As we discuss unfinished business, we’re referring to unspoken words. These are things that the grieving person did not have an opportunity to say to the loved one, or if he had the opportunity he didn’t use it. Some examples are unspoken apology, unspoken forgiveness, and unspoken unresolved anger and conflicts which really belong together because apology and forgiveness have to do with resolving conflict. (For more counseling skills visit http://www.ctihalifax.com and to request the free grief counseling book visit http://www.counsellorpublishing.com)

Maybe the client didn’t say, “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?” or didn’t say, “I forgive you,” for something, and so that becomes unfinished business. Maybe the client wished that he could have heard the person who died say, “I forgive you,” or “I’m sorry for the way I treated you,” for the abuse or whatever. But the person died before that conversation could ever be experienced.

It may be that certain issues were avoided and maintained as secrets, and so that becomes unfinished business. As we’re talking about these areas of unfinished business I’d like you to think about how they would apply to the client who’s loved one is still alive but may have these words waiting to be spoken, and about your own relationships and people in your life that you have unfinished business with.

There may be unspoken affection and caring, not having said, “I love you, I care about you, I’ll miss you when you die.” Unspoken affection and caring also includes not reminiscing with a loved one about all the good times they had together and all the tough times. This is all unexperienced intimacy.

In some families it’s very difficult for people to say, “I love you” to each other. It’s something that we have to do regularly for it to be part of us, part of our communication. And if we lapse into not saying it and a person dies, after years of not having said it to him, a person may be left feeling regret and guilt.

To do that with a family member you don’t love, what is process? You ask, “What gets in the way of loving him?” Maybe anger about unresolved conflict or abuse, infidelity, or addiction. So there is the need to grieve the loss of closeness and caring. Unspoken anger and the underlying sadness need to be put into words.

There may be unspoken goodbyes, if a person dies and the client didn’t have a chance to be with the loved one who may have died suddenly or lived too far away. And so a person is left feeling regret. When there is significant unfinished business, there is complicated grief sometimes. It increases the sadness and the regret and the guilt, so it makes grieving more difficult and intense.

We can also speak of unspoken loss of closeness, which is really to do with unresolved issues, unresolved conflict, never being able to talk to the loved one about the closeness that was missed. And so that becomes unfinished business. If a person can address his unfinished business before the loved one dies, then it can make the grieving much easier.


A woman who had been sexually abused went to counselors and therapists, and this always came up: the unfinished business she had with her parents because her mother didn’t step in and stop the abuse. She followed through on going and talking to her parents because she felt the counselor wanted her to but it didn’t do anything for her.

What was she expecting? She was expecting her parents to start the relationship on a different level perhaps. She may have been expecting to have a caring, understanding, supportive relationship with them. If that was what she expected then its understandable she would say nothing changed. When I suggest a client go talk to parents about unfinished business and unresolved issues, it’s very important to make clear to her that she’s doing this in order to verbalize the issues for herself, not to change the parents. In fact what she may find is that the parents are not going to change. They’re not going to be any different than they have ever been.

And how will that leave the client feeling?  Frustrated, empty and sad. The client then is faced with having to grieve the reality that the parents are closed rather than open. That was her report after she went there. It was like she had never left home. Everything was exactly the same. She expressed her issues, and they just went on with life. They didn’t show any more understanding or caring. It was just the same. So that is the loss then, the death or loss of the relationship, or maybe of the longing to have that relationship, to have the understanding and the openness, the support, and caring.

So the client goes for the client, to let go of the issues and the expectations of getting lost caring. Facing the grief around the reality of that, is fundamental to her healing, so she can let go of expecting others to give her the caring she needs and to face the reality of needing to give herself what she needs by choosing healthy people and by relating to herself and others in healthy ways. 


The reason people don’t address unfinished business is because of a protection block, which is precisely the same thing the person does to himself around his own pain. The individual who has come through painful life experiences may protect himself from the pain by using denial and a variety of other defenses that we have discussed.

