#686: “Help, I’m being pressured to attend funerals by a manipulative family member.”

Hi Captain!

Husband and I have been married a year and to make a long back-story short, I have found your responses re: “dealing with difficult people” immensely helpful for dealing with my MIL.

So here’s the current issue: while my in-laws have very few lasting friends, they do consider themselves close to my FIL’s cousin, Rick- and by extension, his wife, Rena. My FIL’s father died last summer and we took the time/days off work/expense for all pre and post funeral gatherings. Rick’s mother died a few months ago, and as we’re both fond of him PLUS knew it was important to my FIL, we made that funeral too.

Right now, Rena’s father is very close to death.

Unfortunately, my MIL has been using the status of dying people as an easy manipulation technique. She sends strings of texts “updating us” on the status of various aging people’s diagnoses, operations, etc. and it is hard not to engage with these texts because of the subject matter. While we know she doesn’t have empathetic or even sympathetic (unless towards herself) abilities, it similarly seems inappropriate here to focus on that. But this has become a pattern and she clearly assumes we will attend Rena’s father’s funeral. She has also started claiming she is close with several other people who also don’t have long to live. (FYI all of the people involved in this Q live 6-8 hours away.)

Is the “right thing” here to attend Rena’s father’s funeral?

We have a tight budget, are out of bereavement days, and were saving remaining vacation days for a belated honeymoon. My husband will now have to use up a few unpaid sick days to attend any other events during the work week. He is worried at prospect of no real sick days, plus thinks more absences will reflect negatively on him at work. But he is also HIGHLY nervous at idea of saying no to his mother.

Rena is also a difficult and unpredictable woman who often provokes/creates drama seemingly just for the hell of it.. MIL tends to encourage this/holds us responsible when we are Rena’s target because it supports MIL’s own goals- so we both expect her to pull the “hurting Rena” card if we try to miss this funeral.

Am I being a huge bitch? I have a bank of rage/resentment issues re being a doormat in abusive relationships in the past and so maybe my feelings here are from a knee-jerk negative response, which isn’t appropriate here because death is involved?

Would love to hear your thoughts on what we “should” do in this scenario, what we should do when the other claimed close ones die, and what any scripts could be.

Thank you!!
Ragey (But Want to Retain Relationships)

Dear Ragey,

There is so much Stuff going on with your Mother-In-Law around all of this, namely:

  • She’s aging and afraid of failing health.
  • She’s losing her friends.
  • She’d like reassurance from her child(ren) that she won’t grow old alone. Since it sounds like she was not all that nice to them, she needs that reassurance more than most.
  • Big Life Events like funerals have actual cultural and social expectations that people will drop everything to attend, so they make perfect opportunities for a manipulative person to test and display the dutifulness and loyalty of family members. See also every advice question instance of “BUT IT’S YOUR WEDDING” and “BUT IT’S CHRISTMAS” and/or “BUT WE ARE FAAAAAAMILY.”
  • Death/illness has become a trump card over time to get her son to pay attention/visit/put on a suit/act the dutiful son part. Bonus: It happens publicly in a way that her friends can see. If she has narcissistic tendencies, don’t discount the ability to display y’all at these events as a highly motivating factor.
  • She doesn’t have good tools or constructive ways for relating to her son or to you. She doesn’t know how to make a reasonable request, or a reasonable structure for communication. So in a time of anxiety and pain, all of the stuff that makes her hard to deal with is going to get worse.

You can’t solve death, or aging, or dysfunctional families, but you can carve out some boundaries for yourselves.

First, I would like you to give yourself and your husband permission to not decide about whether to go to the funeral until the poor man is gone. You’ve done this dance with your mother-in-law before, and you are correctly sensing the buildup of likely manipulation, but right now, in the moment, when the man is still breathing, give yourselves permission to say “we can’t really plan that right now.”

Most likely you will not go to the funeral, and it’s also okay to decide that for sure between you and your husband, but you don’t have to have that argument right now, with yourselves or with your Mother-In-Law. With a reasonable person, you could be clear and direct, so that she knows what to expect: “I know you’re trying to plan to house us, but I should let you know that we’re out of days off and we just can’t plan to make it this time, sorry.” That would be a kind way to handle this with a reasonable person. With an unreasonable person, and in an ambiguous situation when you don’t know when the event will actually happen, stalling is A-OK in my opinion.

Since your husband wants to keep lines of communication open with his mom, if he has not already done so I suggest instituting a brief weekly* phone call or Skype session or email thread or however he communicates best with her. All issues that come up during the week get saved for or routed to that call, i.e.,“Got your texts, let’s talk about it when we catch up Sunday.” Before and after the call, maybe he can schedule something involving self-care, like a bike ride or a furious video-gaming session where he gets to blow some shit up.

His mom is going to try to push against that boundary the way she does with all boundaries. He can respond once to a text barrage with: “Hey Ma, got your texts, that sounds really rough. Let’s talk more Sunday. Love you!” and then not respond further. You can route her to him and that call as well, i.e.”Got your texts, that sounds rough, hopefully you and Husband can talk more Sunday. Love you!” Setting up a predictable, reliable structure for when he will talk to his mom is kind to him and to himself. She won’t see it that way, especially at first, and he won’t be able to sell her on that idea in the abstract, but trust that over time it will actually lessen her anxiety to be able to count on that weekly conversation. It will make his life better and your life better as you consciously decide when and how much to engage. When the texts start coming in, he can respond and redirect her to the weekly call, and then over time you can both give yourselves permission to turn your phones off and not get on the roller-coaster of worry. If things get off track as his mom escalates things or as he picks up the habit of saying no to her, this gives your husband a structure he can return to.

There are also things you can do to be visibly caring to Rena and Rick from a distance. Send them a card. Speak the Language of Casseroles and send them a small gift certificate for delivery or takeout from a local place. “Rena, so sorry to hear about what you and your dad are going through. Please have dinner on us tonight.” Don’t mention the prospect of the upcoming funeral one way or another. You and your husband don’t have to like her to do a small act of kindness/performing Dutiful Family Friend at a sucky time like this. After her dad is gone, send another card. Rena, egged on by your mom, may notice that you’re not there, but she may be too numb and busy with all of the whirlwind around a funeral for it to be as big a deal then as it is looming for all of you right now.

Ok, we’ve got a plan for ongoing routine communication, we’ve got a plan for being kind to Rena, and we’ve got delaying tactics on the question of whether you are going to the funeral. Eventually, sadly, you and/or your husband will have to directly answer the question “are you coming or not.” The script is, “Sorry Mom, can’t make it this time.” Repeat as necessary. “Ok, but we can’t make it this time.” “I know it’s really sad, please give Rena our love, but we just can’t make it this time.” Your husband’s mom may try to bring up a hierarchy of how much you liked the dead people in question, or use the fact that you came last time to try to “prove” that you should come this time. He/you should not argue with the merits of whatever she says. You lose the more time you spend talking with her about this, and it’s not a negotiation. “We were so glad we were able to come last time, but this time we just can’t make it.” Try not to get into reasons why, as reasons help explain things to reasonable people, but they act as bait for a point-by-point argument for unreasonable people. If you must give reasons, you and your husband should blame everything on work. “We just can’t get the time off, so sorry, please give Rena our best wishes and of course we’ll send her a note ourselves.” Oh, also, don’t get into how many vacation and sick days, exactly, you have or why exactly work won’t let you go. “We can’t get time off from work right now, so sorry.”

It’s hard not to feel like an asshole when you are planning a fight with a relative over some poor man’s death, but your mother-in-law is really putting y’all in an impossible situation. Be clear and consistent and let the rest go, including those looming funerals of people you don’t know.

*Or monthly, or every 2 weeks, or whatever routine that can be done predictably and reliably.

124 thoughts on “#686: “Help, I’m being pressured to attend funerals by a manipulative family member.”

  1. If your MIL is so worried about manners, let’s remember what good manners dictate when it comes to death/funerals. You first duty is to show support for the immediate survivors of the deceased. So making an effort *when it works out for you* to visit or show care (flowers, gift card, etc) for Rena and her father when you can is one way to do that. After he passes, as Captain said, send a card or flowers. Then, because, as Captain said, grief sometimes makes one numb to acts of kindness, follow up with another card or a phone call few weeks later, just to reiterate that you’re thinking of her.

