#817: “Death, strained relationships, and ‘what if?'”

Dear Captain Awkward,

I wrote letter #243: Mother’s Day: Not Always a Holiday and…Biological Mom passed away suddenly last weekend.

I can’t pretend my relationship with Biological Mom wasn’t fraught with heartache, disappointment, and a lot of sadness…but her sudden death has brought the painful emotions of the abuse, the disappointment of choices, questioning the boundaries I set…so many simultaneous and interchangeable rounds of sheer sadness, deep anger, and complete numbness.

Enough time had passed that our relationship had leveled off to a distant, but nice status quo. Nothing had been resolved nor were there any apologies, but she was respecting my boundaries. I was even thinking about inviting her to come visit my out of state home.

But now she’s fucking gone. Gone.

Now, what do I do about funeral arrangements? How do I work with her husband, a fucking sexual predator, to give her the proper funeral and send-off? How do I support my older sisters who did not experience the abuse while not compromising my own heavily conflicted grief?

So far the husband/step dad has been open and allowing me to participate and giving me reasonable space to be involved, but not directly interact with him.

I’m clinging tight to my twin and my Dad who understand, but I feel so lost.

Afterwords I’m going to track down a therapist, I promise.

-Missing My Moms

Dear Missing:

I am so very sorry for your loss and not surprised that it’s pulling up a lot of complex feelings.

I don’t personally have experience planning a funeral, but my instinct says: Delegate as much of the work as you can to that to those older siblings and Bio-mom’s husband since they might know more about what her wishes were, and also rely on the professionals (funeral directors, pastors, etc.) who can supply a checklist of things to do. You do not have to be the point person for these arrangements. You can tell siblings and stepdad,”Please do whatever you think she would want” and “I’d like to be there for ____ activity” and you can lean on your Dad and your Twin and ask your other siblings to be buffers for you as necessary. You can tell Stepdad, straight up: “I am very sorry for your loss, I know you loved my mom and she loved you. I would like to be there to mourn her, which means that I need absolute guarantee of space from you during the services.” 

Then, trust the formal structure and ritual of whatever funeral rites and traditions are selected to get you through the event itself; that is literally what the rituals are there for. Whatever sendoff happens will be the “proper” one as far as others are concerned, so give yourself permission to go through the motions right now. You can find a more private and authentic way to grieve and to be angry and have 10,000 other conflicting feelings (the way you’ve had to find a private and authentic way to manage your entire relationship with your bio-mom) in time.

This is the story I know from reading both your letters: Your parents split up and both re-married. Your new stepdad did something unforgivable to you, and your mother took his side, and you’ve (quite reasonably) been estranged from her ever since. You had a lovely relationship with your stepmother until her death a few years back, and you came to consider her your “mom.” Recently, you and your biological mother were attempting to have an adult relationship and there were some hopeful things on the horizon, which makes the news of her death very hard to bear right now: You lost her once, and now you are losing her again, just when things seemed like they might get better.

This week, people might project all kinds of things onto you about mothers, daughters, and grief. Like when you wrote in a few years back, people will say stuff that scrapes across your feelings and what you know to be true like a needle scratching a record. There are a few things I’d like you to keep in mind when that happens:

Grief is unpredictable. And it often has a lot of other emotions – anger, regret – tied up with it. Do not try to downplay or talk yourself out of your own feelings. Acknowledge them and welcome them in, or shove them aside to be dealt with later, but don’t beat yourself up for having a bunch of weird or conflicting thoughts and feelings right now.

Other people’s projections and platitudes are not your problem. People don’t know what to say, so they rely on platitudes like “I am sorry for your loss” and “She loved you very much” and “You must miss her so.” It’s okay to let all of these wash over you. You can say a generic “Thanks for your kind thoughts” and you don’t have to set the record straight or engage with anybody’s words at all if you don’t want to.

It’s okay to tell the truth. We were estranged for a long time, but things were starting to get better, and I’m very sad that she died before we could explore that more.” You don’t have to go into why you were estranged if you don’t want to. You don’t have to NOT go into it, either, if the pressure of being quiet is too much or if someone is really being a pill about why you weren’t closer or trying to frogmarch you into a big faaaaaaaaaamily group hug, try, “When I was a kid, her new husband abused me and she took his side over mine. Recently she and I were attempting to mend fences, though.” Life isn’t a Hallmark movie where people get to resolve all of their conflicts with a touching deathbed scene.We die as works in progress, in the middle of a sentence or a thought or our one shot at redemption.

Grieving relatives get a LOT of leeway from others. If things get really awkward and painful, your status as The Bereaved will be respected if you need to Nope out of a conversation or situation. Excuse yourself if you need to. Give people a slightly dazed look when they talk to you, and don’t say anything it all if you can’t think of anything to say. If something makes you cry, it’s okay to cry. “It’s still too raw, I can’t bear to talk about it,” should shut down most awkward conversations on the double.

It’s okay to defend your boundaries. Stepdad is not allowed to touch you or come near you. Get your Dad & your older siblings & friends and whoever you need to be a buffer between you.

You were, and are, doing the very best you can. I think it was a great act of courage and generosity on your part to let your biological mom back into your life. You did not owe her that, after how she treated you, and yet you tried. Keeping yourself safe by keeping her at a distance despite all the pressure to “forgive and forget” also took courage. I hope you are being very nice to yourself right now, and reminding yourself that you did the best you could with the time that you had and the information and history you had.

Wishing you love, peace, and clarity.

104 thoughts on “#817: “Death, strained relationships, and ‘what if?'”

  1. the thing that occurs to me as something that it would have helped to hear after losing my mom under very different circumstances is to not let anyone else tell you where you should be in the grieving process–neither “aren’t you over it yet,” nor “why aren’t you still upset?” is appropriate. and at a guess, sometimes you will feel close to normal and sometimes you will feel close to overcome. i wish you strength to get through the next few weeks, and peace in the days and years to come.

    1. So much yes to this. I think we should institute a rule that words like “still” and “yet” are not permitted when talking to people who have experienced the death of a significant person in their lives.

      1. Grief is best viewed as a chronic condition: asking someone why they’re still upset is like asking someone why they still have arthritis.

        1. This is a wonderful way of putting it. I’ve often thought that mourning clothing was a really good idea, because that first year after a loved one’s death you really do need people to treat you carefully. After that at least for me, the acute flare ups became further apart.

          1. After my mom died, ended up wearing all black for several years because I just could not bear to wear the bright, pattern clashing, mix & match color, anything goes thrift store extravaganza wardrobe that has been my lifelong preference. Not while I was experiencing such a deep and crushing grief.
            I realized I was healing when I started slowly wearing color again.

          2. thank you for saying that. after a friend died last year, I felt that way, too – I wished I could signal wordlessly that I was grieving and couldn’t be relied to be a ball of sunshine. I did wear all black in the month between his death and funeral, but I don’t think anyone noticed.

            given how powerful an experience grief is, and how everyone has to go through it at some point, it’s weird how our society barely talks about it at all. it’s like we pretend it’s not happening.

          3. You brought up something that has puzzled me as well. I took care of my father in-law as he was dying of pancreatic cancer. My husband and I had been married for 35 years at that point in time. And while my father in-law and I were not terribly close, he was a good man and I was quite fond of him. We were quite lucky that circumstances allowed us to take care of him in his home until he died. One of us (2 sons, 2 daughter in-laws) were with him around the clock with me, as the only not working, taking on the majority of his care. We were all with him when he drew his last breath. No one but myself used the words ” die” or “dead”. It was the strangest thing. We are born and we die. It’s the cycle of life. I don’t understand why people use all kinds of euphemisms when talking about death.
            I remember being in the doctor’s office with Pop, the family, the doctor and a nurse. The doctor was explaining that the cancer was much more advanced than he had originally thought and the treatment we had discussed previously would not work because….. blah, blah, blah…..and my poor father in-law just sat there looking more and more confused as the doctor threw in things about hospice, hospital, drugs. So I finally said ” Pop, he’s asking you if you want to die at home or in the hospital”. The gasps and shocked looks would have been funny had it not been so sad a moment. Pop looked at me with a relieved expression on his face and said “Well, at home, of course!”. Point being, that even the DOCTOR couldn’t bring himself to use the word ” die”. Pop and I talked openly about his impending death. He commented that his girlfriend and I were the only ones that would discuss with him that he was dying.
            People say someone ” passed” or they’ll say they ” lost” someone, very rarely will someone say someone died. I had an awkward moment once when an acquaintance said that she had lost her mother recently…… I knew her mom had dementia so I had that weird half a second where I was trying to figure out if she had actually misplaced her mom or had her mom died?

