Longtime lurker, first time LW. Thanks for providing such a safe, thoughtful & humorous space for thinking through life’s issues.
My ex-stepfather (XSF) is elderly, ill & failing. I foresee him dying sometime in the next year or so. I do not wish to go to his funeral, but I believe many members of my family will view that decision as unforgivable. Allow me to elaborate:
XSF & my mom were married for about 13 years, but since their divorce they have had an on-again, off-again relationship. I lived with them both for six years, then left the state for college & grad school, never to return. He was financially generous (more than my bio father was able to be at the time), but that is the only positive thing I can say about him. My mom, who had worked since age 12 in a difficult industry, stopped working when I was in high school. XSF paid for everything: a beautiful home, clothing, vacations, etc. I accepted these things without question. He paid for half of college-I paid for the other half. I went on to borrow for grad school, pay for my own wedding & home, etc.
Unfortunately , XSF was and continues to be unapologetically misogynistic, racist, homophobic, alcoholic, verbally abusive, and paranoid. I grew up in a culture which actually embraces many of these qualities, & while I fled the state out of gut instinct to get the hell out of there, it was only with time & growth that I recognized that I needed to get him out of my life. This was pretty easy to accomplish because even when living in the same house, our relationship was managed through my mom. To give you a flavor of our relationship: XSF is fond of nicknaming people: one of mine was “Mouse” because I (uncharacteristically) was always so quiet around him. Another of my nicknames was “Sprout”, in reference to my developing breasts. Need I say how utterly impossible it was for me to have a real relationship with this man? My younger brother has always had a better relationship with him, since XSF had no other sons & my brother was eager to bond with a father figure (bio dad was largely absent).
Since the divorce XSF has made no effort to contact me. My long-suffering stepsisters (with whom I never lived) made minimal efforts as well, which was fine with me. At the time, it seemed to me that if my mother was allowed to divorce & not speak to him, I was also entitled to do so. It was a huge relief to not spend time with him during my brief visits home.
During times they have been back together, I made a few gestures (some big, some small) to reach out to him & establish at least a civil relationship, for Mom’s sake. She convinced me to invite him to my wedding (to a man of a race he frequently mocked while I was growing up!), because they were once again dating, & she wanted him there. Fortunately, he behaved civilly.
Since XSF has become more frail, my mom has become one of his primary supports: cooking, shopping, cleaning, etc. He is rude to health care providers, refuses basic supports such as physical rehab, & continues to be verbally abusive to his daughter & (probably) my mom. In short, he has not changed. Despite this, during a recent social event with friends, Mom characterized XSF as “a good stepfather” to my brother & me.
I fear that when the time comes, I will go to the funeral out of a wish to support Mom, be a “good” daughter, avert conflict, “pay my respects”, etc. I want to have a preemptive conversation with Mom, saying that I think it will be more awkward for everyone if I attend. She tends to believe in doing what is socially expected, rather than being true to oneself, but she fully knows how strongly I feel about XSF. I know she will be sad if I don’t go, but I think that sadness is really grief about the relationship XSF & I never had.
I guess what I need is a succinct way to explain to friends & family why I am not going, without coming across as a bitter, ungrateful, disrespectful grudge-bearer. They all know he is a jerk, but “he gave you so much!” In a culture where the standards for male behavior are so low, he is viewed as a “Good Ol’ Boy”. But….I just can’t.
There is no pre-emptive conversation that your mom wants to have with you about your plan to not attend your stepdad’s eventual funeral, and no list of logical reasons that she will really hear or understand. Whatever he was to you, when he dies she will be grieving him. She already knows how you feel about the guy and will most likely want and expect you to be there for her anyway.
I say this not to pressure you to go but to say as strongly as I can: I think talking about your intention to stay away ahead of time will just make it all worse. You want to be kind and logical by trying to solve this now and help your mom plan for your eventual decision, but feelings don’t really work that way, and the longer you and your mom have to stew about it the longer it has to become an ongoing fight between you. Whatever statement you are making about your own relationship with the guy and your own integrity, she will not really get it. She loves him, or did once, and he is leaving. She will not be at home to your grievances just now, and the conversation behind the conversation (“But Mama, why did you marry somebody who was so awful and subject us to him for all these years?”) probably isn’t going to ever happen or be resolved. You can’t ask that question without shredding her and she can’t answer it without shredding you. The damage is done and now you gotta love each other the best you can around the scar tissue.
That doesn’t mean that you have to go to the funeral. Go, or don’t go, as you wish. If staying away is what you need to do to take care of yourself, then make peace with your decision inside yourself without asking for your mom’s (or anybody else in your family’s) blessing or forgiveness. (You can have my blessing if you need somebody’s blessing, and you can talk to friends or a counselor about all the shitty history and feelings that are coming up. The guy verbally abused you and everyone around you and it’s okay if you don’t miss having him in your life.) Let the whole topic of the funeral drop until there is an actual day on the actual calendar for the actual funeral, at which point you can say “I’m so sorry, I won’t be able to be there.” You say you live out of state, so, when the time comes you can make polite excuses about work or travel arrangements. You could get a ticket for the weekend after the funeral and just go be with your mom for a little while. Nobody can kidnap you and make you and nobody can make you tell them your real reasons if you don’t want to share.
If you don’t go and relatives pressure you to explain, try saying: “We had a very troubled relationship, and I said goodbye to him long ago.”
“But you should have been there for your mother!” “Mom knows it’s complicated and I can be there for her in other ways. I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Ugh I can’t believe you’re so ungrateful after all he did for you.” “I am grateful for some things and really ungrateful about others – but let’s not speak ill of the dead! How are you doing?”
“Well it’s just unforgivable that you would stay away at a time like this.” “I’m not asking for anyone to forgive me. You don’t have to understand my decision, just know that it was the one I thought was best for me.”
This is freedom: You get to not go. This is also freedom: People will have feelings about it and you can’t really control what they will be. They may displace their grief onto you, they may say things they later regret. Grief is weird.
If you are sure about your decision not to go, make it now with yourself and then do your best to stop worrying about it, especially while the guy is still hanging on. You can make the decision for yourself and let it be what it is without getting anyone to buy in at this time. If you do end up deciding to go in the end, it’s a few hours of your life that will mean a lot to your mom, and it won’t make you a hypocrite or mean that you forgive and forget everything that happened to you. “Going to the funeral of one’s enemy just to make sure he’s dead” has a long tradition.
Readers, did you skip a funeral you were expected to attend? What happened? Was it really “unforgivable”? Did you go to a funeral you were dreading? What happened?