My dad is a big fan of celebrations. He says if people aren’t gathering for a wedding, a graduation, or a birthday, it’s a funeral. “At funerals, people cry and say ‘we should get together,’” he says. “And then the next time they see each other is at another one of these things.” I didn’t understand this fully until I recently lost an estranged friend to suicide, an experience that left me with mountains of grief and pain resulting from never having let go of certain stupid grudges.
Our relationship was complicated, but the lies about ex-boyfriends, a college-era love triangle, and fights about “accidentally” stolen shirts all felt so minuscule and stupid once she passed. Until I was tasked with navigating this situation of not even being able to forgive someone, I had lived by the millennial credo of “cut out all toxic people”—and that’s how she felt to me in the context of my reality. But had I known that reality were about to shift? I don’t know. And I still don’t know what I’m supposed to do with these feelings.
Thankfully, Virginia A. Simpson, PhD, a California-based bereavement-care specialist with over 30 years experience in the field of death, is more knowledgable than I am. With her insight, I began my healing process of decrypting my grief, learning how to reach out when it’s hard, and understanding why right now is the best time to let go of petty grudges.
Why grief can feel stronger when the relationship in question was troubled
“You would think the most painful grief would be when you have this really strong, healthy, good, wonderful relationship,” Dr. Simpson says. “But when you have complications, it’s more problematic. You have guilt.” She adds this situation can lead to glamorizing who the person really was, which naturally places you in a role as a villain who could have done more and could have been better.
This strain of rumination is has proven to be vicious seesaw of emotion for me. Some days, I take on the villain role, and other days, I shirk my part in our troubled friendship by reminding myself we were all dumb 19-year-old kids when the grudge-sparking transgressions transpired. The truth resides somewhere within that spectrum, and it’s my job to try to process as accurately as possible in the rearview mirror, and then move forward.
“Balance out who the person really was, what the relationship really was like, and forgive yourself for being a human being,” Dr. Simpson says. And while you’re balancing, do a quick audit of all your relationships so you can work to make peace while everyone is still here to heal.
How to reach out and offer forgiveness when there’s bad blood
In the wake of this awful nightmare of my estranged friend’s passing, I yearned to reconnect with people from that time in my life with whom I’d since lost touch. Our relationships were also complicated, but I felt compelled to mend some broken fences, and Dr. Simpson has a simple tip for sparking that dialogue: Just reach out with a simple note via text, email, or some other form of communication. All you need to get across is the ethos of “I’m thinking of you, and I wanted you to know,” she says. “And if they want to talk to you, believe me, they will.”
By going about it this way, you’re not forcing yourself on anyone who’s potentially still harboring resentment, but you can at least make peace with knowing you’re actively trying to move past the ill will.
While fear of being rejected or of making things even weirder is an understandable barrier holding you back, keep in mind just how big the the payoff can be. When I reached out to a mutual friend after the funeral, the floodgates of catharsis opened. Making peace in that scenario was clearly the right thing.
“You shouldn’t have to do anything. You should want to do things, or not want to do things. Be free to choose what works or what doesn’t work instead of should-ing all over yourself.” —bereavement specialist Virginia A. Simpson, PhD
But is it always? There are still people from my past to whom I don’t feel I have anything positive to offer, and it seems to me that the best way to support each other is to probably never cross paths. But does that make me some imposter who doesn’t practice what she preaches?
“You shouldn’t have to do anything. You should want to do things, or not want to do things,” Dr. Simpson says. (Phew.)“Be free to choose what works or what doesn’t work instead of should-ing all over yourself.”
Most importantly, own the things you do (and don’t)
Though letting go of petty grudges while people are still alive is a goal I now prioritize, I do still stand by certain choices I made in the scope of my relationship with my estranged friend who passed. I wish we resolved our issues and understood each other’s point of view, but our post-collegiate paths were so radically different. The fact is, I can’t know whether trying to resurrect that friendship would’ve made any difference.
Grieving is a part of growing, and when you’re in the thick of it, you learn so much more about yourself and the world around you. “Death makes life bigger as it makes our world smaller,” Dr. Simpson says. “All of a sudden, we see things we didn’t see before, and we’re also made smaller because we’re more inward than we’ve been in a while.”
The biggest thing I didn’t see before is once someone’s gone, you can’t help them anymore. Still, you can focus on those who are living and on living yourself, instead of dwelling on the “shoulds.” Oh, and you can also focus on celebrating the good stuff, per my wise dad, as much as you can.
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