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The concept of “ambivalence” is important for us to understand, as our grief and mourning can be affected by the degree to which we have contradictory feelings toward our deceased loved one. As defined in the American Psychiatric Glossary (1994; American Psychiatric Press, Inc.) ambivalence refers to: “The coexistence of contradictory emotions, attitudes, ideas, or desires in respect to a particular person, object, or situation. Ordinarily the ambivalence is not fully conscious.” Sigmund Freud dealt with this psychological concept, highlighting for us the reality that it is possible to hold quite opposing feelings or attitudes toward another individual. For example, it is possible for aspects of both love and hate to be present in our feelings toward a loved one. Ambivalence in close relationships should be understood in terms of degree (i.e., how much is present) rather than presence or absence, and to the extent that ambivalent emotions, ideas, etc. characterized our relationship with the deceased person, to that extent our grief and mourning may be negatively affected.

A noted scholar on grief and mourning, Dr. Theresa Rando, points out in her works that ambivalence is a “high-risk factor” that can predispose any person to additional difficulties while in the process of mourning a loss. Dr. J. William Worden in his book “Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy” (1991), points out that “…in the case of a highly ambivalent relationship in which the negative feelings coexist in almost equal proportion [to positive feelings], there is going to be a more difficult grief reaction. Usually in a highly ambivalent relationship, there is a tremendous amount of guilt, often expressed as ‘Did I do enough?’ along with intense anger at being left alone” (p. 32). So it can be seen that contradictory feelings toward our deceased loved one can complicate our efforts to mourn our loss. By way of example, typically it is easier to grieve and adaptively mourn the death of an adored person (e.g., a consistently caring father figure), even though the feelings of loss and sadness may be intense in such situations.

Where do we see high levels of ambivalence? I have worked with several bereaved adults (during their time in grief therapy) who were significantly mistreated when they were children (in these cases, it was one or another parent that was the guilty figure). In each case, after the abusive parent had died, these persons struggled with experiencing and expressing some of the negative aspects of their feelings toward and relationship with the deceased parent, including rather intense feelings of anger or rage for the damage inflicted upon them. But we learn that we are not to speak ill of the dead, and these persons also had genuine feelings of warmth toward the parent. The problem was the balance – the negative equal to or greater that the positive. It can be very challenging indeed to find a way to acknowledge the good that was present in a person, while also fully acknowledging and working through the painful aspects and negative features of that relationship. Thus, in therapy, a focus was to assist these persons in dealing with their underlying contradictory and negative feelings toward their loved ones. In so doing, these individuals were gradually able to work through and resolve these issues, which in turn enabled each to move beyond them and forward in their grief and mourning process.

Grief Counselor, Dr. Steven Bailley
Grief Counselor
The purpose of these articles is to provide interested readers with information and thoughts about loss, grief, mourning, and grief counseling. A variety of grief-related topics have been covered. It is my sincerest hope that you will find the information presented here to be of interest and assistance to you. If there are specific topics of interest that you would like to see added in the future, I welcome you to email me with your suggestions. If you have a need to talk with me, please call me at my office at (713) 914-9944.
Collection of papers and articles on grief, and coping with grief
The need to express our grief… Grief is Different For Each of Us The emotions of grief: Guilt
Grief, Mourning and Grief Counseling The Experience of Grief The Emotions of Grief: Anger
Reactions from others… The Seasons of My Heart The emotions of grief: “I feel like I’ve lost control of myself.”
The Closeness of Mortality Ambivalence
A 'Grief Journal' Grief After Suicide
Research and clinical experience support the idea that many bereaved individuals gain benefit from grief counseling. Ideally, counseling can help people to cope as adaptively as possible during difficult times that follow a loss, and can also assist in bringing grief to a more adequate resolution. Should you decide to explore the possibility of seeking professional assistance, at any time following your loss, I welcome you to contact me to explore this option (appointments and fee schedule are available upon request). Every person is unique, and I will work with you to assist you in coping with your specific needs. At this most difficult time in your life, I wish to extend to you my sincerest condolences for your loss.

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