My estranged father is about to die (I am working with family to make the degree of peace with which I feel comfortable). My mother died about a decade ago. Besides the problem of anticipatory grieving and emotions feelings around an estrangement, I am struggling with a desire not to go to his funeral.
The church and hometown I situation in which I grew up were small and sometimes a little cult-like. The church left me with a lot of trauma. I have almost no contact with anyone from that period of my life any more and I like it that way.
However, it was my dad’s church and he’s known some of these people since the 70s. Particularly because of the estrangement, I don’t have a right to plan the funeral/memorial or decide to exclude some people. I expect to see a lot of people there whom I last saw at my mother’s funeral and whom I hope never to see again.
But I will be grieving. I need to go.
Might you have any scripts for how to handle people either bringing up the estrangement or attempting to make small talk? I don’t want to talk about the estrangement with anyone but my siblings. I don’t want to make small talk. I want to grieve and see him buried.
/Not A Bad Daughter I Swear
Dear Not A Bad Daughter,
Thank you for writing. I hope your dad’s passing is as peaceful as it can be for him and for you.
You don’t have to go to the funeral (you won’t be a bad daughter if you stay away entirely) but since you are choosing to go, I think there are some scripts and practices that can help you get through a difficult event.
First, you’re allowed to grieve in whatever actual context you experience (for example, grieving for the relationship that might have been, grieving the harm that the person did to you vs. missing the actual person), and you’re allowed to let that grief all look the same to outsiders. You’re allowed to let them see what they are expecting to see. If strangers – especially your dad’s fellow congregants – see you at the event and imagine that you are a daughter who misses her dad, you don’t owe any of them any clarifications or explanations. You’re grieving, funeral rites have customs and etiquette to support people who are grieving, your grief doesn’t have to be any particular sort to deserve respect and space.
Second, funeral directors, funeral home staff, (in this case maybe “church employees in charge of putting on funerals”) are often able to act as buffers in situations like yours. It would be quite reasonable, in my opinion, to request something like “Please set aside time for the children of the deceased to say goodbyes privately” and even “Please set aside time for ME, specifically, to say goodbyes privately” if that is what you need.
Third, if it is possible and affordable for you, I cannot overstate the benefits of having your own transportation i.e. the ability to leave anytime you like without depending on or checking in with anyone else. People sometimes ask “Why would I pay to rent a car if I’m flying to a place where everyone already has a car?” = Idk, what’s your price on being able to leave an uncomfortable situation any time you feel like it? Also, is it possible to bring a friend with you, someone who can be a social buffer and who can enforce a cheerful “Nice to meet all of you, I’m going to drive Grieving LW back to the hotel so she can rest!” barrier around you at all times? Consider it! If nobody can come with you, having a buddy or buddies available by text or other social media can be incredibly grounding.
Fourth, you mentioned siblings, is it possible to be a united front with them, where you tag each other in or out of difficult conversations, take breaks, sub in for each other as “chief receiver of condolences” at any funeral events? Most likely nobody’s gonna blink if any of you step in with “Excuse me, can I borrow my sibling for a moment, thanks!” and escort whichever sibling is being importuned away. No need to give reasons! And if one of you needs to bail early, or take a break, or be alone, the others can do a “Sibling’s taking things pretty hard, the best we can do right now is give them space” smoothing over. See if you can arrange Siblings-only viewing of body/goodbye time, Siblings-only lunch, etc.
Fifth, I know you don’t want “small talk” but I would submit that you also don’t want “deep talk” with these people. You don’t want to get into your actual history or feelings, you don’t to clarify old misunderstandings, you don’t want to talk about any of it. Funerals are what “brief exchanges of platitudes” are for, maybe you can try to think of them as “completing brief social circuits as efficiently as possible.” If people say “I’m sorry for your loss,” you can say “Thank you.” Probably lots of people are gonna say some version of “He’s in a better place now” or “Thank God he’s at peace” or some version of that and you can respond with “I certainly hope so” or “It’s what he wanted.” The faster you give some kind of expected answer, the faster the interaction is done.
Sixth, people who remember you from before and people who are meeting you just now are going to ask routine Small Talk questions (they just are, you can’t prevent this, my advice is don’t waste energy trying). You can’t avoid it but you can anticipate it and make sure you have some kind of basic “Oh, I live in ____ and I do _____” way to answer this ready to go. When in doubt, ask questions. “How did you know my dad?” “What’s your favorite memory of my dad?”
Seventh, re: the estrangement, from your dad, you don’t have to address it or explain it at all. You also don’t have to lie about it or pretend it didn’t happen. Find a few true, neutral-pleasant things you could comfortably say about your dad, this church, this funeral if the topic of estrangement & your departure comes up. For example:
- “My dad and I weren’t close in recent years, it’s true, but it’s good to see how much his church community cared about him.”