    Your obligation is not to your MIL. If she protests, sweetly say, “Larry was such a dear man. I’m sure he wouldn’t want us getting in trouble at work to take off for a funeral when we have no time banked up” or “Larry was always so thoughtful. I know he wouldn’t want us to jeopardize our honeymoon plans” Just a subtle reminder that the funeral is about honoring the deceased – not MIL. Best of luck to you!

    1. Right. The mother-in-law is vulturing around a man’s death so she can get a command performance out of her child. NOT COOL.

    2. I would endorse all of this except for the specific “Larry was always so thoughtful. I know he wouldn’t want us to jeopardize our honeymoon plans” script. I think the honeymoon plans fall square into the category of Things That Should Not Be Brought Up in relation to whether or not you can attend the funeral. It just opens you up to attack on the grounds of selfishness, “are you really saying that going on vacation is more important than family,” etc etc INFINITE ET CETERAS.

      Don’t even open that line of conversation. Don’t bring your honeymoon up at all. Don’t try to justify your decision to MIL at all, because she will view all of your reasons as negotiable/attackable. But specifically don’t bring up the honeymoon–if you have to give a reason, stick with work.

      1. I will say this (outside of the clear indication that the MIL seems very self-centered)… retired people frequently forget that not everyone has unlimited free time to do things like pore over the obits every day and attend funerals. That may also be part of the issue.

        1. Ack! ^^ That was supposed to include my “I heartily agree with your _keep it separate_ statement, @ShannonP”, hence the inline response.

        2. True, my mum does this and she’s not particularly selfish, just a bit clueless about what it means to have day-to-day responsibilities.

        3. I was to second this. There can be a huge disconnect between those who work and those who don’t. Those who don’t sometimes don’t understand that it’s more than just taking time away from the office – it’s having to schedule everything else in your life around it.

    3. Also, not sure it was mentioned, but personally I would avoid talking about someone’s funeral when they’re still alive, at least to their closest family or to them, unless you know them well enough to feel confident that they would prefer to have it openly discussed and that and you won’t just be needlessly hurting them. Feelings and cultures around death vary, and different individuals process it differently, but some people will take that badly, like you’re treating the person like they are already gone and their remaining time doesn’t matter, or like you’re no longer hoping they live longer. Rena may currently be focused on enjoying what remaining time she has with her father, or on helping him be as comfortable as possible right now, or may be hoping he will rally and live longer than expected.

      For now I would be careful who I talk to about funerals, personally.

    4. That’s a good point. This is about Rena and her father, not your MIL. She’s trying to make it about her, but it’s not. And the man isn’t even dead yet, so it’s frankly kind of inappropriate to be talking about his funeral to everyone you know as though he’s already dead and there’s a definite date planned.

      So until he actually does pass away, if your MIL tries to talk to you yet again about this, and if you’re not really in a good headspace to handle this conversation this particular time, you can always deflect to another topic (and save the “we’re not coming” for another time when you’re more ready to deal with her reaction) by stating that he’s not dead yet and declining to discuss farther.

      I’d agree with the others that you don’t really want to offer up any reasons as to why you can’t go. In particular, don’t mention the trip, as this will only result in MIL lambasting you and husband for being selfish, terrible people, and that’s not a road you want to go down.

    5. “So making an effort *when it works out for you* to visit or show care”

      Agree times one million. There were a few people who waited, after my dad died, and popped in to check on me after a couple of months had gone by. The initial outpouring of support had trickled off, and their check-in came at a time when the shock had started to wear off and the real work of grief was just starting. Their contact was very welcome.

  2. Hi, LW.If you are worried about Rena (or what your MIL might say to Rena, or at the funeral,) I have a piece of anecdata for you that may help. I can barely remember the details of my father’s funeral, let alone list who was actually there; the whole day was so enormous and terrible and difficult and emotionally draining. I *do* remember the people- before and after- who sent a card, wrote a letter, made a donation to the charity we’d picked out in lieu of flowers. If you’re also worried about Doing The Right Thing for Rena (and her husband), then, as CA says, the Language of Casseroles is a good one. As for your MIL- she may have decided your attendance at the funerals she picks is a necessary sign of love/compliance with her wishes; but you don’t have to agree. You not going to this funeral doesn’t mean she’s unloved, (just unreasonable).

    1. I have to agree. My grandmother doesn’t remember who was or was not at the funeral with one exception- my cousin who was stationed in the Middle East and able to get last minute leave- but she does remember who visited and spent time with her, who brought food, and who continues to think of her.

      1. Right. Support AFTER the fact, especially the year after, especially the latter half of the year after, is much more appreciated than support in the blur. When my stepfather passed, my partner was not able to get time off of work, and that worked out much better for me, it turned out— I could focus on supporting my mother rather than worry about worrying about my partner’s feelings, and my step-siblings were feeling pretty bewildered— it felt like a hurricane in many ways. YMMV, of course.

        1. Now that I think about it, that MIL might be able to respond to, “You need to be all the way there for your friend. She needs your maternal instincts, and you might find them pulled in two directions with your son around.”

    2. I will say, though, that with Difficult People the whole thing is different. My cousin wasn’t at our grandfather’s funeral for a whole bunch of reasons which I think are totally understandable but my grandma clearly thinks are frivolous. And Grandma remembers. I think at the time she wrote this cousin out of her will, at least temporarily. And she clearly still holds a grudge against my cousin, five years after the fact, although it seems to be starting to thaw a little.

      So difficult/narcissistic* people are not like you and me. They keep score, and remember who is and isn’t at a funeral. I got the impression that Rena is also somewhat Difficult, so I just thought I’d throw that out there.

      *narcissistic in the colloquial sense, not in the medical diagnosis sense

  3. This seems very familiar to me, in all its aspects. Funerals are A Big Deal in my family and not showing to one is a scandal that literally gets talked about for years. Similarly, my mother (who is also unpredictable and demanding) likes to use all “special events” as a way to pressure my family to visit.

    A point that I will re-iterate and amplify upon from the Cap’s answer is the issue of bragging rights. If you have the financial wherewithal, a big floral display might be able to help with that. With my mother, at least, she is less likely to go ballistic on me if she can say, “Look, my daughter is such a GOOD daughter, even if she couldn’t make it, she sent a giant floral display.” It’s worked for me sometimes. Also, a really well written sympathy note seems to garner much the same effect.

    And one last thing is a thing I am still learning — it’s possible that nothing will make her happy. My mother keeps trying to set up these little games of expectation: “I will be happy if you come for every major and minor and made up holiday.” But then it’s “I will be happy if you come once a month for Sunday dinner.” I imagine if we went for Sunday dinners once a month it would escalate to once a week. I realized a while ago that she’ll never be happy until I move in with her and she can raise my child the way she wants. And I bet, even then, that she’ll be annoyed at me for not doing all the chores in the house or something. Since every action I take is going to make her unhappy, I chose the action that will make ME happiest.

    That’s easier for me to type than it is for me to live and I don’t know if it’s useful for you, but I find it the best way to deal with the “but FAAAAAMILY!” and “I’m going to DIIIIIIIEEEE SOOOON” guilt trips that have been coming my way.

    1. Yep! People like this are *never* satisfied, no matter what you do. This is because it’s not the things themselves you do or don’t do that they really care about, but the ability to exert absolute control over everyone and everything in their lives and to always be the center of attention.

    2. This is excellent. You can also think of it as: “Since it’s impossible for me to make her happy, I will Do My Duty As I See It and then stop.”

