#1187: “People from my past at my estranged father’s funeral (do not want).”

Hi Captain,

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.

115 thoughts on “#1187: “People from my past at my estranged father’s funeral (do not want).”

  1. Sending you hugs, and a gentle reminder that people being weird about estrangement are asking you to be uncomfortable (explain, revisit, apologize) so they don’t have to be uncomfortable (thinking about unpleasant things a family member did to you). That’s a jerk move at any point, but at a funeral it’s extra jerky. So if you find yourself unsure whether you have permission to execute any of the Captain’s suggestions, translate whatever they are saying to “on top of your grief, please take care of my feelings” and see if it helps you act in your own best interests in this difficult time.

    1. translate whatever they are saying to “on top of your grief, please take care of my feelings” and see if it helps you act in your own best interests in this difficult time.

      This is brilliant.

    2. translate whatever they are saying to “on top of your grief, please take care of my feelings”

      What a great and concise reframing, thank you.

  2. My sympathies, LW. I lost my mother at New Year – and we, too, were estranged, and I knew there could be a lot of awkwardness over that. In my case, my father is still alive – but the estrangement from my mother meant that I hadn’t spoken to him either in about 8 years. Also complicating things is the fact that there’s some really bad history between my brother and I and we haven’t spoken in 20 years (including icy silence and ignoring each other at our grandparents’ funerals).

    My eldest daughters came with me however (they’re both adults) and my uncle (Mum’s older brother) was also there; he, his wife, my daughters and my youngest sister and her husband all stepped in very smoothly to be a buffer for me. My sister knew it was going to be hard for me and had pretty much enlisted Team Us to step in. It also meant my father and I had a chance to talk quietly for a little while without interruptions.

    It was still hard; I won’t deny that. But having people I’m close to who could do that for me made the world of difference.

    LW, I really second the Captain’s suggestion of talking to your siblings. I hope they can be there as Team You and help make this upcoming experience a little less painful for you.

  3. My estranged father died this past summer. There was no other close family — I’m an only child and my parents have been divorced for years, so all the executor/planner decisions fell to me. I decided not to have a service — the funeral home that handled his cremation was extremely helpful, as they had a memorial garden where his ashes could be placed. I did publish obituaries in the towns where he grew up and where he lived, so more distant relatives and other friends/acquaintances would know. It simply said, “A private memorial is planned.”
    If people’s comments went beyond a simple, “I’m sorry for your loss,” they were pretty accepting of “We weren’t close in recent years, but I appreciate it.” or “It was a complicated relationship, but thank you for the kind thoughts.” That all turned out to be easier than I expected. Wishing you peace and strength, and may this likewise be not as difficult as you fear.

    1. I really like “It was a complicated relationship, but thank you for the kind thoughts.” It acknowledges the speaker and is a clear hint that you aren’t going to explain anything.

    2. And you can also just say, “thank you for your sympathy.”

      You do not have to say “it was a complicated relationship.” Leave that out–they don’t need to know it.

      Just say, “Thank you for the kind thoughts.” or “Thank you”

      Or, “Thank you; it’s hard to lose a father.” (because it is–you are grieving, and you’ve lost him twice now, and both times were hard)

  4. All of the hugs to you, LW. I hope this process can be as painless as possible for you. I second the Captain’s advice on having a friend along as a buffer/emotional bodyguard. In the years when I was dealing with the worst of my family issues, never going to family things alone (or having someone standing by who would come and pick me up immediately) helped a ton. In some cases, it made all the difference.

  5. When my brother died I, not religious at all, got really good at saying “Thank you, that’s so kind/thoughtful of you” when people told me they would pray for me/my family/my brother who was totally dead and I assume could handle that shit on his own at that point. They were doing something THEY thought was kind, so I just decided that it was kind of them to think of us in a way that was meaningful to them.

    I did have to grit my teeth at the “He’s in a better place now” people. If anyone noticed that my teeth were kind of super clenched when I smiled at that they had the decency not to say shit.

  6. I am sorry for your loss (both in the past for the father you deserved but didn’t get, and in the future when the father you needed safe distance from passes away). Just remember that you have the right to grieve in your own way, not perform grief for the expectations of others. Your priority is saying goodbye and your own emotional safety in a difficult situation.

    That means you can choose how and where and when you will participate in any visitation, wake, funeral, memorial service, or any other rituals associated with bereavement. Private viewing with immediate family only, pass on the rest? OK. Attend funeral but pass on the official receiving line for condolences? OK. Attend the service and pass on the meal? OK. Attend the meal but be too busy in the kitchen area to talk? OK. Whatever works for you.

    If you really want to minimize any conversation, whether small talk or rude boundary pushing about estrangement or anything else, you can also say something along the lines of “Please excuse me–I’m not up for conversation right now.” Then step away or turn to someone else or whatever to just end it.

    Good luck navigating this. I hope you and your siblings are able to support each other and get through this together as a team.

  7. Funerals are often part of a multi-phase process. If there’s a way to limit how much of that process you’re a part of, feel no shame about doing that. Maybe skip the visitation, go to the actual service, then skip the repast/luncheon. Or skip the service but go to the burial (most people don’t converse at a burial). There’s no rule that says you have to attend every facet of funeral activities. Also if there’s a way to stay at a hotel or with friends who don’t have Feelings about your dad/church do that if it will help eliminate the potential to run into and possibly be confronted by relatives before or after the funeral events. You deserve private space and you might not get that if you stay with relatives or church members.