          4. kddomingue: Yes, that’s tricky for me too. And to add to it, my mind always tries to figure out what the person passed, because to me it’s a verb with an object. Did that person pass a kidney stone? How about the salt? A football? I’m never quite sure, and my brain ALWAYS goes there. The funny thing is like your experience with the doctor not even being able to use the word “die”, when I talk about my mom having died, people often can’t go there even though it was almost 28 years ago. Even with ME using the words “die” and “death”, they still keep trying to go back to euphemisms.

          5. Oh, the kidney stones got me! It’s so nice that I’m not the only one out there with that strange twist in my brain! And once my brain starts down that path, it’s like a runaway horse at full gallop chasing a mare in heat AND a grain wagon! When an acquaintance told me that she had lost her mother (who had dementia), my brain started spitting out scenarios rapid fire, machine gun style……poor old lady forgotten in the mall, the grocery store, in a taxi, at the zoo……was she found playing with the lions?…..riding the baggage carousel at the airport?……setting up a tent in the camping aisle at Walmart? Oh, wait, she passed……a test?……a kidney stone?…..a football?…..a note?……gas?
            I remember being horribly confused as a ten year old when I was told my uncle had passed away. What did the adults mean by that? I puzzled it out and when I finally worked up the courage to ask if that meant Uncle Will was dead, I got reprimanded and shamed. To this day, I can’t understand why people cannot say the words ” death” and ” die” and ” dead”. I, too, have been given strange looks when I have said that my father is dead. You would think that I had uttered a vulgarity. It’s not as though he will be any less dead because we use these euphemisms instead of saying it outright.
            Oh well, I guess I can chalk it up to being yet another of those things that I will never understand.

        2. I’ve heard people say that they never really “get over” losing someone, they just learn how to live their life with the hole that loss caused. Some people will be able to go back to where they were before, and some people will change profoundly. It depends on where that hole hits you and how big it is, and that’s different for everyone, even when the hole is caused by the same loss.

    2. Yes! And even if no one says rude stuff to you or implies you’re grieving wrong or taking too long/not long enough to feel a particular thing, I think it’s important to remind yourself that there is no such thing. When someone close to me died, no one ever implied to me that I was grieving wrong or whatever, but I still felt that way sometimes: “Wow, self,” I’d think, “It’s been three years. Really? You’re still going to collapse into a sobbing heap in your kitchen in the middle of making breakfast on a totally ordinary day?” I had to (and still have to) remind myself that grief is a weird and unpredictable thing, and that my feelings are okay, no matter what they are or when they come.

      1. My husband lost his father unexpectedly ten years ago, and still has moments of paralyzing grief. He says that grief exists in half-life–it will diminish, bit by bit, over time, but it will never completely go away, sitting under your skin. There will be days when you look at your good memories and smile, and there will be days when you look at them and start screaming about how unfair it all is.

        Jedi hugs, LW. Your life is yours, and your grief is yours, and no one else gets to tell you how to manage them.

        1. I watched a movie a little over a year ago with my now-bf that had a scene that made me fall into his lap and sob like a child because of its similarity to some circumstance’s of hub’s death. He died almost seven years ago. I think there’s never a point when you’re “done”.

        2. yes, my father died multiple years ago, and while the grief is not as intense a pain, it’s something i just carry around with me all the time and is part of me.

      2. I looked at this the other way, too – I knew I was going to find myself missing my mum desperately at random times for the rest of my life, so if I laughed or felt OK not long after she died, that was ok. You do have a lifetime to grieve, and you don’t have to feel everything all at once in the im,educate aftermath.

        1. that is a beautiful way to look at it, and one i hadn’t thought of before. thank you.

      3. My grandfathers both died in the last two years. One of cancer, slowly, over seven months. The other suddenly of a heart attack. I’m mostly stable right now and can even talk about it, but when a calendar reminder on my phone alerted me to the latter’s birthday, I collapsed on the floor in sobs. My fiancé was left scrambling to my side asking what on earth was wrong (he then carried me to a couch and held me quietly until I calmed down).

    3. So much this.
      Anyone who pressures you to perform your grief or any aspect thereof is not a safe person for long exposures.


      Best of luck in getting through this difficult time.

      1. I totally agree on this. I don’t grieve very noticeably and when my mom died everyone was telling me how concerned they were for me. Everyone has their own way of grieving and weirdly enough people will like use you as an outlet for their grief, because as a daughter you probably look a lot like your mom and represent her in a way.

  2. Speaking from the experience of my estranged abusive father dying…the platitudes about what a nice person she was etc etc may make you very, very angry. I coped with it by ritually burning all the condolence cards talking about what a nice person he was. He’d left me as his next of kin so I had to clean out his apartment, I gave away his belongings with mad abandon to the people who were less conflicted in their grief.

    It’s been six years now and I wish I could tell you an encouraging story of how I’m all at peace and shit but I’m really not. What I can say is that I finally reached a place where I’m relieved that at least my complicated relationship with a charismatic, narcissistic, abusive man is over. I still get the what-ifs, I still get angry when I think of those condolence cards, but the feelings aren’t as immediate as they were. If they were knives to start, now they’ve been wrapped in gauze so they don’t cut, just create pressure. Maybe someday they’ll be sheathed.

    Crossing my fingers for you, LW. You can get through this, and in time things will likely feel less burdensome even if they don’t disappear.

    1. I would like to add my voice to those saying, “You don’t HAVE to do anything.”

      When my abusive father died 7 years ago, I attended the family and the funeral at my (enabling) mother’s request, as I am “the rock” of the family who is “competent” and “gets things done.” I’m still not over the resentment and self-loathing for buckling under pressure.

      Also, like Goat Lady, I found the comments about what a great guy he was INFURIATING. Also infuriating? “I never knew he had a DAUGHTER!” Well FUCK OFF with all of that.

      I live in a land far far away from my tiny hometown, and now, on those rare occasions when I visit, when someone says, “Aw, what a great guy, you must miss him,” I can say with totally calml clarity, “Actually, he was an abusive monster and I’m glad he’s gone. I understand you have a different experience of him, but as for me, I’m glad he’s gone.” Ha! Try THAT if you ever want to SHUT IT DOWN.

      So, LW, I know your circumstance is somewhat different from mine, but I can not stress enough, DO NOT GET STUCK IN THE WEB OF “I have to” or “I’m supposed to” or “traditionally,…” YOU decide what you want to do, how much you want to do, and stop when you want to. Keep your non-involved safe person with you as much as possible.

      You don’t owe your dead mom anything, and besides, by virtue of being dead, she doesn’t care anyway. The circus act is for the living. You can decide to skip the whole thing and mourn and rage in private, and that’s A-OK.

      Jedi hugs if you want them.

    2. Well balls. Thanks for the warning, I think when the time comes I’m very likely to steal your idea of ritually burning any condolence cards talking about what a nice person my violently abusive mother was.

  3. I have not lost a parent, but I was widowed quite young, and I want to really emphasize that grief happens in weird ways, particularly for people with whom your relationship was complex. You are going to feel all of the feels. That’s not bad or a failing on your part, it’s a part of the process you should expect. Do whatever you have to to get through, and don’t let people tell you you’re doing it wrong. There’s no wrong way to miss someone except in target practice. 🙂

    And don’t think that you have to never say anything bad again. Nihil nisi bonum is not actually a rule. No one can enforce it.

    Also: it’s not just okay to be angry, it’s normal. Be angry. Be sad. Be wistful. Be clingy. Be standoffish. Be whatever you need to be. But reach out to the people who love you when you need help. They want to help. They probably aren’t sure how to, but they want to, so when you do know what you need, don’t be afraid to tell them.

    1. Yeah, I just wanted to second the idea of “feel all of the feels.” I had several significant losses last year and went to a therapist to work through some of that, and the thing that she said to me that totally helped was “sometimes you’re just going to feel stuff.”

      That sounds like a platitude, and it is, but it was good to hear that it’s okay to be suddenly sad when an ad for one of the cheesy shows my mother liked comes on, or suddenly grateful that I no longer have to worry about her care, or suddenly happy that I didn’t have to be the one to tell her that David Bowie died (she would have been devastated), and just allow myself to feel stuff without trying to fix it or move on from it or soothe it. That I could just feel it and roll through it.

    2. YES – feeling all the feels was so important for me when I went through a series of losses a couple years ago. I remember feeling so out of control in my grief that I just wandered around my bedroom, leaning against various things (windowsill, bedpost, bookcase) dramatically and letting myself sob for as long as I needed to. I’m usually rather stoic, but I listened to my heart and my body and gave it what it needed to get by.

      1. I did not know that literal fetal-position sobbing was a thing until I did it! FUCK DIGNITY.

        On the flip side of that, it’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to have moments of genuine happiness. It’s okay to be grateful. It’s okay to have hope for the future. It’s okay to cling to the situations where dignity is required because they’re an excuse and you just need a few moments of disassociation from the rawness of it; it’s okay to wear your dignity like a costume, embrace it, and then let yourself strip it off at the right time.