    3. My first comment here, but I had to say something to your comment, DameB. Yes, definitely yes to this! Aaand: are we sisters from the same mother? 😉
      This is exactly my mother’s game. Tightening the leash if I give her room.
      I stopped with the explanations and justifications a while ago and concentrated on meeting only my and my husband’s wishes and needs, because hers will never be satisfied. My actions will never be enough – as you said – until I go back home and be at her disposal 24/7.
      I even stopped calling…she calls me three or four times a week anyway. Maybe I too should come up with a calling schedule like once a week like The Captain suggested above.
      I didn’t call Easter because it simply holds no importance for me at all, but she complained that I didn’t even call to wish her Happy Easter. I just answered ironically that I didn’t know I was expected to do this. Yeah, she definitely didn’t see this one coming. She then tried the next game with why I didn’t show up on the Easter holidays and that all my siblings asked why I didn’t show. I simply said nothing. Cue the awkward pause before she changed topics.
      So that’s my strategy at the moment. Let her talk and stop my justifications. I don’t need to justify my actions. She just wants to manipulate me and after 35 years of that I’ve had enough.
      As you said, DameB, it’s easier to write about this, than consequently act on it in every day’s life, but I’m done with her games.

      As for funerals…it’s a big deal where I live too (i.e. collegues go to the funeral of another collegue’s parents even if they didn’t know the parents, only the collegue), but I stopped this a long time ago. I decide if I attend depending on my feelings for the person who died. I really don’t care about anyone else’s thoughts about this. And I have to say it is really liberating, because there are a lot of funerals to which I’d have to go and don’t care about. But again…I don’t justify…I just take notice and don’t attend or say I won’t attend. My reasons are mine and are – not longer – open for discussions.

  4. Hey LW, I just want to reiterate that you’re not being a huge bitch for not wanting to attend a funeral, and a death being involved doesn’t override your right to set your own boundaries and avoid contact with people who make your life miserable. My brother couldn’t attend our own grandfather’s (father’s father) funeral last year–it was short notice (as deaths often are), brother has a very demanding job, the funeral was 3000 miles from where my brother lives, and he just didn’t have the spoons to make it. And that was totally okay. Nobody was upset with my brother for not attending our grandfather’s funeral–not even our dad! Would my dad have liked for his son to be at his father’s funeral? Absolutely. Was my dad an asshole about it? No, because my dad’s not an asshole.

    tl;dr: deaths and funerals do not by default override your boundaries. It’s okay to choose to attend an event even though you know Difficult People will be there if being there is important to you. But if your mental health, sick days, finances, etc. are more important to you than attending? That’s okay too.

    1. Yeah. If this were about sharing grief for the deceased, MIL would not be pushing so hard.

      I missed my paternal grandfather’s funeral as well — he died about five days before the end of the semester when I was doing my master’s on a different continent. I didn’t have the money or the mental wherewithal to deal with moving my flight to make the funeral (this was right before the Christmas holidays.) My parents were grieving and knew I was too. They didn’t expect or need a public performance of sadness from me, because THAT’S NOT AN OKAY THING TO EXPECT. I felt shitty enough about not being home during my grandfather’s last illness, and they knew that.

      Not to get philosophical here, but I think a big part of loving someone is understanding that that person is free to make choices that will take them away from you. Loving someone is wanting that person to be happy and true to themselves, even if you don’t get the pleasure of their company or their attention or their energy. Yeah, I made a choice to do my master’s degree far away from my family, and that meant I wasn’t home when my grandfather died. But because they love and respect me, they didn’t ever make me feel like that choice was something I had to make up for; I wasn’t pushed to choose my family and what I want for my life. Even though I haven’t been around, my family has never pushed me to “prove” how much I love them.

      LW, I definitely agree that it would be a good idea to do something kind for Rena, but try to ignore the voices that would tell you you’re not doing enough (from both outside — your MIL — and, I think, from inside your jerkbrain.) Even if your MIL wasn’t unreasonable and manipulative, you get to make the choices that are best for you and your family unit.

      1. “I think a big part of loving someone is understanding that that person is free to make choices that will take them away from you. Loving someone is wanting that person to be happy and true to themselves, even if you don’t get the pleasure of their company or their attention or their energy.”

        I needed to hear this today, for reasons almost entirely unrelated to the LW’s situation, so I won’t detail further except to say that this was beautifully phrased, and thank you.

    2. I just wanted to add:

      I have personally missed the funerals of both of my grandparents who have passed away. I have missed weddings of my siblings and have never attended a cousin’s wedding ever. It’s not because I’m a bad person, I swear; I live a long way away and have a busy life. Take everyone’s advice; send thoughtful cards, send flowers/donations in lieu. The people who matter are the people who are grieving (funeral!) or celebrating (wedding or wev!)

      Work, health, finances, and school are all perfectly cromulent reasons to not attend these sorts of events. Other reasons are also acceptable, of course (you get to choose what you do and don’t do, for any reason!) but when making your excuses not to go, stick to those 4 for the smoothest path. Any reasonable friends or family will understand. You are not a bad person to create boundaries and hold ground on this; they are the ones being unreasonable if they try to shame or manipulate you.

  5. Has anyone asked about how Rena feels about this? That may not be an option under the circumstances, of course. I’m thinking of the time when my cousin got married and on top of the general awkwardness that comes with my ASD I was going through severe depression and anxiety and absolutely could not face such a big occasion. I went straight to my cousin and explained the situation and she said “no problem at all – I wanted to invite you but I completely understand because I’m not keen on parties either. Thanks for letting me know early so I can invite someone else in your place without it being weird.”

    My mother went full on YOU HAVE TO GO. FAMILY. FAMIIIILLLLYYYYYYYYYYYY. WHY DO YOU WANT TO TREAT YOUR COUSIN LIKE THIS? WHY DO YOU WANT TO HURT HER? The real issue, of course, was that she wanted me as a captive companion and trophy to show off to others. It was much easier to redirect the conversation because I was able to say “It’s nice that you care so much about Cousin but you don’t need to worry because I’ve spoken to her and she’s not upset at all.” It didn’t make her any happier but it did make it harder for her to argue.

    Obviously this is a more complicated situation and requires very sensitive handling. But if you are checking in on Rena at all to see how she’s bearing up, it can help against accusations that you’re treating her badly, and you may even find out that what the MIL wants bears no resemblance to what the guy’s immediate family want. I mean, this is… Hold on… The funeral of the father of the wife of the cousin of a deceased guy who was the father of the man who is married to you. I know families can work in odd ways but your attendance doesn’t seem like it should be a foregone conclusion, particularly if the immediate family want a small and quiet event. If you’re able to find out their wants without them being filtered through your MIL that seems like a sensible idea. Don’t forget, many overdramatic / difficult / narcissistic people tend to see themselves as the most important thing in the life of everyone they know, whereas Rena’s family may love your MIL dearly but have a more balanced view of her importance. And also her authority to invite people to their family events.

    1. “The funeral of the father of the wife of the cousin of a deceased guy who was the father of the man who is married to you.”

      I had the same thought. It’s one thing if LW and husband are close to the survivors. If not, this is stretching the “but faaaaaamily” premise pretty thin.

    2. I had a similar thought. The relationship of the LW and husband to Rena and her father is tenuous at best. Does Rena actually want them at the funeral? The letter says that Rena is a difficult person herself, so I’m not sure how close the LW actually is to her. Would it, in fact, be weird if they attended the funeral, given how distant their connection to Rena (and their even more distant connection with her father)?

      The attendees of the funeral should primarily be those who were/are close to Rena or her father, and I’m not completely sure the LW fits in this group. For Rick’s father’s funeral, the LW and husband seem to be much closer to Rick than they are to his wife, so attending that funeral made more sense.

  6. When my brother passed away, his kids scheduled the funeral on the same day as a cousin’s wedding. (Not on purpose, I should add) All of the family that was obligated to the wedding didn’t come to the funeral. Nobody objected, because, you know, that’s how things go sometimes. (And who would begrudge a grandmother a day of happiness rather than a day of grief?)

    The more you believe it’s permissible to miss the funeral given your situation, the easier it will be to defend your decision. Yeah, it sucks not to have all the paid time off that you need, but everybody with a job understands that.

    I’d also second the suggestion to send a big honking floral display if you can. It’s a performance that will be appreciated by those that have a need to be performed for.