A person doesn’t face family members and significant others with unfinished business maybe because of the protection block which is made up of the fear and the guilt: there is the fear of hurting, and the fear of being hurt. If I bring this issue up, if I mention this, I’m going to cause my dying loved one more suffering. It’s going to upset my loved one, or from the perspective of the dying person, if I tell my family members that I’m dying it’s just going to make them hurt more so I won’t tell them, to make it easier for them.

In reality it makes things much more difficult not to tell them. But there’s a protection block because of the fear of hurting or being hurt. I won’t go to my father because I’m afraid if I do he’ll just reject me again, and he’ll tell me not to talk like that or not to bring that up now after all these years. There’s that fear and that guilt, the fear that if I say something and it hurts the other person, they will be hurt in some way, and then I’ll feel guilty about what I said. I’ll regret it and so I’m not going to say it in the first place. 


Ultimately it’s finally coming to terms with the loss of the closeness. There never will be a relationship with that person, and pursuing anything is futile. So if you go to your father to tell him how you feel, your purpose in doing it would be to take care of yourself, to get that stuff from the inside of you to the outside so that you can say, I’ve said what I needed to say and he did what he did. He did what he had to do, or what he chose to do, and I did what I had to do for myself.

So that’s an acceptance. It may involve another level of grieving when you are faced with the reality he’s not going to be any different. He’s going to be just as rejecting as ever. He may even become more hostile.

What do you do now that you’ve brought up the unfinished business but there’s no positive response? Then there’s something else that you have to deal with, isn’t there? It’s the grief. But you see it’s not something new. It’s something that has been there all the time. The reality of the closed parent has been your experience all those years. It’s not something that just happened now that you’ve faced him with it. What’s happened is maybe you are realizing for the first time what the relationship is really like, so it allows you to get on with grieving the loss of caring. Grieving means feeling the sadness rather than being stuck in the struggle, the anger and conflict, the fight to get the caring. Sadness lets go; anger hangs on.

A client’s oldest brother is old enough to be his father, and he always looked at his brother like a father since his dad died several years back. The brother really reminds him of his dad. He would like to have done things with him like he could have done with his dad. But they never really had a chance to be close because he felt that whenever he was with the brother it was exactly like it was with Dad. He doesn’t acknowledge the client’s presence when he’s in the room. So if he went and told his brother that, the client knows what his reaction would be. He says that for him to have to go tell him that and to see his reaction would hurt him even more.

So I say, “Have you ever done it? Have you ever gone and told him and expressed these issues to him?”

He says, “Exactly how I feel? Not really, I guess because of that fear. We only get together maybe once a year. But you know, different times where I have made an attempt to talk to him he just shoos me off like I’m still a little snot-nosed kid.”

In preparing a client to actually approach a family member, it’s really important to work with him to assess what his style has been in approaching family members. The purpose is to express the issues in a way that does not dump anger but rather expresses the sadness about lost caring.  To do this the counselor can use role-play and rehearse ways of expressing issues in a healthy way.

Now if you find that the parent or family member is open to you, then there may be a chance that you can gain something for the rest of your lives together. And if you find that they’re just as closed as they ever have been, even if you approach them in a caring, non-dumping way, then that means that it’s time to get on with your grieving and let go.

The client fears something terrible is going to happen and find his fear was exaggerated. It’s the child in us who is so frightened and so caught up in a protection block that we remain in that child ego state. That’s why we recommend that when the client is ready, he approaches the people they have unfinished business with. Doing that allows him to grow up into his adult self.

The child who is either very frightened or very abusive and dumping does the same thing with the parent that the parent perhaps did to the child. The child gets caught up in a fight, or runs away. It’s the adult who can face and express the issues in a straightforward caring, sharing kind of way rather than a dumping way. So when a client can do that, he has taken great steps toward growing into his adult self.

Are there ever any families where the child leaves home without unfinished business? Some are pretty close to that but there’s no such thing as a perfect family. But if you look at the continuum between the closed, abusive family and the open nurturing family, there are many families on the open, nurturing end. You won’t see those families in counseling.



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