Succession: why it can be hard grieving someone you had a complicated relationship with

·4-min read

This article contains spoilers

There is a scene in the pilot episode of HBO’s American black comedy-drama series Succession where Kendall Roy locks himself in the bathroom, no longer able to hold in his rage and resentment towards his father. Billionaire media mogul, Logan Roy, is portrayed as a narcissistic, emotionally abusive, power-hungry father who has inflicted a lifetime of neglect and abuse on his children.

After his mini-breakdown, Kendall composes himself, returns to the dining room, and puts on a brave face with the rest of the family to celebrate his father’s birthday. There is an uncomfortable sense that family life is an artificial performance. Not too far from the surface are the pain, resentment and anger of decades of dysfunctional family life.

Trauma specialist, Caroline Spring, wrote that the “happy family” is a myth for many, a performed cultural ideal that masks a myriad of unpalatable truths. This can also be true in death, as people negotiate the loss of family members they blatantly disliked during life, or who caused them nothing but suffering and pain.

It’s difficult to say how many funerals are characterised by singing the praises of people many of those present either openly or secretly resented or cannot forgive.

It’s not necessarily that the deceased wasn’t loved or that their loss doesn’t still sting. Grieving dysfunctional, toxic or hurtful relationships creates a different level of complexity.

In Succession, when the tyrannical Logan Roy finally dies his children’s sadness is palpable. However, family therapists have argued that such grief can be complicated by the fact that the bereaved are often mourning a relationship they wish they’d had with the deceased or are angry and remorseful about the fact that things were never repaired.

There is also the possibility for internal conflict when cultural or familial pressure to celebrate the deceased collides with an internal need to acknowledge the fact that they were mean, abusive, and neglectful.

Artificial forgiveness

Bereavement psychologists suggest that forgiving the deceased is important to preserving mental health. After all, as Nelson Mandela suggested, resentment “is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die”.

In simple terms, psychologist Robert Enright defined forgiveness as rooting out negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours towards someone, and finding a way to develop positive thoughts, feelings and behaviours about them too. He suggested such forgiveness is highly relevant in cases where the offending party is dead.

In his book, Dying Matters, palliative care physician, Ira Byock, argued that suffering can be eased through deathbed rituals designed to foster forgiveness. As part of a “good death”, he encourages people to engage in five steps, where they say:

Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you. And Goodbye.

The idea being that such forgiveness rituals help “wipe the slate clean”.

However, it has been argued that this sort of forgiveness is artificial.

Grief psychologist, Lorraine Hedtke, believes such practices pressure people into what she calls an “artificial ending”. Sometimes people end up silencing suffering or minimising and denying pain in service to a cultural pressure to accelerate forgiveness. She also questions whether forgiveness is really something we can conjure up in “once and forever” rituals.

Death is not the end

Of course, death is not the end of our psychological relationship with the deceased. Hedtke offers the example of an abusive, angry, tyrannical father, much like Succession’s Logan Roy, whose six sons had few kind words to say about him on his death.

Neither the man’s death, nor his funeral, she wrote, were the time or place any of his children felt able to make false declarations of forgiveness. At the funeral they had few kind words or fond memories and could not recall appreciative connections with their father. Only in the years that followed did they begin to construct a more forgiving version of him.

Eventually the brothers were able to retain their original reality – that he was indeed a mean and vindictive father – and also begin to appreciate and understand him in a different light too. This was sparked by a random conversation about a long-forgotten fishing trip, prompting them to remember a positive quality that had previously gone unnoticed.

Even after death, Hedtke argues, relationships change and evolve. In some cases, perhaps this sort of change is only possible after someone’s death.

Studies have also suggested that people’s capacity to forgive the dead may be connected to psychological factors like attachment. Psychologists Elizabeth Gassin and Gregory Lengel found that people with high attachment avoidance were less likely to reach forgiveness for someone they were close to who had died. This makes sense because attachment avoidance is a tendency to repress or shut away our feelings for the other. It is difficult to forgive someone if we are unable to acknowledge or face our feelings about them.

So with all this in mind, it might be hard for the Roy children to forgive Logan straight away. Theirs was a fraught and complicated relationship. Their journey to forgiveness and through grief might take time but that is normal.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Sam Carr does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.