  7. Ooof that’s a tough one. I like the Captain’s self-care techniques, but I do NOT like the phrase “I can’t make it this time.” For the people most hurt by this, that phrase can seem incredibly insensitive. It’s Rena’s father; it’s not about a *this time*, for her it is the only time her father is ever going to die. It doesn’t matter if you love or hate Rena/ your MIL. When my father died I was paralyzed by grief and would have been so incredibly wounded for someone to treat his funeral like a social event they couldn’t make this time ’round. Sure, it might be that for them but for me it was the worst moment of my life, thanks.

    It is better to send cards, oceans of flowers, to ask where you can send a charitable donation etc. from a distance. In the end, you demonstrating care is more important than your physical presence at the funeral anyway, and reminding a grief-stricken person that the world spins on for everyone else seems unnecessary. Perhaps frame it like you can’t make it because the universe conspired against you, but you’re there in spirit in their time of need and send a small gift in honor of the deceased. That is what really counts.

    1. I see what you’re saying, and wouldn’t advocate saying “can’t make it this time” to Rena, but I think it’s fine to say it to MIL. I think MIL is far more likely to be the one asking in advance if she’ll be there anyway.

    2. I believe the Captain was saying that specifically as a way to respond if MIL brings up, “You made it for the last two funerals!” If she’s treating funerals as all the same, then it’s reasonable for LW’s husband to say, “But this time we can’t, sorry.”

      1. Thanks for clarifying, and yes, that is the case. I don’t think Rena is the one calling or texting the LW or that they have that much direct contact at all, it’s specifically for if MIL uses the fact that they came last time to say that they must now come this time.

        1. I still don’t think it’s okay. If MIL is as bad as reported, she’ll find some way to mention the remark to Rena making you seem like the bad guy and positioning herself as a sympathizer. Rena should not hear that you could make it for every other funeral except her father’s from anyone, and certainly not in so blase a fashion as that. If anything, I’d advocate reaching out to Rena directly the instant you hear about it. Express condolences, send flowers/groceries, etc and mention that though you won’t be able to attend the funeral you are with her in spirit. If MIL asks about funeral plans, say you’ve already let Rena know you won’t be able to go.

      2. Right. To Rena herself, if it actually comes up, it can be gentler, like “We’re so sorry that we can’t be there with you but we send you all our best wishes.”

        1. I meant to add, *IF* it comes up with Rena. People are all different, but generally people are less head-county about funerals than about, say, weddings. They don’t send individual invitations to funerals (do they?) I didn’t ask anyone in advance whether they were coming to my mother’s funeral, and I didn’t ask anyone afterward why they weren’t there. I doubt Rena will ask. The card/floral arrangement/whatever sent to the funeral will have the “sorry we could not be there with you” message on it; there won’t be a need for you to bring it up with her, and she probably won’t bring it up either.

  8. So sorry you’re having to deal with this, LW. You got some great advice from the Captain, although I disagree slightly with the suggestion to blame work if you feel like you have to give a reason. I know it can be really hard to avoid making excuses, especially when you really want the other person to just be reasonable and get it, but it sounds like your larger problem (which this funeral situation is only a symptom of) is that your MIL thinks she’s involved in your marriage and gets to tell you what to do with your lives and your time. Giving her excuses, even seemingly unassailable work excuses, is only going to feed her entitlement and (in her mind) justify her belief that she’s an authority figure over you.

    Resist the urge to give excuses! Repeat after me: “No, that doesn’t work for us.” “No, that doesn’t work for us.” “I’m sorry, MIL, but that still doesn’t work for us. You’re going to have to make other arrangements.”

    Another thing: You know that you don’t have to directly deal with your MIL at all, right? She’s your husband’s extended family (actually, all of these people are), and it’s his job to handle them, not yours, just like it’s your job to handle your extended family for him. Even if your husband can’t bring himself to say no to his mommy, and ends up going to the funeral despite all the reasons he doesn’t want to, you don’t have to follow his lead. You can say no all by yourself (“Sorry, husband, that doesn’t work for me”), and have a nice relaxing little one-person staycation instead. You may be tempted to ask yourself “Won’t that make me a huge bitch?” like you did in your letter, but I assure you, this is the wrong question when you’re dealing with Highly Difficult People. Your MIL may well think you’re being a “huge bitch” if you dare to resist her social pressure. But to people like this, “bitch” just means “someone who doesn’t lie down flat for me like a good little doormat.” They can sense your fear of being perceived as a bitch, and they will use it to push you around. So go ahead and be the bitch. Embrace self-determination. You are a grown-ass woman and you do not have to go to this funeral, or deal with the fallout from MIL/Rena for your husband, if you don’t want to. And it sounds like you seriously don’t want to.

    1. Yes to all of the things about being a bitch. Honestly, being a bitch sometimes is the nicest thing you can do for yourself. Apply your bitchiness in ways that harm only those who seek to harm you, and you will reap great benefits.

      And remember, nice, is different than good.

      1. There’s a saying I love from another advice forum I frequent: “Be the bigger bitch.” It means that if someone calls you a bitch/cold/heartless/selfish/etc for having personal boundaries, you make that boundary your hill to die on because if you cave, they’ll know exactly what they need to say to get you in line forever after. Not to mention that caving isn’t going to save you from being cast in the bitch role – they’ll always think you’re a bitch for trying to resist them at all. So why not hold out for the benefits of bitchhood?

        (The #1 benefit of bitchhood, imo, is the sweet, sweet freedom from caring about the expectations of people who would call you a bitch in the first place.)

        I’m a little worried for the LW, because I have a sneaking suspicion that if she says no to the funeral and means it, her husband may change his tune, join Team Grief Vampirism, and start ratcheting up the pressure on LW to go. It’s never a good sign when your spouse is “HIGHLY nervous at the idea of saying no to his mother” despite knowing she’s a HDP. Once LW wises up and realizes that MIL’s deal is not in any way her circus or her monkeys, it’s going to sink in that from now on, he’s going to have to personally shut down her manipulation attempts and face her ensuing ire. Raising their children to panic at this prospect is unfortunately a feature, not a bug, of the HDP parenting style. It sometimes happens in these situations that the husband will see lashing out at his wife to get her in line and appease his mother as his easy way out. I hope like hell that this is not the case and I’m reading too much into the letter based on my own experience… but be vigilant, LW. Be vigilant, trust your perceptions, and above all, be the bigger bitch.

        1. I want to print out this comment and frame it. “Be the bigger bitch.” Words to live by.

          1. What Helen said! DWIL is so, so good. Although a word of warning: the women there do NOT sugarcoat their advice.

      2. I recently told my friends a tale from my life, in which tale I had to assert myself a little. My story ended with the phrase, “And then I was a selfish bitch and said ‘no’.”

        My friends started up a celebratory chant: “Sel-fish bitch! Sel-fish bitch! Sel-fish bitch!” No one actually danced around the room, but I distinctly recall hand motions and general cheering. My friends are awesome.

        nice is different than good.

        Well put. LW, count us as part of your bitch cheering section.

      1. If we are the only ones taking care of ourselves, we are under a moral obligation to do so.

  9. Ok, this is fascinating to me. I assume the LW is from the U.S.? I get that they went to the funeral of Rick’s father, who was presumambly some kind of great-uncle to the LW’s husband. But is it a custom to attend the funeral of the father of your father’s cousin’s wife? Have you even ever met this person? And no matter how close your in-laws are to Rena, are you close enough to her that your presense will mean something?

    Maybe it’s a cultural thing. In mine, people go to funeral either when they knew the deceased, to say goodbuy and pay their respects, or they are close to the bereaved and can offer meaningful comfort to them. My very conservative parents would never dream of asking me along to the funeral of one of their own cousins, unless I was close to that person, let alone to someone as far removed as a parent of the cousins wife.

    1. Yes. I’d actually feel like I was kind of funeral-crashing if I did that! But cultural expectations around funerals vary enormously!

    2. It isn’t a general U.S. custom (to the extent that that phrase means anything) to travel for the funeral of the father of your father’s cousin’s wife. I suspect there are places and (sub)cultures where it would be customary to attend if you lived in the same town. But at that point the expense (financial and in terms of time and spoons) would be less, and there’d be more of a chance that you actually knew the deceased, or were close enough to your father’s cousin’s wife that you would want to go for her sake.

