Grieving the Relationship That Never Was


Most of the grief articles and forums I see are dedicated to the loss of a beloved family member. Stories, poems and tributes to the loss of a loved one that are filled with declarations and promises of a love that will never be forgotten.

It’s easy from this to assume that every person lost is being mourned by a person they had a long, loving and meaningful relationship with. Even within bereavement groups it can be assumed that people will only take the time to attend and to grieve for someone they loved and will miss.

But grief, like life and our relationships themselves, can be much more complicated than that.

A different kind of loss

Relationships are complicated. People are complicated. Whether it’s family, a friend or a partner, it can be very hard to get along with each other, no matter how hard we try. We have expectations for the people in our lives, and they for us, and unfortunately these expectations don’t always match up. And of course this overly simplistic view for why we can’t always get along doesn’t even include the other factors that can challenge a relationship like mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, family history, etc.

When we lose a person we had a complicated relationship with, the turmoil doesn’t necessarily leave with them. Because when they’re gone we lose not only the difficulties and challenges, we also lose the hope that things can ever be right between us.

I don’t care who you are, I think by nature most of us are optimistic. Especially when it comes to family and those we love, no matter how many times we may say or think, “I am done with this person, they are not good for me, and I can’t have them in my life anymore”, I believe there’s still within us even the smallest sliver of hope that maybe, just maybe, someday….

And then “someday” disappears.

How do we reconcile the fact that there was never the chance to make things right? That the person we loved never became the person we hoped they would be, or showed for us the love we had always craved from them? What if their loss means there will never be a chance to say we’re sorry, or hear them ask for our forgiveness?

Losing and grieving for a loved one we had a complicated relationship with leaves the same void in our lives as other losses, but it can leave with it even more unanswered questions and unfinished business.

Finding understanding in grieving this type of loss is not always easy, as those around us may assume there is some reprieve or release after a challenging person in our life is gone. Would we find more support if we could find a way to explain to them the fact that we’re not only grieving a person we loved, but the relationship we never had or never will have?

And most importantly, how do we ever let go of the yearning we have to make things right?

Letting go may be one of the hardest things to do in grief. Like telling a person who is angry to “calm down”, it rarely works on suggestion alone. Letting go takes real work, real reflection, and an honest desire to move past what never was and move toward what can be.

It will involve time and patience, and perhaps most of all, finding compassion for ourselves and for the person who is gone. In trying to understand (perhaps better than ever before) who they were, where they came from and what contributed to their experiences and outlook on life we can gain a better understanding of them, ourselves… and what legacy we want to leave behind.


You are not alone, there are others who can relate and who feel the way you do. Connect with others  or visit our “See and Share Stories” page if you are finding it difficult to move forward or if you are wondering what now or what’s next.

23 thoughts on “Grieving the Relationship That Never Was”

  1. Such an enlightening article. It does speak to a very complicated relationship between me and my husband of almost 56 years. He died in March of this year and I also had to move within two months, and it’s been pretty rough since things have now slowed down. Many different feelings popping in and out. I am planning on attending a bereacement class starting in Sept. and I’m hopeful it will be a big help.

    Although our marriage had many ups and downs and some very difficult periods, I did love him. We married when I graduated high school so I went from my parents home to our home together and this is the first time I’ve lived on my own. All in all though I am managing and with my faith in God I know I’ll make it. Just need a little help along the way.

    1. Hi Lin.
      My husband passed away a year ago this month.
      When I read this I thought that we have a couple of things in common. I have never lived alone either.
      Like you, I lived at home with my parents and siblings until I married. We had 2 children and now 6 grand children, My life has always been full of family, so I knew that there was always someone home or coming home. There was always company, I think that’s why I enjoy socialising so much.
      I have many different feelings that pop in and out too..good and not so good. I’m told it’s quite a normal part of grieving. Like you,
      I decided to go to a bereavement councillor for help in understanding all this stuff that flies around my head. I also have faith in God. My latest thoughts? Why do you want me to be on my own God…What good can it do?
      I don’t feel lonely but I do feel very much alone. On asking a friend if this gets any easier, she replied, I can’t say it gets easier, but as time passes you handle it differently.

