What do you do when someone who treated you badly dies?
I went to school in a small town, an “everyone kind of knows everyone somehow”-type place. This isn’t really my type of place, and I left to attend a big university in a big city. I return to the town during breaks, but I don’t think I’ve spent more than six consecutive weeks there since I left for college two years ago.
This morning, I found out that a guy who I knew (sat next to in high school band, had some mutual friends, our siblings dated), “Mitchell”, died in a freak accident yesterday. Since this is a small town, and I had mutual friends with him, my Facebook feed is full of “RIP Mitch” and memorial events being planned. Also, since I’m returning to said town for about three weeks at the beginning of summer for my brother’s graduation, I’m sure I’m going to encounter people who want to talk about Mitchell.
The problem? Mitchell sexually harassed me in middle school (and continued to be an asshole to me in high school). Given the memories of the sexual harassment, and how awful it was to be dealing with that as a mentally ill 12-year-old with DD breasts and lots of other body issues, I’m having trouble seeing all the happy memories and sudden reminders of his existence. So:
1. What’s the appropriate thing to do when people try to engage me in conversation about the death? Obviously, it sucks that he’s dead, and I would never wish that on anyone, him included. But apart from “Yes, that’s awful, and I’m so sorry for his family”, what else can/should I say?
2. Not many mutual friends know about the harassment- they think he was a great guy. I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but if someone asks for my Happy Memories or Nice Stories, what do I say?
3. What do I say to my mom? Since our siblings dated, she knows Mitchell’s parents, and since we were in band together, she knows that I knew and interacted with Mitchell. I don’t really want to tell her about the harassment- we don’t have that kind of relationship- but I also don’t want to pretend that I feel much beyond a neutral “someone is dead and that’s unfortunate for them and their family” feeling.
I’m in the process of acquiring a therapist who can help me sort things out, and I have tons of college friends who didn’t know Mitchell and can be a good Team Me, but I’m dreading the return to my old town. Help!
Not a Small-Town Girl
Dear Not A Small Town Girl:
We have a very strong cultural taboo against speaking ill of the dead. This can be a good thing or a bad thing (silencing victims can cover up a lot of abuse and bullshit in the process), but I agree that it is kindest to not share negative information with the dead person’s grieving loved ones and just let them get on with grieving and missing the person.
Everyone dies in the middle of something; before the finale of their favorite show, halfway through a great book, with events planned on the calendar, with things still to learn and amends yet to make. And their death doesn’t mean that their past actions stopped rippling out into the world. When you have unfinished business with the dead person it’s hard to know what to do with those feelings and those words you never got to say. I’m glad you are seeking a therapist; consider also writing everything in a letter and then burning it or some other ritual.
I would also suggest taking a social media break for a few weeks. Give people a chance to express their feelings of loss or share happy memories; remove yourself from the responsibility of keeping up with it and from the trigger of seeing it. You don’t have to go to any events if you don’t want to. A lot of it will have died down by the time you head out there.
To answer your questions more specifically:
1. “Yes, I heard, that’s awful. How terrible for his family” is perfectly appropriate. Keep saying that.
2. Here is your script for people who ask you specifically to share memories, etc.
- “Of course I knew him, but we weren’t close. Have you asked ______ (someone who was very close to him)? S/he’ll have loads to tell you.” Deflect, send the person to talk to someone else.
- “What a nice thought to collect these for the family. Have you talked to _____? S/he knew him very well.” Deflect, send the person to talk to someone else.
- “We were in band together. His sibling dated my sibling. His poor family.” A dry recitation of the facts. If they ask for heartfelt stories or whatever, just say “Honestly I’m drawing a blank, forgive me” or whatever neutral-ish thing you can think of to say.
3. You don’t have to go into detail about the harassment if you don’t want to, but you can tell your mom (and anyone who really push you to say something more than your non-committal scripts) the truth.
- “Sadly, we didn’t get along. I knew his family/sibling much better. How awful they must be feeling.”
- “When I said we weren’t close, I meant we really weren’t close. But my thoughts are with his family, what a terrible time for them.”
4. Tell SOMEONE the unvarnished truth. A friend. Your therapist. Your sibling, maybe? Tell somebody. “He harassed and bullied me a lot when we were kids, so while of course his death is a sad event, I am having a hard time participating in memorial events or expressing any grief beyond feeling sad for his family.“
Lean on platitudes. So sorry for your loss. What an awful shock. I hadn’t talked to him in a very long time, we weren’t close, but of course I feel so terrible for his family. Platitudes are here to get us through very difficult events without hurting other people more than they’ve already been hurt, so don’t feel guilty about using them. People mostly won’t remember what you said, but they will be grateful for your presence and your acknowledgement of their grief.