      1. Yeah, the travel bit makes a huge difference, particularly given how big the country is. I’ve gone to funerals of people I barely knew to support the family (classmates who died young, mostly) but we were all in the same city. It would have felt very odd to fly cross-country for the same funeral.

      2. Distance does make a difference. My grandmother did, I think, attend funerals of people she knew very slightly. But she lived in a small town; it was basically a case of dropping by the church for an hour at most.

    3. In my part of the U.S. it’s expected that you go to funerals of direct family members and people you knew personally, and maybe if you are close to the bereaved. The most tenuous connection I’ve faced is the funeral of my Aunt’s husband’s nephew. The deceased was developmentally disabled, had been in a care home for all of his adult life, and I was worried my Aunt and her husband would be the only people there for the funeral, otherwise I wouldn’t have attended. I didn’t want him to feel alone or like his nephew didn’t matter. (More people turned out, which was good!)

    4. This was an odd question to me, as well, and I live in the US. Maybe it’s my family – we don’t think of blood relatives more distant than parents and grandparents as people whose funerals we need to attend, and several of those people didn’t even have funerals.

    5. It sounds like Rena and the MIL are close friends, and so since the MIL plans on rallying around she wants to surround R with friends. So it’s not so much “relation of a relation of a relation”, in the MIL’s eyes. It’s “My friend’s father”. I know some people who are closer to their in-laws than the sibling that in-law married, so *vague shrug*.

      I mean, how Rena feels on the LW attending is a mystery. When my dad died, I was surprised when my music teacher turned up – it was touching that she was there, she was kind of representing the school and all, but I definitely wasn’t expecting her and tbh it was kind of awkward talking to her where I was still sniffly from reading a eulogy. But then, some of my friends brought their family for reasons that made sense to them, so whatever. I didn’t have strong feelings either way.

    6. This. I am not clear on what the LW’s own relationship with Rena is. I have a hard time believing that MIL is going to be so personally affected by her husband’s cousin’s wife’s father’s death that she requires extensive support from her children to get through the day. MIL and FIL may “consider themselves close” to Rick and Rena, but closeness is not transitive.

      LW, do you and Rena even actually know each other? Do you speak regularly? Do you have any relationship outside of meeting through the in-laws?
      If Rena saw you at the gas station next to the funeral home, would she recognize you out of context?
      If you wrote Rena a really nice condolence card, would she have to do mental calculus to figure out who it was from?

      Don’t take your cues from MIL. Take your cues from your real-world relationship to Rena. If you are not personally close to her, there is no reason to attend the funeral. Even if you are somewhat close to her and Rick, driving 6-8 hours to a funeral is not a “have-to”.
      If you have met her more than once, you can send a nice card or letter. If you don’t have her address…well, that’s your answer right there.

    7. Here in the southern U.S., it’s customary to stop by for the viewing/visitation, which is usually in the evening, as a way of showing support for the family, even if you weren’t close to the person, and it’s customary to attend the funeral if you were close to the person and if you can miss work during the day (both of these are if you live in town obvs.) However, travelling a long distance, for most people, would only be in the case of an immediate family member or ‘close’ family friend, again IF you can get the time off work. My work contract specifies that I can have three days off for an immediate family member, but I would never present a request for time off for my husband’s mother’s cousin’s wife’s funeral. If my husband’s mother’s cousin’s wife died, I would send flowers and/or a card/thoughtful gift with my most sincere condolences, and I would screen my calls from anyone who felt it wasn’t enough.

  10. I think one perfectly reasonable response is to never attend another family funeral ever again — until one’s own.

    In any event, as for family, I understand LW is talking about the forthcoming funeral of the mother of the wife of a cousin of her husband. That’s a little attenuated, isn’t it? I mean no disrespect; I speak as someone with few cousins, and none who live closer than about 700 miles from me. Many, many people have closer relationships with their extended families than I do. Rather, I just wonder who, other than LW’s MIL and dramatic Rena, would give LW a hard time for not attending this particular funeral in person. They both sound like people who will take offense at things when convenient, not when it’s actually called for. LW is in a no-win situation; I’m sure LW would do something “wrong” at the funeral anyway. I say skip it, skip all future family funerals, and be known as “the one who won’t attend funerals.”

    1. “I think one perfectly reasonable response is to never attend another family funeral ever again — until one’s own.”

      That… sounds kind of awesome, actually. Can you say more about your reasoning?

      1. Well, for one, if you’re an adult, nobody can actually compel you to go somewhere and do something you don’t want to do. I mean, there will be consequences. But one of the awesome things about being a grown-up is having the legal, financial, emotional, and intellectual abilities to weigh the various consequences to one’s actions, and then make an informed decision about what course of action to take.

        In this situation, it may very well be that LW looks at all her options, draws out the various consequences to the options, understands what the consequence to “do not attend the funeral” will be, and says to herself, “OK. I am perfectly OK with that.”

        As an analogy, I can’t tolerate zoos, so I never go to them. Ever. What if a sibling decided to have their wedding at the zoo? Or my parents held their 50th wedding anniversary there? Or all the little cousins are meeting in my area for a once-in-a-lifetime family reunion, solely for the purpose of going to the zoo? Too bad! I’m not going. I hope my sibling, parents, or daughter don’t take it personally. But I can’t help if they do, and I hate zoos so much that their hurt feelings won’t make me change my mind and attend. I’m a grown-ass woman who freaking hates zoos, and nobody is going to make me go to one.

        In LW’s case, she’s a grown-ass woman who is not closely related to (the not yet even) deceased, with financial and workplace constraints that make it very problematic to attend this funeral. It would not be unreasonable — to anyone outside of her MIL and drama-Rena — for her not to attend.

  11. I want to comment on a small part of this letter: the constant updates on strangers’ (inevitably failing) health. I have been subjected to a number of doom-crows (friend’s term for people who love to disseminate terrible information about others) over the last few decades, and actually ended a friendship with a couple partially over this behaviour. Literally who has the emotional wherewithal for being bombarded by bad news about people you barely know every time you talk to someone?

    My technique for dealing with this from anyone, family or not, is that, once I realize that’s what’s happening, I identify the behaviour and then stop engaging with the doom-croaking. If I get a text about someone I don’t know that has only bad news, the first time they do it after I’ve noticed, I say “Oh, that sounds terrible”. The second time I don’t respond. If the text has mixed news, good and bad, I respond to the good and keep responding until I get an all-bad text, and stop responding. Once I’ve identified the behaviour, bad news texts (or emails, etc) get no response whatsoever. Requests for information about me, if they seem to be plumbing me for bad news to croak about to others, get no response.

    People who are not maliciously engaging in this behaviour seem to end up slowly trained not to just randomly tell you about strangers who are dying. People who ARE maliciously engaging in this behaviour get flouncey, say they “just can’t talk to [you]” anymore, and then disappear.

    In an ideal world you could just say “Hey, I don’t actually want to hear about the tragic lives of people I don’t know unless it’s on tv and has a title that begins with Real Housewives of…” and the person would go “Oh, crap, am I doing that? Whoa, sorry, my bad.” and everything would be fine. Alas, I find that this kind of behaviour, when done maliciously, is found mostly in people whose other social behaviours are ALSO terribly manipulative and/or passive-aggressive, so straight talk is rarely helpful.

    The general approach to (and scripts about) manipulative and passive-aggressive behaviours that the Captain usually suggests will also, consistently applied, work with this kind of thing, it’s just so so so hard to apply them sometimes because of the subject matter and the relationships in which people feel comfortable doing these behaviours.

      1. Your scripts in the key of passive-aggressive are so useful for so many things that they’ve redefined passive-aggressive behaviour for me. The interaction of passive-aggression and other things produces a wide variety of negative behaviours that nevertheless *still respond to scripts for passive-aggression*! It’s like a whole new world of refusing to be shat upon!