    1. Sorry for your loss Lin,
      I am struggling with the sudden passing of my mom, she was my rock, and she done a lot for me, we were very close. I was the only daughter, and granddaughter, so mostly everything was done for me in my life by my mom ,grandmother, and grandfather. They were my whole family. I’m completely alone now, no more family and only my husband. thank God I have him.I to went straight from my mom’s to my husband’s home, which in today’s society can not be so good. I’ve never lived on my own, and i’m struggling with the everyday tasks that most know how to handle, was handled for me. i’m only in my early 40’s, and i’m not well, so i cannot get out like others, so that makes it worse. I just hope i can find peace, and the help i need to move through this very tramatic time. once again, thank you for sharing, because until we look around and find people who have lost, most people dont understand, and won’t take the time to care, for more than a few minutes at best, and they expect you to be over it. its frustrating. God bless you!

  2. The problem I have with grief, is that grief is the tearing away of the emotional attachment we ( I have) have with another person. That is what loss actually is in my opinion. However, you cannot grieve that which you never had? if you had a non relationship with your brother or sister or father or mother. If you werent close & loving, if they didnt really care about you then there cannot be a sense of loss as such. Cannot be real grief. Grief is the loss of the attachment but if there was never any attachment then there is nothing to grieve. BUT that makes life even more difficult because once a person is gone, we are left struggling to make sense of their absence. They leave a void, a space, a silence. That silence is then full of questions about what happened & why or what might have been. Its easy to full that void with what might have been’s, easy to fantasize about that person. Eventually one still has to let go and move on with one’s life. Self forgiveness is vital, compassion for one self is essential otherwise we wont heal.

    1. I cannot say I have been through what you have, but I left my first husband knowing he very well might kill himself and have always been thankful that he didn’t quite get there. Forgiveness is hard; forgiving ourselves is even harder. You must convince yourself deep down inside, that no matter how painful this truth is, you could not save your love. He made choices that took him down a self-destructive path, and there was absolutely nothing you could do about it. Keep working at it. The relief you will feel when you finally wrestle your guilt into submission will be worth it. Peace!

  3. after 14 yrs. of living to gether; my significant other took his life and I was in charge of stopping life support. he had been an alcoholic, but when he took meth for 2 yrs., inspite of my denial; he became very abusive; where I had to throw him out and take out protective orders on him. ignoring the orders; I took him back to court and the judge enforced them even harder; because I’m disabled. 2 nights later; he shot himself; with no note he was in denial about his drug use; and so was his family. in fact; some family members blamed his death on me. this was almost 4 yrs. ago; and I’m still grieving. I had asked God to remove him from my life, and the next thing I knew; he was gone. he haunts my dreams; and I can’t move forward and still feel attached to him. sorry for the long post; but I haven’t found any other griever who has been thru what I did. I have allot of guilt; that I couldn’t save him from himself. I’ve even moved out of state; to start a fresh;;; no reminders. why am I still stuck in the ccu; where I had to say good bye. I did forgive him before he took his last breath and held him in my arms. ie; I let him go. or; so I thought. I don’t even have his ashes; because I felt a clean break was the answer. thanks for listening and sharing.

  4. I joined a Facebook Group that is a bit irreverent. Some days the leader is up and funny and other days he is down, but overall it seems to be a good group and it has helped me with the grief aspect of this change. I tried counselors and local groups, but they just weren’t for me after our 36 yrs together and 5 yrs by myself. Grief is strange and evolves for each individual. There is nothing fixed about grief that helps as far as I’ve found.

  5. I lost my significant other last week after 13 years. He was considerably older than I was, and to say that he was difficult is an understatement. He came into the relationship with a lot of baggage that often played out in verbal abuse, or just plain erratic moods of joy, mixed with an inability to feel joy, with anger. He had also not had a relationship that had ever really lasted well for longer than a year, although he was a pillar in the community who was regarded as one of the kindest and most generous people anyone had ever known (which was also true). The contradiction was maddening because, when we were in sync, life was magical, and it was often enough for me to keep hanging on hoping that it would become the norm.

    Those who really knew him knew that he had his issues with self-loathing and lack of confidence that often caused him to assault the very things he loved, but with me, he seemed to come around … and worked very hard to overcome old patterns, although it was not 100% of the time. All his closest friends applauded me and told me I had transformed his life into one where he could finally enjoy some happiness. While he was sometimes erratic with me, he was going around the city telling everyone I was the greatest thing that had ever happened to him.

