Hey there, Cap! Looks like it’s time for me to beg your advice again.
So, here’s the deal. Once upon a time I had a grandmother, who was kind of a great big jerk. But in that gaslighty way that makes you think maybe she’s not so bad? I think she pulled favorites a lot, and my branch of the family in particular was not one of them. She’d be outwardly sweet, but she could turn around and rip you a new one.
1) My brother’s horrible ex-wife goes and rings him through the courts and basically manages to take all but $300 a month for child support. When he turns to Rich Grandma to ask for assistance, she turns around and snaps, “It’s your own stupid fault” and hangs up on him.
2) She’d sprinkle in comments like “I hope you fit in your wedding dress” and such, apropos of nothing, leading up to our wedding. It’s one of those things where you can’t tell if she really means it, or if she’s just saying, hey I think you’re fat. She also would insult and swear at her husband up, down, and sideways every time she got a chance. Pretty aggressively, too.
3) Here’s the big one, and the one in most recent memory. Then-fiance and I decided that we were too broke to throw a real wedding just yet, and we were visiting important friends who weren’t going to be able to make it financially when we did throw a real wedding. So! We decided we’d just get together with them and do the legal half when we visited. They lived within two hours of my grandmother and some of my extended family. My husband and I were viewing it as just a trip to the store, basically, but our families viewed it as a Big Deal (because… y’know, we were getting married) so our parents asked to come along and we were like, Heck yeah! Sure! We just didn’t think it was gonna be a Thing, is all. Please, come along if you want.
Anyway, so we do it, and it’s a fun little shindig with our small circle of friends, and our parents. LO AND BEHOLD, my grandmother is *pissed* I didn’t invite her to “my wedding” (and so are some other extended family members, but this is not about them), and she basically excommunicates me for six months. At the time I had All the social anxiety, and zero self-esteem, and I was terrified of phone calls. I made the effort to call regardless, but she wouldn’t answer.
Then it turns out that she was *withholding my Dad’s birthday money* because of it — money my parents were relying on getting. So I decided to try and take action, hoping to help my family out. (My family is awesome, btw, and they were like, don’t worry about it. She is who she is and you don’t need to care.)
So then I painstakingly spent forever writing up this terrible message about how awful I am as a human being for not inviting her, and how I’m still learning how to be an adult and blah blah beg forgiveness blah. I wrote it in pen in cursive and I didn’t want to make a mistake so every time I messed up I’d scrap it and start over.
I WROTE THAT STUPID MESSAGE THIRTY-SOME TIMES, and it was like writing “I will not like myself” a thousand times on the chalkboard. I was utterly emotionally savaged and weeping uncontrollably by the end, and then I drew a very careful drawing on the front anyway and sent it off.
She never acknowledged she got it. Never called me, never thanked me. Refused to answer my calls. And then at some point we just wound up talking again and on her end it was like nothing had ever been wrong. UGH. And I didn’t want to make waves so I never said anything.
Okay so, fast-forward to today.
My grandmother died today. Or maybe is dying and hasn’t died yet? Blah blah surgery complications, taking her off the machines, blah something. I’ma text my mom in a bit and see what’s up. But anyway, I feel exactly zilch about it. I basically resolved to get as close to cutting her out of my life as I could, and made it known to my parents that that was the case. In the interest of helping my folks out, I’d call her on rare occasions (one of the few good things: she is good at short phonecalls), since they live with her now. It was never a big deal and I rarely had to deal with it, and I was fine with it.
But anyway, this is the first time a family member has died and I have no idea what’s expected of me. I’m gonna ask my parents, but I’m gaining perspectives from as many people as I can. Most of my extended family don’t know that I don’t like her, and I have no idea what they expect me to do. I live too far to go to the funeral, likely, especially since I’m going to visit my parents anyway in like… a month.
What do I do, Cap? My friend suggests sending cards. (Cards that are not like the Horrible Hating Myself Stupid cards.) I like this idea. Also, I’m not wrong in thinking she pretty much sucks, right? Ugh.
Here’s the tragedy of death (for everyone, the people we love and the people we don’t):
You die with stuff on your to-do list.
Some of that stuff is great stuff, like, go back to that place in Paris that had the perfect creme brulee and eat it one more time, and also, kiss everyone you love and tell them how great they are.
Some of that stuff is “be less of a jerk.”
We all mean to apologize. Forgive. Hide the porn and burn the diaries.
Nobody gets to finish everything they want to do. Nobody gets to tie it all up neatly with a bow.
Grief is the socially acceptable emotion when something like this happens, even if reality is so much more complex. People will say “I’m so sorry for your loss.” You say “Thank you.” Inside, you feel whatever you want. If some of that is sadness, be sad that here was a lady who used her time on the earth to play her relatives off one another and sit in judgment of them instead of chilling out and enjoying this massive family she had. She could have gotten to know the real you, instead of the you she saw in command performances, but she chose not to. But you don’t have to grieve her loss, and you don’t have to go to her funeral.
Which leaves us with cards! Fortunately there are cards for exactly this occasion. You can go pick a few out, say “Dear Auntie _____, I am thinking of you and sending you my love,” and let Hallmark do the rest. Funerals, sympathy cards, wakes, etc. aren’t for the dead. The dead are dead and they don’t know that they’re the guest of honor at a very weird party. All of those rituals are for the living, and all of the etiquette is there to help people behave well to each other during a stressful time. Sending a card is the right move. You don’t have to feel the stuff in the card about your grandmother, because you’re not doing it for her.
You’re smart to ask your parents what they think and what they need. Your dad’s* emotions are likely to be complex right now. We can love the daylights out of difficult people who hurt us. We can wish we had more time to mend the relationships. The loss of a parent is a big deal. So be extra kind to him. You don’t have to go home for the funeral, but if you can without financial duress on yourself or if your folks can buy you a ticket, it would probably mean a lot to them if you did show up. Not to do or say some magical correct thing, but to be there for them. To drive them places. To make sure there’s always coffee made. To make some kind of statement about how the old bat was mean as a snake but she raised kind people and they raised kind people. I have a feeling your relatives will have fantastic stories to tell about this matriarch, and maybe you can add some of your own to the family legend.
So. I’m sorry for your loss. And for the way there’s never enough time. Now you say “Thank you,” and write some cards.
*I feel like it’s your dad’s mom because of the monetary birthday present, sorry if I got that wrong.