    1. Oh, my god, right?!? Doom-crows. That’s perfect.

      “Cancer” is a pretty common thing, and a pretty broad category. When my partner was going through cancer treatment, there were three or four other people in our very-extended social circle having their own thing going on, as there always is, and a couple of people who had, or had had, second- or third-hand stories of varying degrees of relevance. (One was a member of the board for the government body where Partner and I both worked, who had – many years ago, before new treatment options became available – had a coworker who continued working with the same condition, and died after a fairly brief, brutal illness with apparently some messy aftermath for the colleagues involved; this board member was VERY opposed to Partner working through treatment, and made things pretty hard for him.)

      It was pretty horrifying, how many people seemed to not have ANYTHING to talk about anything with us except cancer, who was sick, who was dying, who they knew once upon a time who died, what lifestyle choices might have contributed to Partner’s illness, how awful the side effects and long-term effects of chemo are, just on and on. With a kind of grim glee. I was already doing some of the disengaging stuff you describe, but it just kept coming.

      One day, the president of the board asked me if there was anything he could do to help, and I was just worn down, and I snapped, “Get people to quit telling me awful cancer stories.”

      Guys, I don’t know what he said or to who, but that shit STOPPED. I am grateful to him to this day.

      There was absolutely some of that malicious pushback. A couple of “they just aren’t being realistic about the situation, poor souls *SIGH*” comments trickled back to me through the grapevine, but were not said to my face. The other board member, the woman with the tragic-coworker story, left the board not that long afterward for unrelated reasons and now barely speaks to me when we run into each other socially. But the awful stories stopped cold.

      (Partner has been healthy for three years! This is a happy-outcome story!)

      1. Wow. That is breathtakingly thoughtless and tactless behavior. You would think that telling a person who has a loved one going through treatment for cancer a horror story about someone who died would be a pretty obvious no-no. Glad your partner is better!

  12. Point of information re: floral displays, if Rena is Jewish, /don’t/ send one. Floral displays aren’t a part of Jewish funerals and in all likelihood won’t be displayed anywhere.

    The equivalent substitute is a big honkin’ fruit basket to Rena’s house for the shiva ( seven days of mourning), or donation to any specified charity, though that last has less of a visible presence.

    A lot of people send fruit baskets, so the restaurant gift certificate might be more useful, but if you’re trying to save face for your MIL, the fruit basket is the way to go.

    1. Depends on how Jewish. My grandpa’s Jewish funeral had flowers, but we’re Reform.


    2. Omaha Steaks, or a more environmentally-cool alternative (maybe Blue Apron? Or gift certs to a local pizza joint. Or somewhere their-dietary-restrictions friendly) seems to go over well in my often-Catholic extended family. I’ve learned from personal experience that having the option to just throw a steak under the broiler when I was just all the way exhausted and picking out what I wanted for dinner involved TOO MUCH EMOTIONAL EFFORT OMG CRYING JAG INCOMING was an incredible relief. Just grab a fork and a saucer on the way to fetal position on the floor and the broiler is right there. (I wish I were joking. I was much younger and really hadn’t learnt much about dignity in grief.)

      1. I don’t think there’s any obligation whatsoever to be dignified in grief.

        Also, Omaha Steaks high five. They’re big for us (being . . . er. . . 25 miles from Omaha) but I’ve never actually encountered anyone who was familiar with them in the Great Away/online. . .

        1. Dignity in grief may be debatable, but protein in grief (or any major life change— new parenthood, a move, courting someone who is ambivalent re: flowers) is non-negotiable, and Omaha Steaks were pretty much a mainstay in our Rogers Park extended family. I do have a feeling that it might be a medical-community thing, though.

          1. YES! Protein … all calories… are vital in grief. If I can’t be there in person, I put in an order at Omaha Steak and if I can, I show up with a quiche, bread, and salad. I never send flowers (unless I’m trying to appease my family) but always send food instead.

        2. Wow, thanks for that tip… a dear friend just lost her brother and I think she would really appreciate something like that. They live in the boonies so it’s a real trek to the grocery store.

      2. Another option: finger food hors-d’oeuvre type of stuff. When my grandmother died, my grandfather couldn’t have handled sitting down to an actual meal, steak or otherwise. First the first week or so, he thought he was eating, but he wasn’t. But we put out stuff like cheese cubes, crackers, chips and dip, small things he could just walk past and take a bite of, and that helped. It was not great, nutritionally-speaking. But it got him to eat something. So from now on, instead of just casserole-type stuff that just needs to be reheated (I come from the casserole belt of the US), I’m going to also give grieving families stuff like that as well.

        1. In the deep throes immediately following, Gatorade feels WONDERFUL, So does a nice face-wash.

          1. I’m sorry, I meant to put a sentence in there to the effect of “Good idea!”

          2. I assumed that’s what you meant 🙂 , and I hadn’t thought of Gatorade! I’m putting your suggestions on my list for the future.

      3. Yeah. I was essentially unable to cook for several months after my husband died, because I couldn’t reliably keep track of how long things had been on the heat. I burned a few meals and then gave up. And leaving the house was too hard unless a friend dragged me out, so I wasn’t eating out either. Come to think of it, all I ate for about a week and a half after he died was Otter Pops, because nothing else sounded remotely appealing.

      4. After my sweetie’s husband had an accident, I would order dinner for them through GrubHub. I was in a different city, but could still get the online menus, place the order, get it delivered, and pay for it. When they were too exhausted from the various therapies he was going through to even think about what to eat (and he wasn’t up to eating out), I believe it made things easier for them.

    3. And since we’re talking about Jewish, generally the close friends will have covered meals for the entire shiva, so don’t plan something meal-like in the immediate aftermath if you aren’t actually one of that group, in my experience it’s organized. A gift certificate or whatever shortly after would be fine.

      (My reform grandfather did not have flowers and no one would have been pleased about them, fwiw.)

  13. Dear LW

    The only change I’d make to the Captain’s scripts is to drop the “this time” reference and just say “but now we can’t”. “Yes we did, but now we can’t. ” “I wish we could, but we can’t” “We are so sorry that Rena is having such a sad time, and we can’t make it to the funeral. ”

    Parent in law of distant cousin of father in law is not the typical close relative.

    And even if this were a very close person, it’s pretty rude of MIL to expect you to plan for the funeral before they are even in hospice.

    1. You and Guelta both make a great point about “this time.” I was thinking of that more as a way to derail the MIL’s arguments, not something to be expressed to Rena, who as far as we know is NOT constantly texting/calling the LW and her husband and directly pressuring them to attend a soon-to-be funeral.

      1. Thanks! I wasn’t sure about that, I’m glad you confirmed you were thinking of talking to MIL.

        I wonder though, how could LW not leave an opening for “next” time?

        I was hoping “now” might address that, but I’m no longer sure.

        1. It might turn out best to just say ‘we won’t be able to attend’ and not make any reference to next/this/now/etc.

        2. Yeah, as good as this advice is, I’d be wary of using ‘this time’ with MIL as well, though for a different reason: to somebody like the LW’s MIL, I expect ‘this time’ will be mentally translated as something like ‘we can’t come *just this once*, but we will definitely come to the next one(s), and obviously we owe you for our failure to be dutiful children’.

          I expect the LW and their husband will get more pushback if they leave out the softening ‘this time’, but hey, they’re going to get push back anyway, so they may as well set the expectation that they will come or not, as they choose, without having to justify their choice.

  14. I have a suggestion that might make the conversation with your MIL eaiser, though I don’t know how feasible it is. Would it be possible for you and your husband to arrange to visit Rena and her father (possibly with your MIL at the same time) while he’s still alive, at a time that’s convenient for you? If you happen to have a day off of work already scheduled (Memorial Day?), you could go “say goodbye.” Then, when he actually passes you can deflect some pressure from your MIL by mentioning this visit. This obviously depends on a lot of things (finances, time, emotional energy, and all of the above for Rena as well), but it might help.

    1. or along those lines, if they had seen the soon-to-be-deceased in the recent past, they can bring that up with MIL – “i’m so glad we were able to see him while he was still with us, since we won’t be able to make it for the funeral.” etc.

      not that it’s necessary. but i would definitely prioritize seeing someone alive than attending their funeral, especially if time off work and travel was involved. and maybe emphasizing that to MIL would make realize the error of her ways (i doubt it, but you never know) or at least demonstrate to her that she’s being petty.