        I remember vividly, three days after my partner died, looking at the bag of chocolate-flavored coffee in the cupboard that had been slowly going stale for six months because he did not like flavored coffee and I never bothered to make it just for myself, saying to myself (actually out loud, because I needed to hear it), “It is not betraying him to make a pot of flavored coffee and enjoy it.” All the feels.

      2. And feeling all the feels also means any mixed or positive emotions too. You may or may not feel this way, but it can be normal to have feelings of relief when someone who was a negative part of your life dies, or someone that you were very close to but was in a lot of pain, or you were the caregiver and now you’ll have a life back, etc. IF that is your situation, it’s okay to have those kinds of feelings too; it just means you’re human. (Which hopefully you know, but this is one of the harder places to go in grieving, so I thought I’d throw it out there just in case.

  4. This year I, too lost someone that I had very conflicted feelings about, who was similarly complicit in the trauma I lived through as a child. It was hard to know what to do or feel. So I just want to give you permission to not know. Permission to not know what you want to do or how you feel or what choices you may make in the future.
    You may feel like you are “supposed” to get closure in this process. And you may get it. But if you don’t, that is okay, you will still have time to think about what happened and work out in your mind how to handle your feelings about it.

    In my case, a few months down the road I am actually feeling much better about the choices I made at that time (though still conflicted about the person and her death, to be honest). At the time everything seemed… well, life and death, if you’ll pardon the expression. But time gives a little distance and clarity and allows me to have more compassion for myself. You don’t have to have all the answers now, I promise.

    1. THIS. Plus journaling. I like really nice-feeling leather journals that just pull your pen to them and make you want to hold them. Whenever I feel swamped by “but I should feel this” conflicts, I just write it ALL out, warts and all, where no one else can read it, and I usually get some perspective. Like (for example) 20% resentment, 40% relief, 32% sense of loss, 8% fuck you, universe. Or whatever. Permission to feel all the ups and downs is essential. I am so sorry your past still haunts you today and I am so sorry the positive aftermath was aborted. Jedi hugs.

    2. I am not the LW, but this is really helpful. I just had someone I was estranged with (who was also complicit in childhood/early adulthood trauma) pass and I am having a lot of conflicting issues myself. It’s good to know other people have dealt with it. (I am also seeing a therapist, because it’s forcing me to deal with my estranged parents as well :/)

  5. You don’t have to be involved with the funeral in any way if you don’t want to. You don’t even have to go. There is no amount of involvement at all that is truly necessary.

    Start mentally with that baseline – doing nothing at all whatsoever – and then add on what you need to get through this.

    I feel it’s surpassingly toxic to assume we are obligated to go through these rituals just because they’re expected. They can be healing for some, but not for everyone. They should not be mandatory.

    1. This is a GREAT point. “Thanks for letting me know what you’re planning” + NOPE is a totally valid option.

    2. Hell yes to the n’th.

      The funerals I have done, I did because there was literally no one else close enough. But, also, I wanted to do it right for them and me.

      You don’t have to.

      Your step dad could do it all, and you don’t even have to set foot in the same state or send a sympathy card if you don’t want to.

      Definitely use that as the baseline, and anything that you do at all is fine if that’s what you want.

    3. Yes. You do not have to do anything. You do not have to have anything to do with her husband. You do not have to attend, contribute to, plan, or help with anything. It has been my experience that most people understand that everyone grieves differently, and that some people may not be up to dealing with funeral duties due to this. If someone is going to judge you for your level of involvement, that person is wrong and rude, and it absolutely does not mean you are wrong or bad.

    4. Another voice to agree with this comment. No matter what “people will think,” by duty, custom, law, or anything else — you do not have to be involved with the funeral planning. Including attending funeral or memorial service.

      Especially true since the stepdad is there to do it, and your older siblings. If your self-preservation sense is prompting you to step back from this and process your emotions privately, please listen to it and take care of yourself. Even if you are usually the person who gets things done — you can pass on this one.

    5. I still resent that my mother insisted we view my father’s open casket, and it’s been almost 23 years. That was *not* the last memory I wanted of my father, thankyouverymuch.

    6. Hell to the yes, and thank you for this.

      My mother died unexpectedly three months after I cut my entire family off. I did not attend her funeral. I did not want to fly half way around the world to face the vitriol of my siblings. I did not want to hear the accusations that she had died of a broken heart and that I had been the one who killed her, and I did not want to feel like I was to blame for the entire event devolving into a shitshow of screaming that my poor conflict-avoidant dad would have to remember forever as the way his beloved wife’s funeral went down.

      So I didn’t go. And that was okay.

      LW, you do not have to go to the funeral. You have every right to attend if you want to. But you do not have to.

    7. Truly. I opted out of my grandfather’s funeral in 2014 because he was an abusive, bigoted, generally terrible person. I did not mourn his death. I did what I could to support my grandmother and my mom, but I could not be there. People will go on without you. If you need the ritual of it to say goodbye, by all means – but do not feel you must be there.

  6. I have had to arrange two funerals, one for my dad, and one for my husband. There are a couple things I wanted to pass on.
    Grief is different each time, and very individual. It’s unlikely to follow the same pattern it did before for someone else’s passing, and it will probably be different for you than other family members and people who knew the deceased. This is normal. Just feel what you feel, and ask for the help or space or whatever you need. This is okay.
    The people at the mortuary are there to help you! Let them! They have done this more than you, and they have resources that you probably don’t even know exist. Ask them whatever you want, and if they don’t know themselves they will probably know where to look. It turns out my dad had a joint plot paid for already next to mom. I used mom’s funeral as the template for dad’s. It helped that we were using the same mortuary and they had records. For my husband, the mortuary had a list of people who could give a eulogy for my not-churchgoing husband. I picked one, he spoke to me about my husband for fifteen minutes on the phone, and then for the funeral he gave a lovely, clear, focused eulogy that was perfect. Several people asked to also speak and I let them. I didn’t want to speak, so I did not. The mortuary had asked if I had a preference for flowers and I said, “colorful.” That was apparently a welcome clue for the people who came or sent flowers. My husband had wanted to be scattered over the ocean, and it turns out there’s a service for that. (Availability may vary by where you are) They sent me a certificate afterwards. There are lots of options to be more or less involved. If things get overwhelming people do understand. Let people know what you need from them and most will be really happy to help, or thankful to have a task to keep them busy.
    When it’s all over( funeral will be over soon!) then if you have a therapist you can unpack all the things and cry over all the missed opportunities. I am so sorry that your hopeful trajectory was dashed. I had a pile of things that I never said to my late husband and I am still dealing with some of that. I keep finding things in the house that remind me, and I deal with things as I have the energy to do so.
    Good luck, and Jedi hugs if you want them.

    Oh. And. I completely failed at thank you notes. The world didn’t end.
    However, if you actually want that part finished, then, my advice would be to pick someone who wants to help who is good at that and have them collect all the cards from the flowers and all, and have them and maybe another friend sit down with you to do that step. With tea and chocolates and a pile of thank you cards and a pen or three that you really like. Maybe in some friend’s warm bright living room. Definitely let people help.
    Or, alternatively, delegate that entire task to step dad.

    1. Seconding this soooo much. If you choose to be involved, LW, do avail yourself of access to the people who handle death and grief for a living. It was reassuring and helpful to me just to know that this has happened before and someone around here knows what they’re doing.

    2. LW, I have very little advice to give, but all the virtual hugs you need. I am so very sorry for your loss–I want to say “losses,” because it seems you have lost more than one thing here. I’m just so sorry, and I hope you get the space you need to grieve.

    3. Just all of this.

      I’ve been reading and talking with friends all morning on topics around how women are socialized to step up and do emotional work without acknowledging that it’s work or that we have the option of saying no, and this – the intense burden of emotional work around significant, emotionally-laden major life transitions – is what it all comes down to, isn’t it?

      When my partner died, the analytical corner of my mind noted a couple of key things, which I’m still processing:

      – Everyone in the family expected me to make the arrangements, including me. Not once did it occur to me that anyone else could do it, and not once did anyone from the family ask, “Do you want to do that? How can I help? Can I make some phone calls for you?” As we were not married, there was a lot of next-of-kin paperwork that needed to be relayed to the right people, gotten back, and passed back around. As it was a military funeral the week after a major holiday, there were insane deadlines, and I had to call and harangue people to meet them. I kept my cool, I was professional, I was disciplined, I was efficient, I got the job done, because I felt I had no choice, but the whole time there was a silent, grim, simmering fury at how everyone around me was falling apart and I wasn’t allowed. That fury hit boiling point when my performance was critiqued, and it was, repeatedly.

      – The mortuary people were a GODSEND. We worked with a mortuary who specialized in military funerals, and they did everything. I mean, once the various decisions were made, my responsibilities were 1. sign the check 2. post the Facebook event 3. show up. Bless them.