    1. That’s along the lines of what I was going to say. In my experience, in Jewish funerals, it isn’t unusual for mourners to wait in a private room until the funeral is beginning and then slip in to the front row as a group, walk as a group directly to a car that is going to the cemetery, not really interacting with other attendees. Is it possible in this context for you to keep your head down, focus on your private mourning, and not really engage with the others at the funeral?

      1. We did this at my mother’s Lutheran funeral.

        At the wake the night(s) before was the time of socializing and talking, etc.

        And…those multipart processes are very different in different circles/communities/traditions.

        For example: the wake can be very different.

        At my mom’s, there really weren’t any chairs, and the family stood around and greeted people and talked with them.

        In my ILs’ circle, there are rows and rows of chairs, and the family sits in the front row facing the casket, and people file in, kiss the family, kneel at the casket, and walk away. There often is very little conversation –with the family–. With one another, yes, but not with the family, because the family is assumed to be “on duty,” needing to be available for the kiss on the cheek and the two sentences of “I’m sorry for your loss” for every mourner who comes by. And they are respectfully given silence between visitors; if they want to talk, they get up and come to you.
        So this setup would be good for someone like you–but my mom’s, not as much.

        If you’ve been away, you may not be aware of the expectations or customs; hopefully your funeral director will be familiar.

    2. I agree with the idea to stay somewhere else; In the case of almost everyone I knew who passed away, people came by the house. And the closer your father was to a community, the more likely that people will drop by to deliver casseroles, or just say hello in a longer way.

      Don’t be there.

  8. OP, you got great scripts here for interacting, but it seems to me that you just don’t want to talk or interact with people at all. And that is very similar to the way I grieve; I just want to be left totally alone because I did not have the energy or patience for ANY kind of interaction, even one that was kindly meant, even one that is normal or quick.

    What I was able to do, mostly-successfully, was to be holding a tissue near my eyes/mouth/nose almost at all times. I also removed myself physically from others – if they were clustered near the front of the room, I was at the back. The combination of seeming to be actively in tears and not easily accessible kept a lot of people away entirely. For those that did approach, I did a kind of stop motion with my hand and said “I’m so sorry, I just need some time alone” while at the same time kind of turning my back to them and raising the tissue to my face.

    It implied, “I am so overcome I need space”, not, “You personally are bad and I don’t want to interact with you.” So it kept people away without creating hostilities or tension.

    If worst came to worst, and I thought this was someone who wouldn’t respect my saying I needed time alone, I wouldn’t even try that – I’d toss the “So sorry, I need a sec” while walking quickly away towards the exit or bathroom as they approached.

    It obviously wasn’t perfect, and I’m sure it didn’t make a great impression on others, but my goal was to be Left The Hell Alone, not to make a good impression, and it mostly worked.

  9. “This is such a difficult time for me. I couldn’t possibly talk about that now.”
    “I’m glad you have such good memories of him.”
    “I’m afraid I’m a bit overwhelmed right now. I’m sure you understand.” [then take quick exit to another part of the room]
    “Did you know he graduated high school in 19XX? In those days they [something true about history that has nothing to do with your father]?”
    “These things bring out so much emotion [while showing none].”

    1. Your first quoted suggestion is EXACTLY what the Estranged Family Member (sister of the deceased) said at my most recent family funeral to any and all who tried to bring up the estrangement.

      It was very effective and, often, delivered in a tone of surprise and with very real tears. The offenders quickly left her alone.

  10. I love the Captain’s “Oh, I don’t want to get into all that, I’m just here to say goodbye to my dad” diversion from uncomfortable/too-deep topics. As a variation, maybe also “Oh, I don’t want to get into all that – today’s not about me, it’s about Dad.”?

  11. It’s ten years now since I went to my estranged mother’s funeral. I agree with all the advice up here, but want to emphasize that it was an enormous help to me to have a friend come with me. I had had virtually zero contact with my parents or sister for 30 years, so the whole thing was very surreal. My friend was there to remind me (just by being there) that I have a different and better life with people who care about me. She was also able to handle things I wasn’t always ready for, like, “let’s sit over there” or “They’re serving the lunch now, let’s go eat.” When I stood dumbfounded in front of an old neighbor, she introduced herself and made small talk until I got my bearings. And when someone sitting behind us said “{deaceased] was such a great person, she had plaques with Bible verses up all over the house” I had someone to roll their eyes with me. If there’s any way to arrange that, it’s well worth it.

    Don’t think of making small talk as a way of reconnecting or showing any sort of positive regard towards your former church members or neighbors or whatever. Think of it as “I’m not going to make a scene and I’m not going to expend any emotional energy on these people.” Small talk about what lovely weather it is or how much the deceased always loved that hymn is a way of staying detached, not really a way of engaging. And I’ve learned it’s always ok to say “It’s been lovely talking to you, please excuse me” and just walk away.

  12. Hi LW, I’m so sorry for your losses, both of the good dad you should have had and of the chance to have things end differently. Jedi hugs if you want them. I second the Captain in granting you permission to skip it entirely.

    FWIW, when my distant-for-good-reason Dad passed away a few years ago, the service in his chosen church was… difficult. I chose to attend to be a supportive sibling (Little Sis gave a eulogy), and everybody at the service including my annoying relatives were very kind but also I had to sit in a church and listen to the clergy declare that my dad would have wanted his memorial service used to Call People to The Lord (possibly true) and brag that the funds they collected during the offering would support their valuable ministry of bait & switching pregnant women seeking abortion advice by luring them in with free ultrasounds.

