Existential Psychology

Ambivalence and Grief

By  | 

Ambivalence, which means having simultaneous conflicting thoughts and feelings about a situation, is common for most people dealing with the death of a loved one. An example that is almost always confusing and guilt inducing is being heartbroken, really not knowing how life can continue without this person around anymore, while at the same time feeling liberated.

This type of ambivalence occurs most often when the party left behind was in some sort of caregiving capacity where a lot of time and energy was spent on the person who passed away, time and energy that could have been used for pursuits and relationships that most people get to enjoy as a matter of course.

Ambivalence is tough to consciously admit because the idea of being able to hold contradictory feelings at the same time is uncomfortable and foreign to most of us. Without clear ideas and beliefs we find ourselves paralyzed, unable to act. Especially in the context of grief, where one side of the ambivalence coin is laced with guilt or seems tabu, the solution is to try to stamp it out, pretending it doesn’t exist, and focus only on the side that seems acceptable.

If you have lost a loved one it will be useful to recognize that ambivalence is the rule, not the exception. It’s just that people don’t go around talking about it. But you don’t need to feel like a bad person for feeling ambivalent, it just means you are a human being.

To go back to our example, if you were in some sort of caregiving role where you had to give up a lot, and all of a sudden you have found yourself free of your responsibility, a feeling of expansiveness along with the heartbreak and loss is completely justified. Regardless of the specific scenario that creates ambivalence it usually is justified, and the problems come not from having these contradictory thoughts and feelings but from being unable to accept them. If you are unwilling to confront all your thoughts and feelings honestly, moving through the grief process will be much more difficult because that repressed stuff has a way of coming back to bite you through myriad other symptoms. It’s like it says, “If you’re unwilling to see me as I am then I’ll change forms on you and make you deal with me.”

Remember that ambivalence is a natural, common part of grieving and the feelings you might be ashamed of don’t take away in the slightest from all the beautiful qualities you recognized, appreciated, and will always miss in your loved one.