My parents love each other very much and have been married for thirty plus years. They, my sister and I form a close-knit and loving family. Unfortunately, my mother, my sister and I loathe my father’s parents. And they loathe us.
My grandparents believe that my father has married beneath himself and despise my mother. We’re not sure why, since the hatred is surprisingly virulent, but we assume that this is because my mother is mixed race, and from a much lower class background than my father. They have said nasty things (including racial slurs) to my mother and myself (but not to my younger, paler-skinned sister). When I was a little girl, and my mother made it plain they could not bully her any more, they started to bully me when my parents weren’t around.
When I was about fifteen I told my parents about the bullying. We all agreed that my father would continue to go to the biggest family events so as not to cause comment, but he would go alone. Over the last decade I have seen them only once or twice.
My grandmother is sick. She is probably dying. I don’t really feel anything about this. I feel weird admitting that, but I have no interest in reconciliation, redemption, or closure-like experiences. I want to move on by continuing to not think about her any more. I know that I do not wish to attend the funeral. I am planning on using an upcoming exam period as an excuse.
What I am worried about is my father. I spent a long time resenting him for not making a stand against his parents sooner, such as when he first introduced them to my mother. But now I’m older I can see that they used to bully him too, and, knowing that, I have a lot more sympathy for him.
But, the death of a parent is a huge loss. I want to be able to tell my father that, despite our dislike of that woman, I care about how he is doing. I know that my father will still mourn his mother’s death, despite what that woman did to our family. I want to be able to talk to him about her in a way that is separate from my own experiences of her. But I fear that the decades of anger have made this sort of a conversation impossible.
Could you help me with a script on how to broach the subject? Also, could you help me sensitively inform my father that I will not be coming to the funeral?
Thank you so much,
Wants to move on
Dear Wants To Move On,
Your compassion for your dad is lovely to see, and I think you should tell him what you told us. “Despite our estrangement, I know this is an incredible loss for you, and I am so sorry. I love you.“
And then maybe you could ask him questions and let him tell stories, which is a lot of what wakes & funerals are about. Sometimes, the more contentious the relationship with the deceased is, or the more of a pain in the ass they were, the more cathartic and healing the funeral is because everyone can share those memories together. “I didn’t know Grandma the way you did, obviously, and it’s hard to get an idea of what she was like based on our interactions. What was it like growing up with her? What was her favorite food/color/music? Do you have good memories of her? How did she and Grandpa meet? What do you miss about her the most?”
If your dad asks you to go to the funeral, you can tell him it’s during exams, and that you’re not comfortable, etc. You’ve already got it figured out. But ask your dad to talk about his mom, if you are willing and able. If that still seems too hard, just tell your dad you love him and make sure to schedule time with him when you are home next. Maybe send him some music or a book you know he’d like, something to distract him from grief and let him know he’s loved. When a parent’s parent dies, it’s a time that adult children have a huge opportunity to comfort and be good friends to their parents. You are very kind to be thinking of that already.
Edited to Add: Reach out to your mom also. She’s going to have some feelings. They might not be grief, they’ll be strong and weird. Losing a parent figure, even a dreaded one, brings up Stuff. So be extra nice to your mom, she’s gonna be the one who has to hear a lot of “We’re so sad that she’s gone!” from folks and bite down on her “Yeah, big loss…if you love racism!” like the first LW here. </Edit>
Three years ago I lost my grandpa. We were very close, in many ways, but we also had an extremely contentious relationship in later years due to differing political beliefs and his frequent dispatches from The Cranky Old Man Internet. He was a terrible listener, a constant interrupter, and he HAD to be the center of any and all attention. As he grew older, and his mind wandered, he grew increasingly paranoid and verbally abusive. My mom and her siblings had to take turns dealing with him because he would turn on each of them, saying terrible things to them and accusing them of terrible things. They supported each other, fortunately, and they got through it.
As the family writer, I was tasked with writing his eulogy, which I did early the morning of the funeral while suffering from food poisoning and the constant fear that I would poop my pants in church. It was not the best day ever. Anyway, I’m going to share it here, because it marks an attempt to express grief and love while also being honest about a man who liked being known as a monster pain in the ass. It made my family laugh through their tears, and made the people who knew him best – friends, priest, etc.- say I’d captured him true. I don’t think that meant pretending everything was perfect.