    TL:DR: I managed to make it through Dad’s memorial without yelling at anybody and consider that a win, but would not recommend the experience.

  13. The good news about funerals is that *everybody* finds them awkward and nobody knows quite what to say. Having a couple of cheat codes in your back pocket as Captain suggests puts you miles ahead of everybody else.

    One further suggestion: if you have the bandwidth, think of yourself as, like, an usher. Bring folks who approach you to 1) other folks, 2) where the food is. Have water handy to hand off to the tearier of the grieving: “Here. Take a sip, you don’t want to dehydrate” said with a kind smile. Make yourself move through the crowd rather than waiting in dread for people to approach you. Tell everyone “Thanks for coming” or some variation. They will all admire your poise, and you’ll have protected yourself from encroachment.

  14. I’m also estranged, both parents. This is one of those situations that keeps me up at night. My biggest fear is people who struggle processing emotions (pretty much all my family) taking their grief/anger out on me. In my situation I would probably avoid going. Or at least sit at the back in a disguise.

    LW – I really hope the funeral goes okay when it comes, and you get to grieve properly.

  15. I am so sorry you are going through this. Coming in from the funeral service perspective-
    If you had a better relationship with the minister/funeral officiant, I would suggest talking with them ahead of time. I have had to do a few funerals where the family was either strained or estranged, and knowing that ahead of time let me avoid “she was beloved by her doting children” stuff. It is a small thing, but we want to make sure we create spaces of healing, not re-opening wounds for the hell of it.

    If you are not comfortable with that for whatever reason, that is totally fine. As the Captain said, keep your support team near by, and give yourself permission to leave when you need to. Funerals are meant for the living. If you are done getting what you “need” from it, then walk out without a second thought. You supportive people will understand, and the judgy people are unnecessary anyway.

    Finally, it might be worth seeing what resources are available to you at home. A therapist, clergy that you actually like, support groups, etc., all can offer you a place to work through the feelings you do have. No one says you must miss your dad. But having that space to process all of the weird shit that comes up is always a good thing.

  16. I like all of the Captain’s advice, as usual.

    I was struck by this, though: “I am struggling with a desire not to go to his funeral. … But I will be grieving. I need to go.”

    I just want to emphasize that you WILL be grieving, but that doesn’t actually mean that you need to go. You might need to go, for yourself and your grieving, but it’s okay and allowed for you to grieve in some other way and in some other place than at the funeral.

    So if you DO need to go, then you should and you should take the Captain’s good advice, but if you NEED to not go, then don’t go. That’s okay too.

    1. This is true. When my grandmother died, one of my uncles declined to attend the funeral—and there wasn’t an estrangement or any ill-will that I know of. Attending the funeral just wasn’t going to fit with how he mourned his mom. I was only about sixteen so I don’t remember if anyone said anything, but if they did—Uncle wasn’t there to have to absorb it.

      That said, since it sounds like the letter writer expects to want to attend her father’s funeral ( which is completely understandable), maybe it will help to remind herself that she is in fact actively choosing to go—she doesn’t owe anyone else attendance. She is there for her, and that’s okay.

    2. Grieving in one’s own way and in some other place than the funeral was the thing that helped me when my ex-mother-in-law died.

      My going to the funeral would have been very upsetting not only for me, but also for my ex-MIL’s family and friends. At the time of her funeral, I did a respectful “farewell” to her at my home. I lit a candle; spoke aloud to her spirit, and thanked her for her part in my life, wishing her peace.
      At the end, it felt as if a weight had been removed from my shoulders. It was the right thing for me to do.

      Dear LW, in agreement with those who support your choice to go, or not to go to the funeral; and wishing you peace.

    3. I agree. Grieving isn’t confined to a specific location. I am estranged from my father. I didn’t go to his mother’s funeral. There were a number of reasons I didn’t go but the main reason was that I didn’t want to interact with him. I’m sure things were said about my absence, but I wasn’t there to hear them and I’ve never had anyone say anything since. The day of her funeral I lit a candle at home and offered her my own version of goodbye (no prayer as I am not religious, but just a general “wherever your spirit is, I hope you find peace and joy there” kind of thing). I then had dinner with my husband and shared the few memories I had of her. It was actually very nice and allowed me to process my grief in a way that felt safe and peaceful for me.

    4. Mr too.
      OP, think about why you feel you need to go. It may be that you can go and say goodbye to your dad the way you ned to without actually going to the funeral, or can grieve without attending.
      For instnace, if you need to see him, then you can probably make arrangements with the funeral home to do so separately from any general visitation.
      You could (if you are involved with any religion) go to your own place of worship, and say what you ned to say, and ask your priest / conregation to pray with or for you or him, if that is somethin whioch you would find helpful.
      You could equally think of things such as writing a letter to him to say your goodbyes, and bringing it, or spending some time alone to say / think the things you need to.
      If yoiu feel that you do have to go to the funeral for your own sake, do take a friend with you if you possibly can, and remind yourself (if necessary, ask your friend to remind you, from time to time!) that there is no right or wrong way for you to grieve.

