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
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.