Hi Dr. Neimeyer,
Please help, as I am not sure what to do. Several years ago I terminated a friendship. Our last contact was ugly, and her husband witnessed my reprehensible behavior. Efforts to clean things up didn’t go well, and I now take full responsibility. While I got some therapy to explore why I acted badly (I am not usually so cruel), I’m stuck with this black mark. Over the years I tucked this away and prayed I wouldn’t run into her. Sunday I read her obituary and have renewed regret and shame. I can’t make amends to her but I would like to make amends to her husband, but I suspect he hates me. I’m haunted by this.
Any suggestions on what I can do or say to her husband? I’ve been writing a condolence letter but it seems so hollow. I regret that feel I can’t show my face at her memorial. I’ll donate money to a cause in her honor, but that is not enough. I read of her final months online, and it is clear he is bereft; my heart goes out to him. He took such good care of her all of her life.
Your apt and anguished description of this haunting loss speaks to the heart of “unfinished business,” the term used to refer to the residue of regrets, guilt and bad feelings that linger without any clear expiration date when a relationship ends on bad terms at the moment of death. Our research with hundreds of bereaved adults documents that it is surprisingly common, being reported by 40% of the bereaved, and it is especially common in close relationships that are “like family.” Moreover, survivors’ level of distress about unfinished business is a powerful predictor of their struggle with complicated, preoccupying grief, just as your letter describes. Simply put, when a relationship is marked by conflict, cut off and continuing avoidance, death does not so much end the problem as perpetuate it.
And yet there are steps that you can take to come to terms with this circumstance, some of which you have already taken, and others of which you are already contemplating. One place to begin is in cultivating humility: All of us as human beings are fallible, with natural tendencies to view the world through our own lenses, especially when strong feelings are aroused. Likewise, we have a limited capacity to step fully into the perspectives of others, particularly when their viewpoints differ from our own. This is no one’s fault, at a basic level, it is just an acknowledgement of our humanity, and the recognition that empathy for another’s perspective that conflicts with our own is more an aspirational goal than a safe assumption.
A further extension of this idea is that resolving guilt of the kind you describe involves walking one of two paths. One is the path of self-forgiveness, recognizing our sometimes tragic difficulty transcending our own interests and positions to connect with those of others, and accepting this with self-compassion rather than self-hatred. The second is the path of self-improvement, committing to learning from this hurtful cut-off about what one might do differently in future settings when similar buttons are pushed and similar feelings are aroused. Both paths start with a fearless inventory of our role in co-creating the conflict, and each offers a means of moving beyond your painful stalemate in this moment to a place of greater wisdom and less reactivity.
In practical terms, then, what steps might you take? One bold one might be to begin by writing not to your friend’s husband, but to your friend herself. Perhaps using AfterTalk, what would you want to say to her about how you have felt during these long years of “penance” for your disproportionate reaction, about the regrets you have had, about what you wish you had done or said differently? What would you be prepared to forgive in her, assuming that she also played some role in the escalation of your mutual conflict? What would you tell her you want now to recover in your memory of a long and deep friendship, so that it is not forever overshadowed by the specter of the breakup? Could you remind her, and yourself, of some of the lasting gifts of the relationship, which you want to lift up, perhaps conjuring again an image of a special time that reminded you of the depth of your connection? All of these honest steps parallel those you might have taken directly with her if she were living… as indeed she continues to live on very tangibly in your mind and heart, and so it is in this theater that the resolution of this distress must be pursued. After taking this step, perhaps with the assistance of a grief therapist, you are likely to be in a better place to write a parallel letter to her husband, which can maturely acknowledge your deep pain and regret, even without expectation that he will respond. As a humble but brave admission of your regrettable actions, this step two can advance you on the path of self-forgiveness or self-improvement, coupled with the ongoing quest to learn from this failure how to live more nobly and kindly in the future.