      Also, as others have said, you don’t owe anyone an explanation, and you don’t have to be open with people. Comments such as ‘it’s a difficult time’ or ‘ thank you’ are fine as responses for when people give you condolences or comments about your dad – you don’t have to agree with what they say about him, or argue with them. even if what they say isn’t accurate (e.g. “You must miss him so much”, if you don’t) it can help to remind yourself that they are simply trying to come up with something suitable for a funeral – in most cases it won’t actually be a comment on your relationship, and polite lies are fine as a response.

  17. Sending lots of warm and comforting thoughts your way…and Captainawkward, this is why I love you! Spot on! Wish I had asked when my mother passed and I didn’t want to be “that person” at the funeral, but needed time and space to clear my head of some very bad relationship juju.

    And LW, out of everything CA mentioned in the list above, the having a buffer friend with you is the very best. My buffer friend went to the hospital during my mother’s last days and very appropriately kept it light and conversational and took over when I just couldn’t anymore.

  18. Great advice, I especially like the tenth point.

    I have acted as the friend/buffer at a couple funerals as well as other events, having someone on your side that is not really emotionally connected to the potential irritating family or church members or whomever can be a big help. Maybe it feels like a really big ask but I for one was happy to do it and while it helped the people I went with, honestly it was NOT really a big deal for me for exactly that reason.

  19. Sympathies and gentle hugs your way… I think that estrangements and complicated relationships add layers to grief that can make it even harder to navigate.

    As a Praying Person, I wanted to say how much I appreciated the advice regarding this, as well as the way it was given. I try not to pray AT people, and to ask if they even want me to pray right then and there. It’s still good to be reminded that I shouldn’t assume that relatives of Praying People necessarily want me Praying all over them. Plus, despite being a semi-Intense Praying Person, even I sometimes feel awkward when someone launches into prayer, especially if it turns into preach-praying.

    All that is to say, LW, feel free to avoid “Let me pray for you right this very second!” if that’s not your thing. Nobody ever withered up and died because they didn’t get to pray out loud when they got the urge. If the Praying People get their knickers in a twist, that’s their issue — and a sign they need to do a lot more solitary praying until they get over themselves.

    1. Can I suggest that when you ask, you phrase it as “do you mind if I pray with you? I know it’s not everyone’s thing” or similar. I’m a praying person but not from a culture where praying with or at people out loud is a thing, and then I moved to a culture where it is. Unfortunately there was overlap between the people who felt a need to offer that kind of prayer when they found out I had chronic illness and the people who thought my genetic disorder could be miraculously cured by sufficiently correct/strong faith, and I never knew if people would take “no thank you” as a rejection of everything they stood for, so an acknowledgement that it was okay to say no would have been helpful from the people who genuinely meant well.

    2. I’m not religious, but am generally happy for people to pray for me. But once when I said something to that effect, my coworker proceeded to put her hands on me! and pray! out loud!!! right then and there!!!! I was expecting something more like mentioning me in her nightly prayers. I wasn’t offended, but nearly died of embarrassment. So might want to clarify if you’re including someone in your private prayers or praying right then and there.

      1. Oh my goodness! I’ve had similar things happen to me. The worst was a woman who apparently thought God to be hard of hearing because she ended up shouting half the prayer. The embarrassment almost killed me.

  20. As clergy, I will happily second all of the Captain’s advice. Having done many funerals, if you tell the pastor/funeral director, “I think being at the church, I’m really going to be hot hard by all the memories, could I have a few minutes to say goodbye alone/if I start running away from people that why” they will get it and probably be able to back you up. (Also your siblings don’t have to hear you say that.)

    If there’s unstructured social time, I highly suggest you find the most elderly person sitting down who isn’t actively frowning or growling at people, sit with them, and chat- ask if they knew your dad when he was really young (they might have stories you haven’t heard, and stories from childhood will probably hurt less), or ask who here they’re related to. If they have grandkids that is generally a safe topic they can talk about for days. Everyone else will be charged at how much is you’re being to old Mr/Mrs whoever, and you’ll be bored, but emotionally safe, and way less likely to have to deal with well meaning idiots.

    Other good “change the conversation” scripts:
    -I forgot how beautiful the stained glass windows are! Do you have a favorite?
    -What a nice service, wasn’t the music lovely? Is the musician still here, I’d love to thank them? (Then run away.)
    -(Generally there’ll be food.) Oh wow this cake is delicious, did someone here make it?
    -Oh I’m pretty boring, but did you hear the good news about (sibling)? We’re so excited for them.
    -Did you grow up in this congregation? Has the building/service/congregation changed a lot?

    1. For crying out loud, autocorrect. That was meant to be “hit hard by all the memories” and “everyone else will be charmed at how nice you’re being….”

  21. I’m so sorry LW. I hope you are able to find peace with your dad’s life and end of life in whatever way is right for you.

    Right now, you’re entering a no social obligations time. It can be hard to believe, especially since you have to go to a funeral, and talk to people you may not have seen in a long time, but it’s true. People know you are sad. They know you aren’t at your best. Whatever your needs are right now, or whatever message you need to deliver about your dad or your self or what you are going through, it doesn’t need to be done in the thoughtful way you would do it with time to polish and edit and put your best foot forward. To whatever extent you can, please try to excuse yourself from using just the right words, leaving situations with just the right kind of gentleness and grace, or putting your own needs second in any way that feels at all painful or awkward. Your discomfort in these situations is, to a great extent, just going to read as more sadness. So don’t be afraid to let it show. In some ways, it will look *more* appropriate and in a weird way, preserve your privacy.