Hello, I’m Jennifer, Oscar’s Granddaughter. The family asked me to say a few words today.
The story of Oscar’s life is the story of a century – of upheaval and change, hardship and sacrifice; service to his country, his church, and his community; the joy of a 60-year marriage to my grandmother Louise, weekly bloodthirsty Scrabble games with his sisters, and spending time with his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
During the Great Depression, Oscar and his best friend “rode the rails” around the country, looking for work. He experienced incredible deprivation and the constant threat of violence from the other desperate men crowding the train cars and the police whose job it was to keep them clear. He joined the army in Texas in exchange for three square meals a day, having no idea that it would be the making of him. His Army career took him around the world, through two wars, through numerous cases as a CID agent.
I could describe all these things to you, but if you are here then you knew Oscar, and if you knew Oscar, he probably told you himself. Many times. He had a way of turning harsh stories of the the things he’d survived into thrilling James Bond -tales, with himself as the wily trickster who cracked jokes, told superiors off, and interrogated war criminals with a mix of guile and unhoped-for compassion.
Writing this piece had me looking up synonyms for “original,” “headstrong,” “a character,” “one-of-a-kind” – I think I will go with “charismatic,” “intelligent,” and “larger-than-life.” He took over every room that he walked into with his enormous presence, carrying himself like an old movie star and filling the room with that rich, deep cultured voice.
He loved to collect jokes and tell them. They were not good jokes. In fact, the worse the joke, the better he liked it – the more the joke was on you for having sat through such a bad joke. He was great at hazing new boyfriends and suitors, because anyone who survived an evening or two with Grampa liked you enough to stick around for the long haul.
He hated to lose an argument and loved to have the last word, a trait that he definitely passed down to his family. I do not recommend that you get into an argument with any of us. You will lose, and even if you win on points or logic or evidence, we will never admit that you won, and three days later we will email you with five more reasons that we are right and you are wrong. We definitely get that from Grampa.
Grampa had one of the most active and curious intellects I’ve ever encountered. Entirely self-educated, he constantly read, traveled, asked questions, researched, and acquired languages, with his mind working right up until the end to understand the world. He was active in politics, and notably helped pass a Massachusetts law to relieve the tax burden on veterans. He was fierce and opinionated and never stopped looking for opportunities to serve his community – teaching citizenship classes and English to new immigrants and going undercover in nursing homes to investigate elder-abuse.
He was extraordinarily proud of his family. As my cousin Joe reminded me, whenever you went out in public with Grampa he would introduce you to everyone with such pride. He had a way of being proud of you that made you want to work hard to deserve it.
During our very last conversation on the phone last weekend, I was disoriented from being wakened by a phone call in the middle of the night and he was disoriented from illness and medication, so I can’t remember much of what he said, other than “Be good, kid,” but I will remember for a long time the absolute love and joy in his voice when he realized it was me on the phone and said my name. I spoke to all the other grandchildren last night, and they described the same experience, even when he could barely speak he said all of our names with such pride and love.
He knew death was coming for him, and he met it with strength and his enormous faith. He wanted nothing more than to see his wife Louise again. Thursday would have been their 66th wedding anniversary. Right now the family joke is that she got tired of waiting and wanted to celebrate it with him, so she called him home. I like to think of them together again.
Let me end with a few words from Tennyson’s Ulysses, a poem about an old soldier wanting to go out for one last adventure. It has always reminded me of my Grampa.
‘I cannot rest from travel…I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known—cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all—
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end.
… Come, my friends.
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
…Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’
At no time during the reading of that did I poop my pants, so, you know, victory.
Letter Writers, if you need to, give yourselves a chance to grieve. Death is a funny thing, and it can hit you like a loss even when it’s no loss at all. Grieve for yourselves, if that’s how it comes. Grieve for the girl who was bullied and who wasn’t believed and who might not be believed now as her tormentor receives a hero’s funeral. Grieve for the loving grandmother you should have had, the one who missed out on getting to know such a kind, thoughtful granddaughter. Grieve on your dad’s behalf; he made the right choice in choosing you over her, but he lost something when he did. Grieve for the way that death cuts us off in the middle of a sentence. Or don’t grieve! And don’t feel weird for not grieving. Sometimes death brings more relief than anything else, and that’s okay, as long as you’re not doing a musical number at the actual funeral (alone in your room at the top of your lungs is perfectly ok).