- “This church community was very important to my dad, I’m sure it would have meant a lot to him to see you here.”
- “Thank you for arranging the funeral, it’s good to know that my dad was in such good hands.”
- “It’s strange to be back here, a lot of memories for sure, but today is about saying goodbye to my dad. Thanks for making sure he has the best possible send-off.”
People who use this as an opportunity to pry and pressure you are being jerks, and you don’t owe them any explanations, apologies, or justifications for decisions you made to keep yourself safe and happy, so if a gentle “Oh, I don’t want to get into all that, I’m just here to say goodbye to my dad” doesn’t get the job done, you’re not the jerk if you skip to “Please excuse me” and turn your back and walk AWAY. Anyone who tries to use your dad’s funeral as a stage for airing grievances or an attempt at evangelizing can stuff it.
Eighth, I don’t know if you are a praying person at all (at minimum you’ve left THIS particular brand of praying behind), but as a Not Praying Person who is related to lots of Intense Praying People, I know it can be pretty uncomfortable when people insist on praying with or at me, like, “what do I do with my hands” and “where is it safe to look?” and “how long is this going to go on?” and “are you going to insist on touching me?” Like, I know they mostly intend to be kind, but the effect of it stresses me the hell out and with certain folks it can cross over pretty quick into dominating behavior where I look like the jerk if I’m not compliant and/or grateful. One thing I try to do is to redirect the Praying People at each other as much as possible, like, “Thank you, you know who would appreciate your prayers so much? My Very Religious Relative! They will be so pleased, let me walk you over to them!!!!” It’s not foolproof but it’s easier sometimes than trying to explain that the whole Praying Deal is not for me. It also helps sometimes to recruit one of these folks to my cause and deploy them as an ambassador to the others, as in, “Oh, thank you, it means a lot to me to know that my dad had such caring people in his life. I’m struggling a little today, after losing him, and I know that people mean to be kind but I’m getting overwhelmed. Would you do me a giant favor and make my apologies to the others? I just need some space/to stick close to my siblings/to duck into the chapel for some quiet reflection, we’ll have to catch up on each other’s lives another time.*” (*possibly never). If it doesn’t work, you may have to try something like “My dad would appreciate knowing that you’re praying for him so much! But today I’m grieving in my own way, please excuse me!” and retreat to a safe distance.
Ninth, are you ever going to see most/any of these people ever again? Probably not? If they think you are strange/distant/a bad daughter/going straight to h-e-double hockey-stick when you die, so what, really? Personally, I like to choose my battles, I don’t like to get into pointless arguments with people whose opinion I don’t actually care about, I don’t actually like to provoke conflict or offend people on purpose, so my style is way more geared toward “Oh, I’m not much of a prayer person but my dad would sure appreciate knowing that you’re doing that for him” than “Cool story but I’m an atheist” or “My dad and I had our differences but I’m glad he’s at peace now” vs. “What do you get when you mix grief, relief, and a white-hot anger?” you don’t have to be some perfect paragon of passive neutrality. You’re grieving. You lost someone. You lost a lot of things, I imagine, during the process of kicking yourself free of damaging family and a damaging sect. You can be angry and raw and uncomfortable and if people can’t take the hint and give you a wide berth – give you the RESPECT a grieving person is due at the funeral of a family member – you won’t be a terrible person if you’re like “Miss me with the prayers please, but is there any more of that casserole?” If they’re gonna talk about you anyway, you always have the option of giving them something to talk about. Like I said, I’m more comfortable when I know I’ve behaved as politely and correctly as I can, I’m rarely gonna be the one who starts a conflict, but sometimes reminding myself that’s a choice I’m making and that other choices are available to me can be incredibly comforting. If you duck into a chapel or anteroom for “some quiet meditation” nobody has to know that you’re actually flipping mental tables and making a plan in case you have to flip real ones.
Tenth, I’ve said this before, but the very oldest and the very youngest people in the room are often where it’s at at large family gatherings if you’re trying to escape awkward conversations. Old people telling stories! Little kids who give zero fucks about death playing games! Your refuge might lie with them.
Eleventh, please make sure you make space for yourself and time for yourself to deal with all the feelings your dad’s passing is bringing up. Whether it’s a therapist or counselor, a journal, a letter you don’t send, talking to friends and siblings, grief is grief, it is going to affect you, you’re allowed to be nice to yourself and to honor that grieving process as much for an imperfect parent as you would for the dad you deserved.
Sending you much love and sympathy.