    My sister in law died very unexpectedly a couple of months ago. My partner and I were not estranged from her, but we also weren’t as big a part of her life as we would have liked because of the boundaries we need to keep with partner’s dad, and with their church. I can confirm that people say inappropriate stuff, some of which they should have known wasn’t acceptable (“You are all your parents have left” to my partner, from multiple people) and some which is just kinda thoughtless, like assuming we have similar beliefs to my departed SIL and commenting from there. Funerals are first and foremost for family and whoever is most strongly connected to the deceased. Don’t participate in anything you don’t want to, period. Thank people for their weird comment, then walk away to be with other family members or a friend or just alone. People expect it, honestly.

    That extends to whether you really need to be there or be at everything, for yourself. My partner chose not to go to the viewing, even though it did include some time with family during/after, because he did not want to see his sister like that. If anyone had a problem with it, they kept it to themselves. We went to a larger memorial service later and it was more bearable in some ways because we were choosing to go to this, not that.

    The religious stuff was hard. I found it helped to just use it as time to meditate on my SIL and how important this was to her, the way some people might eat the deceased person’s favorite food or watch their favorite movie to remember them. I really found it helpful to think about the enjoyment this may have brought her, with no pressure to find other meaning in it myself other than remembrance of someone I loved.

    I hope some part of this helpes you LW. Please take care of yourself.

  22. I second Green Door’s advice. Pick the part that feels most important to you and just do that part. Also backed up by the Captain’s good advice on being able to leave whenever you want to by using your own transport.

    I went through some relatively tricky family estrangement situations with my late husband’s funeral. I found there was a lot less scope for long conversations in and around the formal service part. There are lots of people to greet (briefly) – this is the part where the volume of people works in your favour. You can also probably get by with polite formalities for most of this part.

    I had been expecting all sorts of things might potentially go down at the service but was genuinely surprised to find that everyone behaved a lot better than I expected (when they were in public view during the service).

    For me it was the parts after the service are where all the conversations happened. For the most part things also stayed more civilised than I expected as you’re still in quite a public-view situation. I found if people had something controversial they wanted to say it was mostly done through more private channels like the condolences letters.

    Looking back, I was expecting the funeral situation to be a lot worse than it was but then again, this all happened on my turf so to speak. I’d arranged the service (and put a lot of contingency plans in place),

    Funerals are hard things anyway as you (and lots of other people) are also in a very heightened emotional state so its natural to anticipate things going all sorts of haywire. I found making plans on how to deal with this was the only way to stay vauguely sane.

    Whatever you decide – definitely have as much support there as you can – as well as a plan to cut and run.

    Sending you hugs and huge love, this stuff is really tough.

  23. One thing that jumped out at me was whether you could attend the funeral and the burial, if there is one, but not the wake? That cuts out a lot of opportunities for people to speak with you, while still giving the opportunity for you to attend the funeral. Your siblings can tell people that you’re not feeling up to it and would like to focus on grieving your father (which is true).

    I heartily second the Captain’s suggestion for a friend buffer and a getaway vehicle. I can’t drive, so my getaway vehicle is usually a taxi or an uber and that works pretty well. I think the friend buffer is a particularly brilliant suggestion, the presence of a third party witness/stranger is often enough to change established behaviour patterns and up the level of politeness.

    I went to a particularly difficult funeral and what I struggled with was how consuming it felt – it was like the rest of my life vanished and this web of fraught relationships and pain became the entire universe while it lasted. It was awful. Something I learned from that experience was to have a friend to text/call during the event. I also keep little reminders of the rest of my life with me – there might be a small stone I brought back from Iceland in my bag to reach for, or I might wear a scarf gifted to me by a dear friend, or I might just make sure I have some great holiday pics on my phone to remind myself that this isn’t all there is. It helps remind me of what I’ve been able to turn my life into, out of some difficult circumstances.

    Big hugs if you want them, and all the best.

  24. I was the buffer friend at a funeral once, and was very grateful to have been there. When her aunt said to her, “I bet you wish you had made up with him before he died”, I was able to step in say, “there are always regrets when someone passes away, aren’t there. We had better talk to some of the others, goodbye” and physically steered my friend away. I then didn’t let this aunt come close to us again. It was still awful for my friend, but at least she didn’t have to think of a response.

  25. Dear LW,

    I think the Captain has given great advice. I have only this to add:
    – If you decide not to go, that’s fine.
    – If you decide to call out people who hurt you or whom you detest, that’s fine.
    – I’m sorry for your loss. May his memory be a blessing. In this context that means: may you heal, may whatever good he did live on, in a manner that serves you well.

    Jedi hugs if you want them.

  26. I hope the funeral and the grieving go as well as possible.

    I have a tip for avoiding talk at evangelical/pentecostal peoples’ events, like church services and funerals. Find a Bible (there will be one) and a quiet corner and sit there looking like you’re reading it. It’s worked very well for me – people don’t think it’s strange or awkward, and they leave you alone because they respect your private communion with God. It can be a good way to get uninterrupted quiet.