      – Team You, Team You, Team You. I ran on autopilot all through the time he was in hospital, the immediate aftermath, the funeral and wake planning, the funeral itself, and then between the funeral and wake I just fell apart. Somehow, a restaurant was selected for post-funeral lunch, the wake food got cooked and delivered and served, the toasts got made, the hall got cleaned, and I got poured into a car and taken back to my friend’s house. I have very little memory of that.

      – The collisions of people who have different memories and understandings of the deceased are NOT YOUR PROBLEM. You do not need to hostess, curate, conflict-resolve, defuse, or referee. NOPE. Our attendees were divided between his family (with whom, excepting his grown children, he was not particularly close with) and our large, robust, devoted friends group. Both groups had a little bit of a “who the hell are all of you strangers to him?” reaction going on. It was all handled pretty civilly (except that one of our closest friends gave a stunningly beautiful and on-point eulogy that left his entire family baffled and there were one or two snarky comments about it afterward) but it could have gone very badly and I spent the entire funeral holding my breath while my best friend held my hand and quietly reminded me that I was not The Hostess On Duty At This Gathering.

      You know what? I was not invited back to his sister’s house after the funeral, and I was fine with that, because I went out to lunch with eight or ten of my dearest friends and it was wonderful.

      In the end, I’m glad I took it on. It was important to me that it be done right and honored him, it was important to me that everyone got to say goodbye and say their piece. I think, if I’d gone the other way, I’d have been just as glad to have had someone, anyone, come along and say, “you don’t need to do this, you have enough to deal with with your own grief.”

      It’s going to be hard and awful either way. It will, as Jenna says above, be OVER SOON, and then you will have all the time you need to process and grieve and rage and work out your own narrative about your relationship with her.

      And you know what? When this is over, you never have to speak to that piece of shit stepfather again. You really don’t.

      1. This sounds tremendously difficult, and I am in awe of how you describe handling everything. You don’t mention how long ago this was, but I hope you are continuing to process and grieve and heal well. (Jedi hug if you want one.)

      2. The best lesson I learned when a family member died was to DELEGATE ALL THE THINGS. My ex-event-planner cousin and my mom’s bossy friend organized almost everything. Like, people were just notified, transport was magically arranged, and food appeared without my parents’ or my intervention.

        It’s a really good time to leverage the well-organized and assertive people in your life. (Or the pushy type-A ones.)

        1. …I just now realized that my aging mother moved from the town where *I* was the organized assertive relative and to a far-away town where one of my sisters (AKA NOT ME) is the organized assertive relative.

          I don’t quite know how to feel about this, but I am suddenly quite sure that I am no longer the presumptive funeral-arranger.

      3. Like Alli525 says, I’m in awe of what you did to arrange your partner’s funeral. Thank you for posting your wise words.

    4. So much this! When my mom passed, the funeral home staff were AWESOME. When issues arose (she died in another state), they brought me options, not problems. They know their stuff.

    5. Seconding Jenna’s advice.

      Consider talking with the funeral director (and clergy, if involved) about the situation. They can help make things easier, from seating arrangements and receiving lines to being mindful of what is said in the funeral.

      1. If there are forms that you have to sign, when the funeral home contacts you, tell them about the estrangement. Tell them if you don’t or can’t step in the building. I have seen funeral directors pop out to cars with forms on clipboards for signatures. Fax and e-mail (depending on the state) are also usually acceptable. Estrangement is something funeral directors are trained (formally or not) to handle.

  7. I want to add one thing to the excellent advice that the Captain has already provided: she says it’s OK to defend your boundaries, and to use your family as a buffer if you need to. Think about having someone there who is purely on Team You, who doesn’t have to also manage their own grief, to be that buffer.

    When my father died I had friends at his memorial who were there to support me. They handed me tissues, drinks of water, made sure I ate, and could interrupt any conversation that was going badly or just give me a hug when I needed one. It helped so much.

    1. I also had a friend at my late hub’s memorial service who was there pretty much solely to retinue. She carried all my stuff, handed me tissues, water, snacks at need, helped me find or avoid people, and drove my car home from the restaurant where I got drunk afterward. I cannot express enough how helpful this is.

      1. Your friend sounds wonderful. In a weird way it reminds me of how brides have bridesmaids to help them out, since we acknowledge that weddings are a BFD and hard to get through alone – and they’re happy! Wonder if we could successfully create a similar cultural position for funerals.

        1. It’s true, funerals are a lot like weddings, but with a week or two to plan them instead of a year. Like weddings, funerals require a venue, a master of ceremonies (the minister or eulogist), music, catering, special clothing, a huge bunch of cultural, social and familial expectations, both spoken and unspoken. And you have to pull all this together at a time when you are numb with grief.

          Still, LW, your mother’s husband is the proper person to plan her funeral. He can call on whomever he wants to assist, and you can either do the minimum of what’s requested of you (see above: cultural, social and familial expectations), or not and merely attend, or not.

      2. My BFF & my recent-ex GF both came to be with me at my mom’s Funeral. Since they didn’t know her (my BFF had only met her once), they could focus on me & were not distracted by grief. I was/still am pretty angry at my ex-wife for not attending, as I’d wanted someone there who’d witnessed my adult relationship with my mother, but that’s beside the point. The point is having someone on Team You who did not have a relationship with the deceased is an excellent idea & I have no idea how I’d have gotten thru the funeral/wake/fighting with my family without my Team Me.

    2. Sorry for your loss LW.
      YES to this. My father in law died last year, and he was a lovely man, and always always good to me, until I left his son. Then, a bit less lovely, but understanding of why. MIL was not very nice to me post breakup, and sister in law was worse. So even though my husband and I were working on reconciling at the time FIL passed, things were a long way from resolved with the women in the family. The funeral was the first time I had seen my niece and nephews in over a year, same for the aunts and uncles and cousins in a big close family. I didn’t know whether FIL and MILs friends knew that husband and I were back together (kind of) and which of them had spread rumours that I had had an affair (though I knew one of them had started it and at least some of them had believed it). I wasn’t part of the family group, yet my daughter ran straight to her grandma and her daddy, and didn’t understand why I was not sitting with them. So needless to say, it was awkward. And since I was genuinely devastated to have lost my father in law, I was struggling with my own grief, trying to manage my toddler’s confused grieving, supporting my husband (whilst horribly awkward with each other) and being polite to the extended family – I was exhausted. Having my mum, dad and sister there to support me was absolutely a lifesaver. The couple of friends who were able to come were wonderful too, and I don’t think I’d have managed to get through the day without them. I’ve gone to funerals before in that role – where I barely knew the person who had died but to be there for my friend for whom they were a critical person, without really understanding what a difference it makes, but now that i’ve been on the receiving end of that care I am SO glad I did.
      Sorry for the novel, this is still raw for me.

  8. I am so sorry this happened so suddenly, and you’re struggling with all the feels. Here’s my experience in the family bereavement and arrangements process:

    My partner and I between us have lost 4 step/parents between in the last several years. My partner has PTSD due to childhood trauma and was essentially estranged from hir mother, and said zie felt nothing when she died. Zie resumed a connection with hir father in recent years, including through his difficult final illness, because zie wanted to feel something when he passed away. My stepfather was a late-stage alcoholic, and his marriage to my mom was extremely toxic, and we had increasingly distanced ourselves from them for our own emotional protection.

    What role did each of us play in the behind-the-scenes arrangements and decision-making? Very little beyond just showing up. My partner’s sibling handled everything for one parent and jointly with an aunt for the other parent. The stepsiblings made the arrangements for the stepmother. My mom as chief mourner made the key decisions in consultation with the committee of her sisters-in-law and stepdaughter. My partner and I attended all of those planning sessions together, but mostly to provide support to the people who were calling the shots. It was an eye-opening experience for me who had hardly ever attended a funeral, much less organized one.

    What was the support we gave? Offering to collate addresses for writing thank-you cards. Helping to prepare do-it-yourself memorial cards. Helping find and collate photos. Helping run errands before, during, and after the services. Looking up those checklists from funeral homes online (my mom STILL hasn’t started probate 2 years on). Helping transport stuff to/from the services. Making sure the people we cared about stayed hydrated and surrounded by love (and keeping a safe distance or helping keep problematic people at a safe distance) during the services. Just offering a sympathetic ear, or reassuring the person that the decisions were good ones, and that the appropriate things were happening. Being present at the services. Taking care of cooking and dishes in the days around the services. And so on.

    What did we do to care for ourselves and each other? Stayed the hell out of the way as much as possible during the ceremonies, or else stayed glued to the person’s side, depending on the moment and preferences. Made opportunities to walk away and have a private moment as often as needed. Made conversation with people so the other person didn’t have to. Didn’t deal with toxic in-laws/stepfamily if we could at all happen during the planning or the ceremonies. Listened to each other. Hung out unapologetically with friends at the services who showed up to support us, never having met our deceased relative. Lots of hugs for each other.