      1. To me this actually feels like kind of a mental test — if the idea of traveling the same distance specifically to visit the same man or his daughter at some point when he’s actually _alive_ makes you feel like you’re not close enough (emotionally or physically) for that to feel important to you to do (or for that matter, expected socially), maybe that’s a sign?

    2. This is a great idea. I did this when my beloved grandmother passed away. I was living across the country with little time and less money. My parents offered to help pay for one trip back, and I chose to come back to visit her while she was still alive. In a perfect world I would have made the funeral too, but of the two I’m so glad I made the choice to see her again. A few distant family members asked where I was, but understood once my situation was explained, and for once my highly-difficult mother was actually not difficult.

      1. Forgot to clarify: only if you want to visit (if you’re that close?) and have the time. YMMV, as always.

  15. Just to give you a little back up, in case you are in any way feeling guilty about not going to someone’s funeral:

    There are many ways to be supportive of someone you care about in the event of a loss. My mother’s best friend just lost her elderly mother. My mother and her friend are truly close, call each other once a day and talk for an hour close, and my mother didn’t go to the funeral. There were many reasons, including distance and her friend’s complicated (and often difficult) family. Instead, my mother arranged to have breakfast delivered before the service, so that all of her friend’s out-of-town guests could be fed without effort on anyone’s part. Her friend really appreciated this–it lightened the burden of having to care for other people while grieving for her mother. She felt loved and cared for even though my mother wasn’t physically there.

    My point is, not being able (or willing) to attend a funeral doesn’t mean that you are a bad person or an unkind or uncaring friend or relation. There is no single right way to show your love and support for someone. If it’s important to you to do so, you can certainly find a way to reach out to Rena that doesn’t require your presence at what is like to be a difficult and unpleasant event.

  16. You don’t have to attend your second-cousin-in-law’s funeral, LW, if you don’t want to.
    If it’s not someone with whom you had a sincere and close relationship, you don’t have to attend. I can’t tell from your letter, but if Rick and Rena are not close personal friends of yours and Husband’s, as well as being family, then you don’t have to attend. If neither of you is particularly affected by Rick’s passing, then you don’t have to attend. It’s not obligatory to mourn all deaths equally.

    A funeral is just a way to conveniently recycle a body back into the earth, and everything around that is to help the bereaved come to terms with their loss and to come together in remembrance of the person. If you don’t feel your presence is utterly vital to the proceedings, you don’t have to attend. If you want to mark the occasion some other way, you can do that privately by lighting a candle, or scrap-booking some favourite memories.

    There is no point in being physically present on behalf of either the deceased, or for your MIL. You should only go if it is important to you, or perhaps if Rena specifically requests your presence. And even then, you don’t have to attend, if you can’t make it.

    Sending a lovely token of condolence to the bereft, and regular contact to let them know you are thinking of them will suffice.
    Better yet, if these are people – show your care for the people in question before either of them is deceased – it must be an emotionally difficult time for both partners to know that one of them is about to leave the other widowed.

  17. Even though this is about a funeral, try not to feel bad and just don’t go if you can’t. Sometimes people just can’t make it, and family members of that person will understand.

    When my mom died, there were a couple of her cousins she was close to and a very close friend that just could not make it. I was a little bit surprised about the friend especially since they were pretty much best friends, but she just couldn’t make it. Instead, she left a very heartfelt message on my mom’s memorial website and sent us a card and made a donation to the charity we chose. It would’ve been nice to see her at the memorial, but we still got the message loud and clear that she cared about my mom. People don’t die on a schedule, and sometimes not everyone can make it. Try not to feel bad and think of something else you’d like to do when the time comes to send your condolences to Rena. It’s really ok to treat your MIL as a ‘difficult person’ in this case too.

    1. Seconding this: I did my best to have my hub’s memorial service at a time when it would be as convenient as possible for his VERY wide acquaintance to make arrangements to come, but some people just couldn’t. That will happen, and I wasn’t upset about anyone not coming, I was just glad that so many people DID come.

  18. Hey LW. As the owner of one similarly problematic mother I can definitely empathise. It’s amazing how much pressure someone can put on you to see you only to be really mean/cruel/uncaring when you’re actually in their presence… The song and dance to get you to show up makes you doubt your own memory – maybe they really love you! Maybe it’s not all a manipulative plot to fulfil some selfish need… Oh wait, not, it’s that last thing.

    Anyway, I say this because the answer to this question is both really simple and probably nigh impossible for your husband. On the one hand, the answer is “just don’t go”. Tell her you can’t go. It’s not even a lie! You’re literally worried about taking too much leave from work and leaving yourselves without a sick leave safety net.

    But it’s nearly impossible because people who grow up with parents who are selfish and manipulative learn early on that going against their wishes gets you punished. No is not a word you’re allowed to use. It’s intense and terrifying to navigate a parent like this when you’re a child – your safety and wellbeing rely on your parent’s love and care and effort, and if that’s withdrawn it makes an impression. And that’s hard as hell to get away from as an adult.

    I still feel like if I go against my mother’s wishes that there will be some horrible consequence. I feel sick to my stomach when I have to do it. I feel like it will lead to The Worst Thing In The World. Of course, actually it just leads to an adult tantrum from my mum, I know this, but my subconscious is not convinced. Hell this stupid bit of poisoned programming colours my interactions with everyone everywhere. Saying no, failing to please people, is excruciatingly difficult for me. Even if those people don’t deserve my efforts. :-/

    So anyway. I have this sense from your letter that your mother in law is one of those dodgy, manipulative, maybe emotionally abusive parents. And if that’s the case it’s why it’s so damn hard for your husband to just say no. If I’m correct about this then this is something for him to discuss with a therapist, but it can be a starting point just to recognise how these things happen and what they look like. Just knowing I’m irrationally afraid of upsetting my mother helps me to risk upsetting her.

    Good luck! And…just don’t go to this funeral.

    1. Oh my Anisoptera…you just described my life. In detail…and yes, it’s definitely something to discuss with a therapist.

      1. Turns out it’s a fairly predictable pattern, alas. On the other hand, you’re definitely not alone. :-/

    2. Agree 239874% with “just don’t go.” We carry so much fear from our childhoods, when our parents could actually punish us for going against their wishes. Once we’re adults, they can’t do what they used to do; but it’s very hard for us to unlearn the pattern we learned. Here’s the pattern we learned 10, 20, 30 years ago or more:

      Theoretical LW as child: “I can’t go to this funeral.”

      Mother of theoretical LW: -smack- -deprive of food- -deprive of company- -yell, yell, yell-

      But here’s the pattern we’re in right now:

      LW as adult: “I can’t go to this funeral.”

      LW’s MIL: -tantrum tantrum tantrum-

      Look, who cares what MIL has to say or do about LW not going to the funeral? Seriously, repeat after me: who cares? Stand up and dance with me the dance of my people, the Who Cares? Dance. LW, MIL can do nothing to you. Nothing at all.

      1. “Stand up and dance with me the dance of my people, the Who Cares?”

        +1 internets

      2. Yay for the Dance of Who Cares!

        The great thing about the Dance of Who Cares is that you don’t actually need to believe it to dance it. Just go through the motions. Then, with practice, you start to believe it, because you do it, the trantrumsplosion happens…and that’s it. Who cares? Not you.

  19. With someone reasonable, you could have a reasonable conversation about it and actually explain why you can’t come, but yeah the Captain’s scripts and plan are perfect in this situation when you are dealing with someone who is not reasonable. Don’t let yourself get pulled into an argument, just keep standing firm that you cant’ come. It is hardest the first time, still hard a few more times after that, but then gets easier and easier for you and will probably get easier for MIL too and she will hopefully adjust her expectation somewhat which will also make it easier on you. It’s hard enough setting boundaries between adult children and parents (trust me, my parents are pretty awesome, but boundary setting with them as the oldest child and the first to have kids was AWKWARD and HARD at first, now it’s much easier if still sometimes a bit awkward.) when all parties are being fairly reasonable, it’s so much harder when one of the parties refuses to be.