    1. I am salting this one away for future use, thank you! It will work beautifully on my family, since they have me stereotyped as The One Who Alway Has Her Nose In A Book

  27. I just didn’t go to my grandma’s funeral a few weeks ago. I’d been dreading that day since I estranged my parents 4 years ago and knew I wouldn’t be able to go somewhere they were, and knew she would die before that changed. It wasn’t as bad as I expected, once it was over. I simply never heard any judgment. I grieved her on my own, and local friends offered support. Also, I had a kind aunt who offered to livestream the service for the three grandchildren who didn’t come, which I watched live, and it was a wonderful means for me to be there but not interact with anyone. I even saw my parents for a while on the livestream, and they didn’t know I was looking right at them, and they couldn’t do anything to me, and felt a little powerful. I also appreciated that the pastor asked people to email anything they wanted him to say about my grandma and he’d read it, which I did, so I even got to be present in that way also. I expect if I’d thought of it, if he hadn’t asked, I maybe could have asked someone if they would do that for me. I reached out individually to the relatives I could stand and mourned together via text message/phone.

    I respect your need to go, and, if that changes, there are alternatives you could consider to be involved but not there.

  28. I definitely agree with using the funeral/church staff as buffers. When my dad died 30 years ago, I gained a lot of respect for the funeral home staff for their no-fuss help in matters large and small. My mother grew up in an era when deceased relatives were visited in the house, and she had a terror of having to stand next to the open casket at the visitation. The staff moved the family greeting area to the back of the room without making anyone feel weird about it. Even the small, dumb stuff—we’d been kinda laughing about how dad’s uncle’s 1st and 2nd wives’ flowers were set out next to one another, thinking of course neither of these distant elderly ladies would show up. Cue Aunt Josie (Wife #1) calling to get directions, and a frantic call to the the funeral home to Move Those Flowers!! So if there’s something they can do to make this a little easier, do ask.

    LW, I hope all goes as well as it can for your time in the home town and at the funeral. Prioritize self care.

  29. Hi OP. I am so sorry for all you are dealing with right now. A funeral for an estranged family member is sad and uncomfortable. I hope you have a good Team You, with caring friends to give support. If you go to the funeral, the Captain has given you some great ideas for managing the folks there.

    You say that you need to go to the funeral, but is there a way you could have your own memorial time? At the funeral home or graveside, maybe? Or just maybe keep that in mind if the whole thing is too overwhelming. That way you have options. The Captain’s suggestion of making sure you have your own transportation is a great idea. If you stay in a hotel, you will have a safe, quiet place to get away to if you need it.

    I went through something similar with my family a few years ago. I am estranged from my family, and so funerals are tricky to navigate. When my mom died it was especially tough. We didn’t have a funeral, which made it a bit easier. My sis and I just scattered Mom’s ashes. Sis had a memorial party for Mom, which I did not attend. I felt like grieving was something I could do better without my estranged family around. Instead of the memorial, I went to the beach where the ashes had been scattered and spent some time by myself. Then, my husband, daughter and I went for a nice meal together and talked about the good things I remembered about my mom. It was a nice way to remember her without all the awfulness of the rest of my estranged family stirring up nastiness. I gave myself permission to grieve in my own way, without interference from mean people or performative small talk. It was the right decision for me, dealing with my family.

    OP, I hope you do whatever you need to in order to grieve and get through the day.
    Please take excellent care of yourself.

  30. “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.” Yes, mi Capitan!!!! How do you know all of these things? When my husband’s father died we flew to the funeral—a very hard time for my husband not that he was estranged from his dad but that he had never been close to him, and that he was estranged (my husband) from Catholicism, which was a big player in his parent’s lives. He needed to cry, he needed to sob, actually, without restraint, and to say some hard and some sad things, and he needed to do this in front of his father’s body and without witnesses. This hadn’t been arranged— none of us would have thought of it—so when my husband and I walked in for the viewing, and I saw him take a deep breath to stop himself from crying, I turned and blocked the door and told the people just coming in that my husband needed to talk to his father for a little while, alone. They were so kind, these folks! They nodded as I closed the door and waited quietly until we were done. A buffer who will stand up for what you need is what you deserve—the least of what you deserve, LW. Make sure you have one. Best wishes to you.

  31. For the people who say “he’s with God now” or anything that reflects a belief in a religious afterlife that may or may not be your belief, try reflecting it back to them in a way that magnifies their belief and your father’s.
    They say: “He’s with God now.”
    You say: “I know that brought him great comfort”
    They say: “We will all meet again in Heaven”
    You say: “That was the foundation of my father’s faith for years…”
    They say: “You’ll see him again in the great by and by”
    You say: “I know my father held that promise in his heart”

    Etc. Basically really nice ways of saying “That’s what he believed, you believe”.

      1. I don’t know. If I were giving one of the above comments and got, “That’s a lovely sentiment,” in response I would tend to interpret it as a condescending response. As in, “I know you’re naive and believe that faith garbage. How quaint!” I’d stick with the other ones personally if you want to sidestep the religious comments.

        1. The goal here is to avoid getting trapped into a religious discussion. My suggestions were aimed to be polite and vague enough that it wasn’t immediately obvious that you don’t believe (or do believe but don’t want to discuss it). And hopefully then no one goes into “convert the daughter” mode.
          Source: evangelical background, still religious but not evangelical

          1. I actually really liked your responses for the reason you gave. It was just the “that’s a lovely sentiment” that I was disagreeing with.

        2. I’m a religious person of the flavor that more or less believes the things mentioned, and I still kind of feel like if I said them to someone and got “That’s a lovely sentiment” in response, I would kind of deserve it for not being more attentive to the fact that my faith isn’t everyone’s.

        3. Hmm, perhaps. I think a lot depends on the tone in which all of these scripts are delivered. I’ve used it personally with success, but everyone is different. Anyway, whatever seems most natural to LW.