    My mom was the oldest daughter. She was abused including CSA. She went no-contact with her family for many years. I didn’t meet any of them until she divorced and became a single mom. Later, my grandma moved to our city when I was in high school and lived with us when my mom took a 6-month gig across the country. She played a role in my life from about 10 to starting college, when she had moved away to live by her youngest daughter (only 5 years older than me, and a completely different childhood from my mom). My mom doesn’t talk much about that past trauma. But I asked her whether she ever talked about it with her mother later in life. My grandmother was an alcoholic and apparently didn’t remember much of the past. Talking about a shared history doesn’t work if only one person remembers that reality. But then, my mom doesn’t really talk about anything difficult that happened 5 minutes or 5 days ago either.

    I can only infer with hindsight and adult understanding how hard it was for my mom to let her mother back into her life, so I applaud you for being so brave and taking that step. I can see how you’re left bewildered now, betwixt and between cut-off and reconciliation (if that were even possible).

    It’s okay to not be part of the planning. It’s okay to not go to the services. It’s okay to participate only in the ways that work for you. It’s okay to feel grief and loss and confusion, and let these shape your reactions and your decisions. It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to not know your mind. It’s okay to care only about supporting your dad and twin and dedicate yourself to them. It’s okay to step away now and come back and offer support afterward. Take care of yourself.

  9. No advice, just wanted to say that I’m sorry for your loss. Even if your loss is just a potentially better relationship or maybe something like closure or just more weird feelings or just the death of hope for something better. I hope you get the emotional support you need and deserve during this time.

  10. I’m sorry for your losses.
    Lost has so many facets, it is sometimes difficult to contextualize.

    You sometimes mourn the good times, or the hope of the better times to come. And you can feel and hold many feelings all at once. Sometimes very conflicting feelings.

    I hope you find much needed peace when you can.

  11. As someone who counsels grieving people as part of her job, I want to underscore that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. All the conflicting feelings you’re having are normal and okay, and also quite understandable in light of your complicated relationship with Biological Mom. And also: new losses tend to bring back feelings associated with past losses, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you found yourself feeling some grief for your Mom again. That, too, is normal. Lean on your Team You for support if you need to, and do your best to disregard anyone who tries to tell you how you should or shouldn’t be feeling. Tracking down a therapist also sounds like a good idea.

    Wishing you peace, and offering Jedi hugs if you want them.

  12. I am so sorry for your loss and the impending family stuff you’re about to be in the middle of. May people be kind and not too moronic, may he-who-sucks stay the f away, may Team You be awesome-sauce, and may you find some peace through this difficult time. Whatever else was happening in your relationship you still have the right to feel how you feel and grieve in a way which is right for you. Jedi hugs if you want them.

  13. I’m sorry for your losses too. Everyone’s input, especially on being kind to yourself and feeling your feelings, is all I can think to add that way. And therapy!

    My mother lost her mom suddenly, who she had had a very strained relationship with since her childhood. They never really resolved anything and then she passed. It really changed my mom, but she did not take advantage of her Team Her. My mom turned to religion and drinking. She became less tolerant and very belligerent when she was drunk. She would call her friends and get into angry drunken arguments and ended up burning a lot of bridges. When she ran out of friends, she turned to family members. She completely estranged my cousin and aunt. She permanently damaged her relationship with me (and my sister, although I will not speak for her). I encouraged her to go to therapy, but she never did and still never has. Now her father is very sick and I can see the cycle repeating. And I am afraid that my mom will worry herself sick and that she will pass before we resolve things too. But she has not changed and I have to keep enforcing my boundaries that keep me safe and healthy.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that you can only do so much. You were generous for reaching out and trying to fix things with her after what happened. Your feelings will be very complex. Just please try to take care of yourself and lean on Team You – they love you and will be there for you.

    1. I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this. It’s so hard seeing a parent go down that road and not being able to help much because you have to look out for your own well-being.

  14. I have a similar background to the LW in that my father sexually abused me and my mother refused to believe it and defended him to his dying day. I suppose I was lucky that she decided not to have a funeral when he died. On some level she must have realized that, with him having molested so many girls both in the family and around the neighbourhood, she’d have to face it if she did organize a funeral or memorial and so few people showed up because they were estranged.
    I’m not sure how I’ll react when my mother dies, and since she’s in her 80s it will probably be within the next 10 years. So, I sympathize with the LW and echo the advice to delegate as much of the funeral preparations as possible to other people. I’m sure it’s hard to grieve if you still have mixed feelings about the person you’re mourning.

  15. I have a feeling that I’ve read this somewhere as it sounds so much like a platitude: but there are no wrong nor right ways to grieve. Grieving is personal. There is only YOUR WAY. Sending you lots of love LW.

  16. Oct. 22, 2015 was the five year anniversary of my mother’s death. I say that not asking for sympathy, but purely to explain when my own grief process began. My relationship with my mother was a combination of stormy and neglectful. If I was out of sight I was out of mind and if I was in her line of sight I was Cinderella do this, do that, do the other thing, doesn’t matter that your sister is right there too do all the things. (For illustration purposes; the man who abused me for four years once said; “I thought you exaggerated about how your family treats you until I saw them treat you fairly and realised that I’d never seen that before”.) I’ve spent five years trying to process and work through my feelings. Sometimes I’m angry, sometimes I’m in tears, sometimes I’m like a child just screaming “Why couldn’t I have a good relationship with my mom?!” at the sky.

    Chances are that you’re going to be conflicted. You’re going to want to do everything as a kind of post-mortem way of fixing what can’t be fixed. It’s okay to feel like that, LW. It’s also okay to step back and just allow the feelings to roll over you like a wave. People tend to act like someone dying means everyone needs to bury the hatchet and all the feelings that made the hatchet in the first place. It’s okay to let things go if that’s what you honestly feel in your heart. It’s also okay to say “No, this was unforgivable and I’m not going to play pretend”.

    Be with the people who can be there for you. Let the people who aren’t on your Team Me work through their own issues. Take care of yourself.

    And I am so, so sorry for your loss.

  17. It is perfectly appropriate for you to ask a “safe person” to accompany you, should you decide to participate in any of the official activities. That person can be a buffer, a physical blockade, your “voice”, and a person who can often say what you are not prepared or ready to say. It is probably best this person not be family. They don’t have to wrestle with being polite or respectful. They are teflon.

    If you choose to be in town during the planned activities, there are many ways you can do what you need without interacting with family at all. If the services are going to be fully coordinated by a funeral home, you can contact them ahead of time and request a private viewing, ask that a letter or memento or flowers be placed in the casket right before it is closed and locked (so no one else will notice it, pick it up, etc). The locking of the casket is done by funeral home staff in private.

    If she is being cremated, you may also ask that these items be cremated with her, and included in the remains. If there are graveside services, you may ask for time after the family has left when you may have private time before the grave is closed.

    If a faith community is involved, they, too will help you have private time. For instance, you may be able to sit in a balcony or side Chapel and watch where no one can see you. They will be very sensitive, and confidential, about your requests.

    Another option would be to have your own observance in your town with people who are Chosen Family. Faith leaders (or people who know your heart) would be (should be… if one says no, ask another!!) glad to help you figure out what a healthy closure would be for you.

    And “closure” is fuzzy. Mourning a mother, even if in estrangement, is the hardest thing most people do, other than bury a child. It truthfully doesn’t get better, it gets different. I strongly recommend “Motherless Daughters” by Hope Edelman. It was so important to me, and I have given away about 20 copies since my Mother’s death in 1989.

    Sleep well, and eat appropriately. That kind of stability in your life will help you be fully present. It is fairly normal for our parents to not be able to be who we need or want them to be. Your relationship with your birth mother was marked by horribly broken trust. Your Stepmother was a blessing – honor her memory during this time. And realize that now, you get to pick the people who together can fill the need you have for mothering.

    May you continue on the path to healing and wholeness, and count on those who will keep you safe during this time.

    1. I was going to comment with a recommendation of that book, but I’ll second it here. My mom died close to 15 years ago, when I was 13, and that book saved my damn life. Our circumstances are totally different, LW, but Edelman’s book covers a lot of ground in terms of daughters grieving for their mothers, including the kind where mourning is complicated by past abuse.

      Jedi hugs to you. This is a horrible, horrible thing you’re going through, and try to be gentle with yourself.

    2. Let me third that recommendation about the book “Motherless Daughters”. As was mentioned, it also talks about mothers leaving you in ways other than death, and complications of abuse, etc. It’s more for people whose mothers died young, but it has something in it for women who were adults as well.

  18. Just a note of caution about therapists: they’re people, too, and a product of society. Some of them still have a “family above all” attitude and try to reconnect estranged people with family because family. Now, I’m not sure if your therapist is one of those, but I’ve had the experience that it’s decidedly unhelpful for someone to try to “reconnect” you with your family you’re healthier leaving behind. Someone with experience in abuse/estrangement/complicated family dynamics would be good to screen for.