    Sounds like the old abusive relationship story, doesn’t it? And it was … and it wasn’t… He could be magnificent for months on end, which often gave me the belief that I really had gotten the formula for “getting it right.” And even if I understood that the problems in the relationship were not mine, I still plunged myself into doing everything I could to make his life at least a little bit better, because that, in turn, made me feel better about myself.

    But as he got older and began to decline further both physically and mentally, he required more and more attentiveness that he literally pushed away while at the same time requiring it to even be alive.
    He lost impulse control on anger and agitation, and in some respects, stopped trying to fight it even when it caused me harm. It was torture for me, and the more I tried to help, the angrier he got at his fate and at me. He both said that he could not live without me and did not want me around to see him old, ornery, and decrepit. He could not be with me or even engage with me unless he was feeling okay, which was starting to be never and he kept telling me I needed to be “understanding,” even though I don’t know what that meant. Not be angry when he said mean things? Not try to take care of him when he was unresponsive to all my attempts?
    Each day he focused on how everyone’s solution was for him to die and that he did not deserve me or to be alive. All efforts to try to get him the help he needed psychologically were beaten back, and neither his doctor nor his children thought things were “that bad.”

    He passed away from heart failure, and although I might not have been able to do much about that had he “let me in” more, I might have, or I might have been able to somewhat supervise a plan for making his mental and physical health better along the way. And I get that not letting me in was his problem and not mine, but here I am devastated by his death while still feeling outraged about the amount of effort I put in that never resulted in the more loving/reciprocal relationship I wanted to achieve. I have so many people telling me to find comfort in the positive, and to take comfort in the fact that I gave him happiness and support that he otherwise would not have had, but all I can focus on is how hard I tried and how little reward I feel right now. And, of course, I am devastated by his absence as well … I don’t know what to do with myself. I was with him every day all day for the last week of his life. There actually seem to be some hope, but I think he gave up when he sensed that even if he recovered, he would be a physical and financial burden. He told me it was best for everyone if he died and that I was the only true good thing he had ever had in his life. I am all over the place with unresolved emotions about what was and what never could be.

  6. I can feel gentle and loving towards his memory, but I’m not sure I can have compassion for him now he’s gone, in a way that would mean anything to him. He’s dead. Did we have an understanding that we would feel a living compassion for each other after death? Maybe. I can only try to explore how I felt before he died, how I feel now, and try to sense the evidence in my own memory of our fragile, often bitter love. This helps me to feel the connection we had, such as it was. The value to me of that part of my life – 30 years, and now I’m 70 – depends on how real I can believe it was. I’m glad I finally told him, while he still understood, that I loved him. I had to believe it before I said it.

  7. I want to let go of my parents so badly. They are still alive, but I split with them two years ago. My childhood was lonely, sad, frightening and chaotic. I love them from the bottom of my heart. Yet, I cannot forgive them. During four years of therapy I came to understand that they didn’t hurt me on purpose, but because they were and are hurt themselves. I’m still yearning for my mother’s love and my father’s support. I will never have that. So I am grieving for what could have been and the little girl I once was who had to endure so much pain at an already young age. I love them and I just wish they did love me, too. Tell me, show me. But there is not chance to make them understand my point of view. Simply because they did their very best. The best they knew. It’s tragic and therefore unbearably sad.

  8. You have beautifully said not only do we grieve the loss of relationship, the person but also of the hope that things can be made better. I have tried to make things better by gradually changing some closely held thoughts and beliefs in a relationship that was one-sided.

    It is a real struggle. I am trying to think of ways to get through this.

  9. I lost my mother just this July . I never had much of a relationship with her. Ive always thought or believed that we didnt really love each other until the day i saw her body lying cold on the floor. I have been overwhelmed since and because we never lived together for some time it feels like shes just visiting a friend for a month. I just gave birth two weeks ago and im afraid my daughter wont love me like i didnt my mother . I hope i heal

  10. hi im so sorry for your loss, i just wanted to let you know the same thing happened to me my mom died suddenly and she was all i have i dont have any children and i too am in my 40’s all I had was my husband and he died shortly after she did so now i am completely alone and life for me will never be the same its awful.