  32. I second the thought of bringing emotional support. When my uncle died last year, his grand daughter had to travel halfway across the country to be there, while her husband stayed home with the baby. Instead, her best friend came because traveling that far alone while grieving was just wrong. She was a lovely young woman, and no one thought twice about her being there for her friend. Much as my two best friends were there for me when my mother died.

  33. I don’t know if this is actually a good tactic for your situation, but honestly, if it were me, I would take a different tack and just. Literally not speak at all even if spoken to. Which is what I’ve tended to do at funerals anyway, because when I’m grieving it becomes too hard to even string words together. (I made an effort for relatives who were as close as me or closer to the deceased, but everyone else got nothing more than vague “hm”s.) When necessary, I gave a brief explanation that I wasn’t up to talking – something along the lines of, “It’s hard for me to speak right now,” or, “I’m not really up for talking right now.” Most people pretty quickly gave up trying to talk to me when nothing they said got any response, which was good because I didn’t want to talk. And for the most part, people cut me slack because they knew I was in grief.

    And honestly, even if these people thought you were rude… who cares? You never want to see them again, right? Let them think you’re rude.

  34. The Captain is right that it’s pretty much just a social circuit that needs to be completed.

    “Sorry for your loss.” “Thank you.”

    “S/he’s in a better place now.” “I’m sure s/he is.”

    “I’ll pray for you.””Thank you.”

    “You were estranged right?” “Yes. Oh is that bacon wrapped shrimp?! Excuse me.”

    The thing is, what they think does not matter at all, period, full stop, the end. Say what they expect to hear and move on. Do your grieving in your own way on your own time. Funerals are basically performance for the living. Grieving doesn’t have a start/stop function that’s timed to when a funeral takes place.

    When my mother died at home, and we had to call in the coroner, et al. one of the people that came was a chaplain who is employed by…someone..the county maybe(?) and when he asked if we’d like a prayer, my entire family looked to me for an answer.

    Sure, I am the eldest so in a matter of seconds had been “elevated” to “matriarch” (no big whoop by the way), but they were really looking to me because they were like asking permission to pray in my atheist presence or something. It was surreal. Go on … pray if you want to, just don’t include me. Seriously…

    Throughout the process I used the above phrases. They served me very well. People heard what they expected to hear, assumed I supported their prayers and other religious …stuff and it was fine. I don’t feel (nor ever felt) any particular imperative to lay bare my innermost feelings or true thoughts to a bunch of people I never before or since given any real thought.

    Sorry for your impending loss OP. Hugs if you like.

  35. One thing I’m reading in the letter is that while the estrangement with your father is over and you can now fully grieve, the estrangement with the community is an active, ongoing thing. So it does seem like you’re going to be off balance the whole time.
    I’m sorry if people pushed you into conversations like that at your mom’s funeral.
    I can imagine that when people ask about your estrangement from your dad they are actually asking about your estrangement from the community and themselves in particular. So, yeah, if they are selfish and rude they don’t deserve your attention.

  36. When I organised my parents’ funerals, I framed them in my mind as very much formal social occasions, and I pretended that I was a professional funeral organiser (!). I don’t know how things are done in North America, but here in UK people tend to understand if you keep conversations to a “socially correct” level.
    It may help to create a much smaller, more private occasion just for yourself and your siblings, perhaps in a beautiful quiet place that you all like, where you can process your feelings in a deeper way.

    1. I remember, as a child that things were kept to a “socially correct” order. Something’s happened over the past 40-ish years though. People feel free to ask/anything and excuse it with “just telling the truth/saying it like it is” as if that’s necessary.

      I so long to move to the UK permanently. I need to live in a place where someone is willing to walk the long way home in order to avoid running into and needing to make small chat with the neighbor that they can see down the street and who many not have gone inside by the time they arrive.

  37. When my father-in-law died, shortly before my marriage, I acted as buffer for my spouse. This meant, basically, listening to Aunt Satan and Uncle Officious tell their stories about him (stories I had never heard in which they played a major role) and saying periodically “Wow, that’s so interesting! I didn’t know that about Father-in-Law. I’m so sorry I won’t get to hear that story from his perspective!” This kept my husband from murdering his relatives during the wake, and allowed him to both keep his own sanity and stand with his grieving mother while I kept the well-wishers occupied.

    If you have someone who can do this for you, enlist them. Let them absorb the stories about how great your dad was, how he’s 100% in the Loving Arms of Jesus, how they were his absolute favorite cousin/friend/casual church acquaintance. You do not have to be a sponge for their grief while processing your own. I hope you have a friend who can soak it up for you, and filter it back to you when you’re willing and able to take it.

    1. Oh man, the Loving Arms of Jesus. My mother said that to me just after one of my best friends died. One of the good things for me about reading this thread is learning I’m not the only one who has heard this sort of thing, and also, that I’m not the only one who finds it hurtful/enraging.

      I’d kind of like get my own by starting a band called The Loving Arms of Jesus, actually…

      Anyway, it warms my heart to know there are people out there who look out for spouses/loved ones in these situations like you did, kudos to you.

    2. “You do not have to be a sponge for their grief while processing your own”. Yes. Totally. Beautifully put

  38. Hey, LW,

    I am where you are now: my father is dying. I am grieving the man I knew as a child, lost to me for more than 30 years. I wanted to pick up on this comment from the Captain –

    Anyone who tries to use your dad’s funeral as a stage for airing grievances or an attempt at evangelizing can stuff it.

    and this from Olsonam @8:33 –

    I can imagine that when people ask about your estrangement from your dad they are actually asking about your estrangement from the community and themselves in particular.