  19. LW, I was estranged from my father. When he died, I assisted with funeral planning out of duty, especially as oldest child, and knowing that my mother was devastated.

    I did not and have not grieved for the father I knew. During the photo memorial, where we showed pictures of him with the family, I did weep briefly – not for the father I knew, but because I didn’t know the man that everyone else was grieving.

    If you don’t grieve, do not beat yourself up over it. It’s okay. He did terrible things to you, you do not have to feel bad that he’s gone (if you don’t want to). You don’t owe that to anyone, least of all him. If people pressure you on the topic, you get to change the subject, walk way, or make yourself busy doing something else. (I very much used the ‘very busy doing something else’ tactic.)

  20. I had a very tumultuous relationship with my mother, who died in September. We were trying to build a relationship after several years of not speaking due to an indescribably awful boundary breaking episode that hurt my child (which I just couldn’t overlook).

    Despite all the bad, the end all be all for me was – she was my mother. I loved her deeply and I felt (and continue to feel) insurmountable doubt, fear and horrible guilt. Lots and lots of “what if”. Lots and lots of “what could I have done differently/better/more” etc.

    I can’t imagine what YOU are going through, but I can tell you that there’s no right or wrong way to do this. There are no rules. There are no protocols or processes for dealing with this terrible loss. No one can tell you what to do or not to do- it’s up to you to handle however you want. Jedi hugs. It’s tough and it’s not fair and it sucks and I’m sorry.

  21. oh dear, I just recently went through one of those funerals that was a tangled up mess of grief (more for what could have been then what was), relief, incredibly guilt for the relief (’cause it’s faaaamily) , occasional “I feel like I ought to care more than I do” and a lot of feeling like I had to put on a good face for those who didn’t know, and didn’t need to know the history.

    interestingly that is the only funeral I’ve ever been to where the nice stories people tell ran out really fast, and were replaced with attempts at funny stories… that really weren’t that funny so much as comparatively mild examples of the mean we had all experienced. Nothing like standing in a funeral home going “wait, you mean she didn’t just hate me? how did I not know I wasn’t her only target?”

    It was also totally a case of “I am here to support X other person who is also struggling with the emotional mess of this” and some “I am here for closure” more than any real “here to grieve”

    I am grateful for platitudes that are sufficient even if you don’t think they will be, and the few people on team me who knew a lot more of the real story that let me be an emotional wreck of cry, rage, guilt, etc while alternating “you’re allowed to grieve even if it wasn’t a good relationship” and “you’re allowed to be relieved not to deal with that anymore” . Just the validating of my mixed up feelings was so very needed.

    many jedi hugs

  22. I just wanted to throw out there, that it also happens sometimes, with some people, of some temperaments (I am one) to NOT “feel all of the feels” – or not right away. Whenever I’ve lost someone significant, I go through a period — sometimes months, once almost a year, when it is just very important to me to “do all of the things.” To just keep moving in whatever direction seems the most helpful, safe, or necessary at the time.
    Then the sobbing and the anger, and all of that comes later when my inner whatevers decide it’s time.
    There used to be tremendous guilt involved with that, as well as questioning my “normality” and whether I was morally deficient in some cold, repressed way. I had to learn over time that I don’t owe a performance of my grief to others, to myself, or to the person I lost. It’s okay to just let it be. It will come, and that’s okay too.
    Best wishes as you walk through this.

    1. I am grieving and I am very much like you. Thank you for saying this. I do sometimes feel like a very cold person.

  23. I’m so sorry for the losses you’ve just had.

    There’s one thing that I haven’t seen addressed directly: fights.

    Death and funerals bring out strong feelings, and sometimes horrible scenes.

    If fights and scenes happen, do what you need to survive them.

    Remembering a scene at my father’s memorial service seven years ago still leaves me quivering with rage.

    1. If you suspect that violence may occur, you can ask the funeral home to have security or police, plainsclothes or otherwise on standby. Sometimes just seeing them, settles things down enough that no one gets pushed in the lake. (Cemetery behind the funeral home has a lake in it – has alligators.)

      1. That visual has thrilled me with joy. I can’t decide if I should write it into a live-action feature screenplay or animate it.

  24. Dear Letter Writer, Do what you feel you must to keep your sanity intact. I did not go to my father’s funeral. There were so many reasons….. but for the sake of my sanity and my emotional stability, I did not go. I have many regrets in life but that is not among them. The people who care about me…..Team Me……understood and supported me. The people who did not understand or tried to give me grief about my choice, were not Team Me and I did not allow them any room in my head so to speak. People, who did not know my family history, who offered condolences were simply trying to be kind and supportive and I would just say either thank you or that I couldn’t talk about it yet. There truly are no rules and you do the things that are the best choice for you. You may go to the funeral, you may not…..you may do something in between those two extremes. There are as many ways to grieve as there are human beings on this planet. And, as many others have said, your grief may be more about the ” what ifs” and the ” could have been” and those are perfectly legitimate things to feel grief over. That was the majority of my grief….. along with the ” never will’s “. I’m still sad that my father and I will never have a chance to……..but I’d have felt that no matter what.
    Wishing I could send you a little extra strength, a little piece of mind and a hug or twenty.

  25. I lived with my father for many years even though he was emotionally abusive to me and my beloved Mom–long story. When he died, I didn’t feel the expected grief. I went through the funeral very robotically. When people talked to me about him and attempted to console me, I responded with “Thank you, that’s kind.” or some variation. The whole thing felt really. . .odd. What I want to pass on to you, LW, as others have said, is that it is okay that this whole thing makes you feel strange and/or angry, and it is also true that after the funeral ritual and the first few post-mortem months are over, people will stop thinking much about your loss and asking you about it. For some people who are grieving, this is devastating. Everyone is getting back to “normal” but they feel like normal no longer exists. This is how it was for me when my Mom died which happened before my Dad’s passing. When the same thing happened after my Dad’s funeral, though, it was a huge relief: “Yay, everyone is going back to normal, and will stop bringing him up!” I guess I’m just adding my voice to the chorus of, everyone grieves differently, and sometimes even not at all, and this funeral ritual and everything associated with it will soon be over, and then you can process everything in your own way by yourself.

    One of the hardest things about my relationship with my Dad was that he was one of those abusive types who are charming in public so a lot of people didn’t realize how horrible he could be. Also, I’m disabled, and a lot of folks saw him helping me, which to be fair to him, he did a lot of, so I got a lot of “Isn’t your Dad great? You are so lucky!” while he was alive, and a lot of “What will you do without him?” after he died, sigh. However, a lot of people on TeamMe had seen him in action and knew the real score. That helped. One of my friends even periodically jokes, “Hey, is your Dad still dead? He is? Awesome!” My point is, try to surround yourself with people who understand, try to be patient with those who don’t, and give yourself permission to do and feel any way at all about any of it at any time in the future. These days, it’s been a few years since my parents have been gone. I still miss my Mom terribly, and sometimes have very bad days. I don’t miss my Dad at all, but have come to a place where I can remember with a certain fondness the occasional nice things he did, and give him credit for the good he had in him. The best thing is, most of the resentment I felt is gone. It seems to have died with him for me. He’s dead. We are done. I win. I’ve also stopped agonizing over all the pain he put my Mother through, because he can’t hurt her anymore, and I imagine her in fields of bliss far away from wherever he is–He’s at the cosmic tavern probably, and she’s relaxing alone by the pool in a whole different “Hotel Afterlife”.

    I do notice that my past relationship with my dead emotionally abusive Dad makes my present dating life complicated, but that’s a whole different letter.

    My overall point is, all of this grief stuff is and will be complicated, but you can deal with it and come out the other side of it, whatever that ends up looking like for you. Good Wishes and Jedi Hugs to you!

  26. Hey, LW, just chiming in to say: I lost my dad three months ago. He and I had a rough relationship, but not on the level that you and your bio-mom did, and I *still* wanted to punch roughly 60% of the people at the funeral because they, in their awkwardness and attempts at compassion, said, “Oh, you must miss him so. He was a great man.” People who didn’t know him told me, “He must have been wonderful because he raised you.”

    Actually, he was kind of a manipulative asshole who tried to pay off all his kids with extra cash whenever he threw a temper tantrum at us, which was extra-often when he was drinking and combining alcohol with his pain meds, and he was a real dick to my mom who suffered through his slow decline for twenty years and barely left his side — but thanks?

    I had to keep repeating over and over to myself: This day will end. These people do not understand. They will go away, and then I will get to grieve properly.

    The real grief involved a lot of yelling, and one awful screaming breakdown in the shower one morning, and just a really rough go of things, but — it can be done. Don’t punch anyone who says stupid shit; they’re trying to be helpful, even if what they’re saying is the opposite of.

    Good luck.

