Grief in Complicated Relationships

Losing someone you loved but who caused you great harm can be a really confusing and challenging situation. We tell you how to deal with grief in complicated relationships.
Grief in Complicated Relationships
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

The death of a loved one or the loss of a significant relationship are two of the most painful events you can ever face. In these cases, grief is triggered, an emotional process that allows you to manage what’s happened, accept the other’s absence, and integrate it into moving forward with your own life.

You might think that the pain would be greater when the other person was someone with whom you shared unconditional love. However, in reality, grieving over complicated relationships is usually far more complex than simply being painful.

You might face this type of experience when the relationship was stormy, on-and-off, or toxic. Also, when a relative dies with whom you’ve always had a tense and ambivalent relationship, one that wavered between love and hate. These kinds of situations lead you to a particular kind of grief that you may find difficult to navigate.

Sad woman with her hands on her face working on the PARCUVE Model in therapy
The emotions felt when grieving a complicated relationship are often confusing.


According to the psychologist, William Worden, completing a grieving process requires going through four different stages :

  • Accepting the reality of the loss. It implies accepting that that person will no longer be in your life and doing so both mentally and emotionally. It means accepting that they’re not going to return and that their absence will be a reality from now on.
  • Elaborating on your emotions. This stage consists of identifying the nuances of what you feel, recognizing them, and being able to put them into words. Don’t try and avoid your pain or cover it up, but let it be and allow yourself to feel it.
  • Adapting to a world in which they’re no longer present. This means learning to live without someone who was extremely important to you. You must learn to face the day-to-day, redefine who you are now they’ve gone, and adapt to the absence of those roles that they assumed.
  • Emotionally relocating them. This stage consists of integrating what happened into your life story, giving the person a place in your heart and in your psychological world so you can move forward without them. In effect, they need to be put into their rightful place so you can get on with your life.

You should know that it’s never easy to deal with grief. Furthermore, it’s common for pain, sadness, anger, frustration, and bewilderment to appear at any of the above stages. However, if your relationship with the other person was healthy, it’s natural to be able to be grateful for your relationship and move forward. On the other hand, if the link was complicated, additional challenges might arise.

Grieving over complicated relationships

Grieving over complicated relationships can be harder, more confusing, and even more devastating. Indeed, when you lose a person who hurt you, but who you also loved, a series of difficulties may occur.

For example, if the relationship was toxic and with many ups and downs, accepting the loss becomes more complicated. In fact, you may feel that it’s not really the end. That’s because there have been so many twists and turns in the relationship that you’ve started the grieving process many times. Therefore, you find it hard to accept that this time it’s really the end. However, if you can’t accept this fact, you can’t move forward to the next stage.

Furthermore, in these kinds of relationships, it’s not easy to process your emotions because they’re confusing and contradictory. You need to accept that, perhaps, you both loved and hated the person at the same time. Consequently, you feel pain and nostalgia for your loss, but you also harbor feelings of rancor, resentment, and even guilt for not having been able to have a healthier relationship with them.

It’s difficult to identify all the contradictory nuances that might occur. It’s even harder to express them since your environment is likely to judge. People might ask you “How can you be so upset over losing someone who hurt you so much?”, or “How can you feel so badly about someone who’s no longer here?”. Processing this kind of ambivalence isn’t easy.

Emotional dependency

It’s common for a great emotional dependency to occur in difficult relationships. This complicates the process of learning to live without the other person, and of understanding who you are now they’ve gone. After all, they may have constantly occupied your mind and were the center of your world and now they’re gone. This means you have to completely rebuild your life. Indeed, you have a great deal of emotional work to do.

So, how can you relocate that person in your heart and move forward? You probably don’t know what place to give them, that person you loved so much who’s no longer there. The one who caused you so many problems and such pain but now is gone. Until you resolve these contradictory emotions, you won’t know how to integrate what you’ve experienced.

Sad woman in bed thinking about the emotions that weaken your immune system
In grieving complicated relationships, working with emotions is essential.

Tips to help you grieve over complicated relationships

If you find yourself in the situation of facing the loss of someone who scarred you deeply and with whom you had an ambivalent relationship, here are some tips to help.

  • If you’re going through a breakup, make the decision not to go back. No matter how many times you’ve done it before, make this commitment to yourself so you don’t keep repeating the cycle of pain. Similarly, if the other person has died, accept the reality of how things were; obviously, you would’ve liked them to be different, but this is no longer in your hands. Working on acceptance and being at peace with what happened is essential to be able to move forward.
  • Allow yourself to feel all your emotions, whatever they may be, without judging or resisting them. Accept that they can be contrary and contradictory and that’s okay because they’re the reflection of the history you lived. Don’t judge yourself. Make sure you find a way to emotionally vent your feelings without being judged. If the people around you don’t offer you that safe space, you can resort to therapeutic writing or seek professional support.
  • Strengthen yourself and work on your self-esteem. Take care of yourself and your needs to overcome the emotional dependence that you may have created with the other person.
  • When it comes to repositioning that person emotionally, accept the ambivalence. Don’t try to forget the negative and focus only on the good, and don’t get stuck in resentment and reproach either. Accept the situation and remember the person with both their good and bad points. 

In short, saying goodbye to someone important with whom your relationship wasn’t the best can be really painful, more than you ever expected, in fact.  If you’re at this stage, don’t judge or pressure yourself. Allow yourself to move through each stage and don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you need it.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Cabodevilla, I. (2007). Las pérdidas y sus duelos. In Anales del sistema sanitario de Navarra (Vol. 30, pp. 163-176). Gobierno de Navarra. Departamento de Salud.
  • Worden, J. W. (1996). Tasks and mediators of mourning: A guideline for the mental health practitioner. In Session: Psychotherapy in Practice: Psychotherapy in Practice2(4), 73-80.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.