  20. Sigh, funeral guilt.
    I missed my mothers grandmothers funeral when I was a teenager. This was the woman who did most of the raising of my mother after her parents separated. But that was my mothers choice – I was overseas on cultural exchange, so I didn’t even know it had happened until I got home, over a month later.
    But I attended the funeral of a high school friends mother later that same year – because I was in the group she requested from school.

    My mothers estranged sister died 2 weeks ago. We had many agonising conversations between us, and my mothers other sister as well. They decided not to make the run (under 2 hours) to see her at hospice, instead sending a representative to get information on her condition. Its the first time I have ever seen my mother make that decision – even her father (who turned prize prick in his last 10 years, and so became largely estranged) got a pre-deathbed visit when it was clear that things were imminent, and the entire family attended the funeral (to a degree, it was to make sure he was really dead – having survived “terminal” cancer for over 30 years, polio as a child, diabetes, angina and a quadruple bypass as an adult, the running joke in our family was that he would “live forever to spite us all”).

    Many hours of talking were done before Aunt died, about the funeral. Eventually, the decision was made that if the funeral was at a time people could make it, they would go. My parents and good Aunt had tickets to see The Eagles in another city and were not missing that for anything. They decided that the funeral was more about seeing the good parts of the family – and not giving bad aunts bitchy friends more nasty things to say about them.
    Thankfully (oh my word, thankfully), we found out a couple of days after her death that her sons had decided to simply have her cremated, and have a burial ceremony sometime “later” (completely undefined later). You should have heard the sighs of relief that went through our entire part of the family at not having to put on a charade to keep people happy.

  21. If you can, try to separate your feelings for this person and their family from your assessment of what your MIL wants you to do and how you feel about that as best as you can. Attending funerals is a way to show support for the family and a ritual to say good bye to the deceased, and isn’t about your MIL or that relationship. You know that I think, but she doesn’t.

    In that light, when he finally passes on make your decision about how you and your husband need to say goodbye and show support to grieving family. Also, there doesn’t have to be joint attendance, one or the other of you can go if you decide you need to based on how each of you feels. Death is hard, and mothers are hard (sometimes) and MILs are hard (sometimes). Be kind and generous to each other, and to her as much as you can.

    Once you guys assess what you feel when the time is right, engage script of “yes, very sad, we’ll see you there” or “sorry, we can’t make it but we’ve sent a card/flowers/attended the visitation, sent a casserole”. Repeat as necessary.

  22. LW, I just want to say this–
    funerals are very, very fraught. You will probably feel like an asshole for not going.
    But I can assure you, doing something else–food, gift cards, something to help the person whose father is dying–will be just as good. Seriously, I was at the memorial of someone who I loved very, very dearly, and I can’t really remember who else was there, but I do remember the people who, for example, came by the house to clean it, or who helped figure out insurance money, or who took care of that person’s spouse, or who cooked food. I remember the people who made a difference. You can make a difference, too.
    Even a very small act of kindness will help. Seriously. Send them food.
    (The only person I clearly recall at the service besides the speakers was the 15 year old cousin who showed up in a very short lacy dress who I wanted to hit the entire time. But that’s easy to avoid: don’t wear anything revealing at a funeral!)

    The other thing is this: if you start to feel like the Worst Person In The World because you can’t go to the funeral, just remember that there’s someone who’s acting worse. It’s your MIL who’s exploiting the deaths and suffering of people to manipulate you and your spouse.

    1. Oh, my, yes, there will always be someone acting worse. There’s at least one person in every family who is all about taking whatever money they can get their hands on, so there’s that person. There’s always going to be a “friend” who comes over to “help” and steals a bunch of stuff, so there’s them as well. There will always be people who make nasty comments about the surviving spouse or parent or child at the funeral in front of them (or just behind their back, pitched to carry). So don’t worry, LW. You are in no way the Worst Person In The World.

      You aren’t even the Worst Person In This Situation. I think your MIL definitely carries off that prize. 🙂

      1. Tbh, odds are that unless you are
        -Getting married at the funeral
        -Having sex in a bathroom at the funeral
        -Showing up in a very racy dress at the funeral
        -Hitting on people at the funeral
        -Making a speech at the funeral of someone who hated you
        -Making a speech at the funeral about how the deceased owed you $53 and some change before they died (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlHUh0NwTQk)

        You are not the Worst Person at the funeral. SOMEONE will be even more inappropriate.

        1. One of the people I’d arranged to speak at hub’s memorial dropped out at the last minute–without telling me–and asked someone else from that community to sub in–without telling me–and that person was someone that hub HATED.

          And it was so last minute that all I could do was roll with it. While this ASSHOLE eulogized my husband. Sigh.

        2. To this I would add:
          -Making a huge stink about the sparsity of gluten-free food at the post-funeral meal because you are on the paleo diet. Making said stink directly up in the face of your aunt, the mother of the deceased. Who took his own life.

          (I wish I were making this up.)

          1. Oh no! My younger brother used our grandfather’s funeral to:

            Jump up during a Catholic funeral service and deliver a long impromptu testifying session about his own journey to the Lord that mentioned my grandpa in passing.
            Try to sell the mourners at the post-funeral lunch on his recent business venture.
            Try to send the waitstaff at the (catered) lunch to get him special requests from the kitchen and off-menu items.
            Harangue my parents about reimbursing him for his plane ticket up there (which they offered to do, but hey, on the way to the actual funeral ISN’T THE TIME, BRO).

            “Just staying away” would have been totally cool with me, in other words.

        3. That Kevin Hart sketch/scene is one my absolute favorite stand-up comedy scenes ever. It starts out about his cousin Al (everyone has a cousin Al *somewhere* in their family), and goes into how the aforementioned cousin ruined his mother’s funeral.
          I watched it with my mom when her mom was dying and we were arranging the funeral, and she laughed so hard she cried.

          (Something about both funerals and weddings seems to scream ‘act as inappropriately as possible!’ to some people, I dunno. But some of the wackiest, most awful nonsense I’ve ever heard of has been at funerals and weddings.)

      2. I have a cousin who spent a portion of our grandma’s wake photographing the flower arrangements to show to the florist who was doing her wedding because said cousin “doesn’t know the names of flowers she likes.”

  23. Going to a funeral for someone else only works out well when that person is not manipulative and trying to force expectations on you. I felt very little connection to my grandfather (sad story, but that’s another story), but when he died, I went to the funeral because I wanted to support my mother. This was such a mistake. All I wanted to do was keep my head down and give her a shoulder to cry on and a hand to hold. Instead, she picked fights with me because I wasn’t sad enough or distraught like she was. By the time the funeral actually happened (getting there involved a road trip- with her in the car, do not recommend), I was actively avoiding her. If I got anything out of the experience, it’s the absolute certainty I won’t be missing a thing staying away as the rest of my family dies off.

    The point I wanted to share is this: even if you go to the funeral, you might still disappoint or offend Rena or MIL by not making an “appropriate” display of grief. You might sacrifice your time and spend a significant amount of money to be criticized as having a cold heart because you aren’t weeping in front of the coffin. Even if you can attend a funeral with no financial hardship whatsoever, you should only go if it would help your grief or the grief of someone you love who isn’t going to use this as an opportunity to scrutinize and judge your own emotional state.

  24. Agree ALL THE PERCENTS that not going does not make you a bad person. Others upthread have said a lot of useful things about that.

    I just wanted to say a quick thing about when it’s someone you are close to, or fairly close; a few years ago, the lifelong best friend of a good mate of ours was dying and it was clear he had only a few weeks to go. Our friends – the bloke about to lose his best friend, plus his spouse, also a dear friend of ours – held a living wake. Friend-who-was-dying was no longer able to hold up much of a conversation, so people who liked him but weren’t all that close would have found it difficult to get through a visit one-on-one; this way there were easily a dozen of us, with food and drink and sunshine, and he visibly loved having a whole lot of us around basically making a party of it. He died a couple of weeks later, and the family had a big religious funeral (which wasn’t his thing at all), and our gang showed up and paid our respects and then went off and held our own gathering in support of bereaved best-friend (who didn’t get on that well with the widow and family).
    It was great. Living wakes are great, if they can be worked out, for someone you do like.

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