    1. Ahhh, yes, the Receiving Line. There is No Rule that says there must be one. There is no rule that says you must participate.

      They are painful as well as mind-numbingly long and repetitive. Walk away. If you have identified people you care to touch base with, seek them out, then leave. Or ask them to meet you at a coffeehouse in 45 minutes. Or write them a letter at a later time.

      I second the emotion on the police or security.

      And I also suggest you have your say in memorial remembrances. This will need to be communicated to the Funeral Home prior to the submission of the obituary. It can also be printed in the memorial card. You can also have donation envelopes at the guest book, and available for people to pick up and use immediately. Choose a Family Crisis Center, a Victims Advocacy Group, a Safe House, or other place that provides services for children who are abused by parents or authority figures.

  27. The one point of view that is not already covered is, if you WANT to be hands on involved, that is OK too. I know I sometimes prefer to deal with a tangible, practical task. It is not by chance that so much of our mourning rituals are very practical I think. So if you actually feel a need to be part of the arranging and planning, if you want to influence the funeral, if you’re not just expressing shock and the conditioning as a woman to take care of stuff, you have a right to those feelings as well.

  28. The summer my father died, I was thinking about trying to talk to him again. About a month after I started seriously entertaining the thought, he died unexpectedly. It has been two and a half years, and I find myself at times still wondering about the what-ifs – would it have been better if we had talked? Would it have ended in disaster like every other time? Would he have ever apologized?

    Despite being estranged from my entire family, it fell on me to deal with all of the death business. It was a process that dragged out for a year, and I was angry the entire time. (Even more angry after, when I found out that during that year my grandmother died and no one told me.)

    The point of all that background is to say – don’t feel like you *have* to do anything, especially when it comes to everyone else. If they want to throw a funeral, they can sort it. Do what you need, for yourself, and what keeps you safest and as okay as you can be.

    You’re always going to wonder. I’m not sure that ever goes away. It is hard to let go of lost chances. But it gets easier to live with, in time.

  29. I’m so sorry, LW, for your loss. Mine was similar, except it was the abuse by my Mother and the fact I was expected to handle the arrangements that were the obstacles for me. Let her husband orchestrate the ceremony stuff. I knew instinctively it had been suicide, but couldn’t figure out why-the timing seemed off as she was finally living her life. But we were not done yet and I was furious with her sliding out I met with the funeral director after me and the sibs had flown in. Every line item the funeral director went down, I vetoed in my drunken rage. No expensive prepping for a viewing. He finally got that I wanted ashes in the cheapest legal-for-transport box, and we could leave. I think now that I should’ve sprung for the viewing; it’s for you, and gives you closure. Otherwise, you just see the person in crowds and that is hard.

    In the suicide was a secret that I didn’t learn till twenty five years later, when one of my stepmother’s siblings said in an online post that she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. (…) by then I’d figured out the blithe blaming and shaming of my mother’s childhood behavior by her siblings, was them masking some adult’s incest or abuse of her, and her later horrible mental and physical abuse by her to me had sadly, been her normal. I still hold her accountable as an adult and a parent, but her actions now made more sense. There has been journaling and now there is at last, the right therapist.

    Nevertheless, I do tend to not go to shops on Mother’s Day, and that is my self-care.

    1. PS, hope this pro tip helps you: I was not prepared for the roomful of strangers at my mother’s memorial, who told me, “You look so much like your Mother,” as if that was a good thing. I’d never been told that, hadn’t expected it, and was deeply shocked and angry.

    2. “Nevertheless, I do tend to not go to shops on Mother’s Day, and that is my self-care.”

      My mom died when I was 9, and as an adult I’ve never been able to deal with Mother’s Day (although in my case my relationship with Mom was a good one, so I didn’t have some of the complicating factors). I finally have gotten to the point where I only listen to albums I own the last few weeks before MD (to avoid radio commercials), don’t go to any stores that sell cards (not just Hallmark, but the others too that have a cards section), and this last year finally decided to avoid church that Sunday (my church is NOT one of the ones that goes all crazy about it, generally just someone who says, “Thanks to all the moms in the congregation,” and we move on, but a couple of years ago someone told the kids during children’s time to go hug their moms after church or something innocuous like that and I ran out of the church crying for the next 20 minutes). I also have an awesome Team Me who usually takes care of me that day; last year someone had me for a slumber party, the year before some friends took me to see a stupid movie, the year before that some other friends had me over to play in their garden, etc. So major sore spot for me, but it’s also nice that I have people who look after me. People are funny about moms, and they have such a weird position in our culture (both sainted and scapegoated), that if you don’t fit one of the norms as far as your relationship with your mom is concerned then people don’t know how to handle it. So glad for my Team Me.

      (On a related note, I had one of my most amazingly awful Mother’s Day moments. A person that I had just met decided to give me a lecture on how I had a bad attitude about MD. Umm, yeah. Like one of my other friends said when I shared this story, “Jackalope, you EARNED your bad attitude about MD.” This person and I managed to be civil to each other [we were working on a group project together so couldn’t just go our separate ways for a few MONTHS], but our relationship was over right THERE as far as I was concerned.)

  30. How do I work with her husband, a fucking sexual predator, to give her the proper funeral and send-off? How do I support my older sisters who did not experience the abuse while not compromising my own heavily conflicted grief?

    1. You don’t have to. You do not “owe” it to anyone to help, and if doing it makes you more stressed out, then don’t. If you do want to, find things that you can do which don’t put pressure on you. But, again, if you can’t, then you can’t. Self-care needs to come first here, whether that means not helping with the arrangements or not going at all.

    2. Were your sisters supportive of you when everything blew up last time? Are they supportive now? Will supporting them involve listening to them blaming you for things? Think carefully about these questions. It may be that you can’t be supportive of them without compromising your own grief, and so you may need to step back. They need a Team Them, but you don’t have to be on it if that involves you being hurt.

    Jedi Hugs to you, LW.

  31. I didn’t have a funeral for my mom. Funerals are expensive and there was no money so it never happened. I say this only because I want to reinforce that a funeral may be a common tradition but it is not a requirement.

    You don’t have to be involved.

    I wish you the best with the grieving process. Cling as tight as you need to your family who knows what’s up and take care of yourself.

  32. Hang in there. There’s a lot of good advice in these comments. Here’s something that really helped me when my covertly abusive and neglectful mother died: When people wanted to settle down for a nice reminisce-fest about the JennyIslander’sMom they had known, I would say politely, “Actually our relationship was difficult, but I’m glad you have some good memories of her,” and change the subject. Or simply, “Oh, yes, she was/did [thing the other person was talking about], wasn’t/didn’t she?” and then change the subject. Sometimes, if people pressed me to perform the Grieving Loving Doctor Act, I would say, “She was a good [volunteer/thing-she-did-for-a-living/whatever], but she failed me as a parent, and I’d rather not go into it.” And then change the subject.

    These are offered as potential ways to head off a stressful conversation, not things you ought to do. You don’t owe anybody an explanation.

    And take care of yourself first. The dead are dead. They don’t need us anymore.

  33. Yay to Jenny Islander’s comment. Funerals are for the living. For many people, on many occasions, they offer closure and catharsis. For others they will provide further opportunities to feel privately enraged and furious. If you do find yourself having to make the arrangements and even write the eulogy, the most helpful comment I had in a similar situation was ‘A eulogy is a statement of the facts about what X did when they were alive. It’s not a statement about how wonderful they were or how you felt about them’. Afterwards people were saying things like ‘Wow, I never knew she was born in Ireland!’ or ‘So she was a nurse for three years!’ so they focused on the facts and totally not on any feeeeelings.

  34. I hope it’s okay to talk about feeling something different from what everyone else seems to be feeling.

    My mother died around 6 years ago, and I felt — nothing. I felt no sense of loss or grief and haven’t since then. If anything, it was kind of a relief.

    The thing is, it always felt like she was a stranger. Or, more like I was one of those monkeys in the famous Harry Harlow experiments. Sometimes I had the cloth mother, sometimes the wire mother, and sometimes no mother at all. I kept thinking, she does all the Good Mother stuff (well, most of it, most of the time), everyone says she’s a Good Mother (“I wish she were my mom”), so why do I feel like I don’t have one? I felt compelled to distance myself from her, emotionally and geographically, and the last decade or so of her life, every time I would visit, I would be depressed (more than usual) for a month.

    I realize that who I miss and grieve for is the mother I wish I’d had, not the one I did have. If anything, her dying relieved me of feeling that if I could only stop being so f***ed up long enough to see/do that obvious right thing, she would start being my real mother.

    I can’t talk about this with my siblings. My “baby” (53!) sister has said point-blank, “I don’t want to hear about your childhood.” My oldest brother said, of my mother, “she was always there for me.” And it’s not like we ever talked about anything non-superficial., anyway.

