have spent many, many hours in deep therapy, and still struggle, but much more honestly now. I have a wonderful marriage, and am determined to live as freely as I can from the legacy my birth family left me. I avoid my living siblings, as they are both visibly hurt and hurtful. The assumption that the presence of my blood family would be comforting to me leaves me flat. That their deaths would, and the deaths of my parents did, affect me profoundly is true. I use words of condolence carefully, and try not to assume “happy family memories”.

    • Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts. I repeat this next phrase often on this website, but it’s true: I hope others read your comments and are also helped to understand. In some cases, understand they are not the only ones who struggle with painful (I’m being polite) family relationships. In other cases, so that some (including mm) will try to be careful with how and what we say to a friend or colleague when a death has occurred.

    • Thanks, Barrie. I was a little nervous with “approving” your post since it was mostly links to other sites. But they are legitimate sites, and (you are correct) some might find them helpful.

      However, the email you provided me for you is not a working email.

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