  11. hi im so sorry for your loss, i just wanted to let you know the same thing happened to me my mom died suddenly and she was all i have i dont have any children and i too am in my 40’s all I had was my husband and he died shortly after she did so now i am completely alone and life for me will never be the same its awful he was all i had after my mom died. Tough road

  12. I don’t know if anyone will see this but I thought I would comment.

    I had a crush in high school that was reciprocated except I was already very involved (everyone, including us, thought we would marry at some point) and not long after my interested sparked, he was involved with a friend.

    Long story short we caught up again as people do through facebook and over the years we chatted, became friendlier, flirted a bit, chatted more. Almost got together but didn’t. He had health problems and I know it scared me and I’m starting to think it may have scared him, too. There was also financial problems and distance between us. But. We were each other’s ‘what if’ and ‘well… maybe… one day’

    Except. One day will never come. He died in March. He was 34.

    It hit me really hard. Actually, when I first heard I said out loud when asked: “I’m fine. Really. I’m okay”
    It was about a week later that it really hit me. And not only the death of a close friend but the death of someone that if I didn’t love already was falling in love with.

    He was the person I felt I could talk to all the time. I never realized it before but later… later you realize all the things you don’t before.

    I have been trying to ‘get back out there’ as it is. I use a dating site but every time I start to talk to someone they just make me so annoyed and angry. And then the other day I got a message and the person was nice to talk to — not really my type but nice. And then I saw the name. He had the same name as my friend. And it’s brought it all back to me.

    It’s been almost six months. I know he won’t be back. We weren’t together. We probably never would have actually gotten together.


    Those could haves keep popping into my mind. I miss him and he would be who I would ask I just wish I had realized what a great friend and person he was while I had him. And now that I keep realizing that, I also realize that he is gone. Forever.

    I don’t really know what to do about it.

  13. The worst part of all of this is coming to terms with your part in all of it. When I think about all of this most times I was not a good son and I did blame my parents way too much for my own shortcomings. I could be more compassionate and loving towards strangers at times than my own family. I think the little quotes and sayings are nonsense. You never truly forgive yourself for the ways you acted or didn’t because if we all could we would not be at this website. What I am learning is we have to try to accept and live with our words and deeds and the belief it was just them and never us. I struggle with that sometimes daily. I think many times if someone was telling me the ways they acted or the things they did to their parents mirroring the things I did I would be disgusted. I never could see that I was doing them when my family was alive. I still long for them to forgive me or send me a sign that they do or a sign that they know how much I love and still love them yet it never seems to happen. Try to take tiny steps and talk as much as you can to all kinds of people and you will be so surprised how many others are going through the same things.You are so not alone.

  14. It’s been three weeks since my mom died, and as her only daughter and the youngest, our relationship felt forced and conditional. As I have been estranged from my grown children, our family has been unhealthy for generations. I’ll always want the mommy that I never had, even though I appreciate the mom I got. Instead of feeling my mom was ashamed of me, is it possible she wanted a different relationship with her only daughter, not a DIFFERENT daughter?

  15. My amazing daughter died in September. I thought we were close, I was involved daily in helping raise her children. I love her so so much. In death, I have found out she had a whole separate life going on, and didn’t particularly like me, and was very angry with how we raised her. Lots of blaming others and not much introspection on her part. She was in her 30s. Talk about complicated grief. Unbearable.
    Her husband and I and her dad agree that we don’t want her young sons or siblings to know the double life she was leading. It would crush them so deeply.
    This article is the first resource I have found that even begins to address this sort of confusing grief. Please share with me any helps you have found for dealing with this sort of grief.

  16. My mother died from a long battle with cancer when I was 17 months old, leaving a 13 yr old daughter and an 11 yr old son. My sister detested me because she felt I killed my mother. She is probably correct about my causing her mother’s death because of the strength she used to nurture me. I really don’t know because I was too young to remember any thing about my mother. A housekeeper cared for me until age of 18. My sister married at the age of 18 when I was 6 yrs old. My brother was killed by a drunk driver at the age of 18. I was 7. My father died from alcoholism when I was 32. I was married and divorced twice. I grew up fending off the hatred by my sister. Our housekeeper cared for me until age 18. During the whole time of growing up I never received even 1 hug and never a kiss nor told I was loved. I had two children. My son died at the age of 43 from a long illness, I have never grieved a loss due to death. I am 84 years old. I have never felt liked or loved and have had few friends.

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