  35. Gahh. Grief is so complex. It might feel awful, twisted to love AND resent the person who failed the parenting practicum now that they’re dead. But try to be kind to yourself, your feelings are yours and they are real and it’s OKAY if they run the gamut from love to hate.

    My siblings and I had a narcissistic mum who’s left us with plenty of hangups and resentments. But sometimes she was awesome. Plenty of times she was ok, and some of her narcissistic bad habits actually got turned around (by us) to use as *good* things to aim for.

    15 years ago mum was killed and I was badly injured in a car smash; there was a funeral I missed (still in ICU). We’d just had a great week together so I was feeling the love, had lots of awful sad moments. Her partner, also injured in the smash, organised a memorial service in *hometown* a few months later – only funny stories allowed, lots of friends/family, big happyfest. But over the years the real stories have come out and yeah, she wasn’t dearly beloved by everyone. Not 100% anyway.

    I have this weird thing going on where under some circumstances (lots actually) the smash comes up and I really don’t want to say anything about mum because I feel bad for the person that asked… I don’t want them to feel guilty for making me sad but… um… I’m not. I still love my mum. I kinda miss her? But I also resent her to hell and back for the mess she made of me, of US, growing up… and for dying cos now I can never ask her WTF? about stuff.

    Point – frequent (good!) advice from CA is Look After You; an affirmation we have under mirror near front door: “put this person first”. And Jedi hugs because I do feel sorry for your loss. Good luck.

  36. It’s okay to grieve the mother she ought to have been, too. I went through that when my grandmother died. All the best, LW.

    If unrelated people give you shit about this, direct them to the Silk Ring Theory of grieving: comfort in, dumping out.

  37. I can relate, LW. My mother was a narcissist who emotionally abused me and my siblings when we were kids, and betrayed me and my family in a really twisted way when I was an adult. She died in hospice four days ago. When she was hospitalized and it was clear she would not recover, I went to be with my sibs, but it was the first time I had seen her in more than a year.

    She could be very warm and charming when it suited her, and appearances were very important to her, so I’ve had to deal with some people telling me what a lovely woman she was, and how much I must miss her. I’m nodding and saying thank you and trying not to burst into flaming rage. I have been grieving for the mother I wished I had for over a decade now, since she did something that clearly proved she didn’t care about me, or anyone other than herself. She was a very limited person with a severe allergy to reality, and so nothing could ever be resolved; when I tried to talk to her honestly, she lashed out and was very mean, and after several years of trying, I gave up on any attempt to repair the relationship.

    There are others who can and will take care of the funeral, and as for you giving her the proper funeral and send-off? You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, even show up. You can say “it’s too hard for me right now,” to anything and everything. People will generally cut you some slack when you’re grieving a parent, and you’re under no obligation to explain all the complicated emotions that you’re feeling, especially when it doesn’t fall under the standard definition of grief. You don’t owe anything to anyone in this situation–not your bio-mom, not your evil stepdad, not even your sibs.

    My advice is to do as much or as little as you want to, or you can. and let Team You and a good therapist help you work through all the mixed, ugly, confusing emotions afterward.

    I’m sorry you’re going through this. Good luck.

  38. Jedi hugs to you LW. I’m grateful you wrote in to Captain Awkward because I expect that one day when my abusive mother dies it’ll suck in similar ways and I’ve gotten some really helpful tips from the commenters here.

    I’m currently estranged from my mother (I cut off contact years ago because as the good Captain said in an earlier letter, for some people the price of having a relationship with a parent is pretending their childhood didn’t happen. That price is totally unacceptable to me) and I think her eventual death will really shake me up because as much as I doubt I’ll ever get an apology or even an acknowledgement that she was a bad parent, as long as she’s still alive there’s a tiny thread of hope.

    As for supporting your sisters, would it work to potentially just be sad together without getting into specifics like sharing memories of your biological mother? I’m thinking of something really low key like watching a movie together, crying as needed, and just having a space where nobody feels obligated to act like they’re okay. I don’t have a lot of experience with grief so feel totally free to ignore that.

    While I’m at it, it is totally reasonable and okay not to want to talk with your sisters about how much they miss the woman who profoundly betrayed you. If you feel up to it, cool, but if you don’t you’re not bad or a jerk or anything. Hurting yourself won’t make them feel better anyway, so you officially have this internet stranger’s permission not to do that.

  39. This maybe far far far too practical for you to be thinking of right now but, if you live in the US at least, you should know that funeral homes may be super helpful but they also are essentially factories for using emotional manipulation to run up enormous bills. If you’re not paying then don’t even bother reading this, let the sexual predator foot the bill. And if the money you spend now is a fair trade for not having to deal with any of it, then skip it. But if a really expensive funeral is going to cause you long-term financial harm, consider reading “Final Rights.” I hate to bring it up, even, but I know lots of my friends, when faced with an unexpected death of a parent, spent the money and, once the clouds of grief cleared, are staggering under the debt that they will carry for years and years to come.

    1. Yes, this. So well said DameB, and what I’d tried to tell above with my own experience. The funeral director we saw was nearly the oily stereotype, and my perception was that he was trying to play me to spend a lot of money on mahogany-casket this and makeup for a viewing-that. I was shocked to find myself being preyed upon with guilt and shaming language. We eventually got the Shake and Bake cremation in a plain fiberboard box that was the legal minimum we could spend, but it would have been a really hard time for someone unexpectedly losing a beloved person.

  40. Just echoing sentiments already expressed that you can, without guilt, not attend. I didn’t go and honestly I am glad that I didn’t as I knew it would be a lovefest towards bio male parental figure which would be borderline impossible to endure and it would simply be triggering to me to be around people who thought he was a good man instead of the predator that he was behind closed doors. When the still alive female parent made contact to tell me about the funeral that I was expected to attend, I told her no. She told me that they had “made” me and I owed it them (because all that matter to them was appearances and standing in their local community) so I told them if I attended, I would bring to the forefront on the day why I have been estranged from them for over 15 years and why his death is not a loss. As far as I can tell, she has made no further attempts to contact me. We are at the “she don’t know that I am married or have a child of my own” level of estrangement and I am happy to keep it that way. The healthiest thing I could do for myself is not be around people who did not think my safety was of no importance when I was a child. I do not regret not attending.

    Personal bias warning here – Interacting with your abuser is not a good idea. For your mental health, let someone else make the arrangements and do not interact with him if you do choose to attend. You are under no obligation to keep up appearances. If you do attend, as other above have suggested, take your own support people. Also time your arrival and exit so that you don’t have to hear to many stories about how great she was as there is only a finite amount of positivity you can hear about someone you know does not deserve it before it stirs up all the negativity and pain from the years of not believed. No-one is ever honest at a funeral and hearing how wonderful she was when she was not that way towards you can be extraordinarily hurtful and can start a spiral. If you have a therapist, try and make an appointment within 3 days or so to vent and unload. Then a week later at a normal session (if you have a regular appointment), you will have had more time to process and start working through the emotions that have come up. Team You is so important.

    The word No is your friend here. You owe these people nothing – they owed it to you to keep you safe as a child. They did not act in your best interests then so they have no rights towards you now other than what you choose to offer and with whatever conditions or strings attached that you need to feel safe. If they can’t accept that, tough.

    Part of me did want to attend my father’s with a bag of popcorn and sit at the back and heckle the service with vocal disagreements and yelling out paedophile during the prayers and whatnot then hand out copies of his sex offender registration as funeral favours. But that was simply the fantasy in my head that helped me deal with the finality of his death and his unwillingness to ever apologise or acknowledge his behaviour.

    3 weeks after his funeral I did go to the gravesite. In polite company I would say for closure but really, it was to be sure he was dead. I timed it to ensure that there would be no triggering fresh flowers or notes about our grief/sorrow still on the grave. The feelings that death bring up are complicated and I can’t offer that I had a graveside epiphany. I didn’t forgive him, I didn’t “let him go in peace to a better place”. I hope he is burning in hell. Whatever you feel about it is valid and as I found, unexpected. I thought I would be joyful that he was off this planet and could not hurt anyone else but it was less than that. Not indifference but a low level malaise. It seems stupid that death stirs things up again – they are gone and are no threat or impact on your life anymore yet I felt a level of unease & insomnia after I knew the funeral had been held and it was all done. At the graveside, I said nothing profound or moving. I was there maybe 10mins then left. Only thing I actually said out loud was “good” and then I was done. But for me, it helped. The malaise lifted, I started sleeping again and life moved on.

    As much as my therapist frowns at me (she is not a fan of the language of winning/losing but in the scenario of my family, it works for me), I won. I won when I reported him and he was convicted even when she did not believe me and sided with him. I won as I built myself a happy and productive life filled with good people and an unwillingness to tolerate manipulative or toxic people. I won because I outlived and out-survived that bastard. And some days, that’s enough to get me out of bed in the morning. Good luck LW. Do whatever you need to get by.

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