    – and say if you’re actually facing this? I get it. My dad’s faith – and it’s ONLY my dad at this point; everyone else in the family has left – treats funerals as a three-hour discourse on the Plan of Salvation, with a body present. There’s not going to be a whole lot of talk about him; there is going to be a whole lot of talk about how if we want to see him again, we’d better make things right with God (ie., get ourselves back to church). His wife of several decades will be the one to arrange this, and she’s always done her level best to pretend the children of his first marriage don’t exist.

    If you need to be there to grieve? I understand. Do whatever you need to, to get through it. Practice replies with a therapist, take an honor guard of friends to deflect/distract/escort you out, write all the messy things in a journal. Remember that you don’t owe them justifications or explanations; you’ve taken back your consent for them to demand that of you. If they forget, you know how to walk away – you’ve done it, over and over.

    Jedi hugs, if they’re welcome. May we both know peace, in the form it takes when we build it for ourselves.

    1. I’m so sorry for your loss, Epiphyta. I hope everything goes as smoothly as possible. Wishing you strenght and peace.

      1. I wish I had known people were going to use my good friend’s funeral as a way to *get* to me and prepared for it in advance. When you are grieving and your arch-enemy takes that opportunity to force you to publicly acknowledge them, it feels like you’ve had salt poured into the grief wound. Have a few stock phrases ready, and I agree that silence and a cold did-you-just-say-that-to-me-here-and-now face can be a great asset.

  39. My family’s situation was very different circumstances than yours but also involved a lot of painful family/community pressures. We opted to have the funeral service in a chapel at a local funeral home that had a separate, private space for immediate family to sit. The priest came from the church and did the service for us at the funeral home. Then we had a private graveside burial for immediate family only, followed by a public reception that certain family members quietly skipped. It was still a terrible day, but that arrangement did make it easier.

    Not every funeral can find a private space like that, but it was helpful to us. If you think it might be helpful to you too, you could see if one is available. And finding other ways to put physical barriers in place to carve out small bits of privacy for yourself might also work, even just using side entrances, not entering to take your seat until just before the service starts, or the ways the Captain suggested to protect your private space.

  40. LW I’m sorry. Grief like this is complicated and messy and tough. Be kind to yourself. My family is similar. When my grandfather died i wanted to go, and a couple of my friends volunteered to come and help be a buffer. It was nice. One of them literally kept positioning herself subtly between me and any of the folks i didn’t want to see. I pointed them out to her as we entered and they both just helped. It made a potentially traumatizing situation much easier and i got to grieve the way i wanted without enduring abuse. I don’t know if this is possible for you to do, but do what you need to do to feel safe. You could also consider a private viewing at the funeral home this is very common and you can be completely alone if you wish, with your dad. I’m so sorry.

  41. As someone who can imagine and relate to this situation (i choose to have very limited contact with my dad, and he isn’t getting any younger or healthier) without the emotional bombardment that’ll come when it becomes a reality for me – this advice is spot on.

    Grief is personal. Every child/parent relationship is different and complex – not only those involving estrangement. No one gets to tell you how you are meant to feel or behave. Anyone who tries to, or who questions your relationship with your dad, is a grade A jerk who does not deserve a moment of your time.

    Also, “grieving the relationship you didn’t have” is a perfect way to phrase that possibility. My father is still alive, and I’m already doing that to some extent, because I know I’ll never have it even if he lives another 30 years.

    Jedi hugs and peace to you LW. Look after yourself.

  42. Another idea from the realm of possibilities: Friends recently buried a parent from whom some siblings were estranged and others weren’t. Some siblings were involved in the parent’s small town and church; others were emphatically not. The siblings had a family service with a kindly pastor at home, then lunch together, before the public funeral and reception. Some of the siblings left town after lunch. Others went on to the public service with all the church and community people. Best wishes, LW. I hope things work out well.

  43. Hiya LW. I had a…remarkably similar situation with my mostly-estranged father’s death last year. The Captain’s advice and scripts, as others have said, really is excellent and is how I handled things or wish I would have handled things.

    I suppose the thing that surprised me is that, despite everything, I found that nobody asked me any tough questions. They were all too busy Performing Funeral and expecting me to also Perform Funeral as Child of the Deceased. I’m *sure* people talked about me later, because that is how these folks roll, but my direct interactions were all, as CA says in points 5/6, very vacuous civil small-talk; any mentions of God, I was able to just gloss over. And really, aside from telling me how sorry they were, people generally gave me far more space than I anticipated, this being the Midwestern US.

    I found that the funeral was actually somewhat helpful for me, which was a surprised; I found I had a lot of perfectly-okay-but-not-very-fun emotional instability in the interim (this was about two weeks and several thousand miles of travel after my father’s death). It both served as a marker to recognise the grief publicly, and also meant the anticipatory anxiety about the occasion was done, as was having to see certain people, etc.

    Working through this kind of grief, the grieving what never was and cannot bem is really complicated, and frustratingly, there aren’t a ton of practical resources out there that I was able to find–though in googling about grieving an estranged/abusive parent, I see there’ve been more people writing about this since I last looked. Please know that it is 100% true (even if it seems like everyone’s saying this, it’s hard to have it sink in) that whatever you’re feeling is VALID and OKAY, and this includes, if it’s the case, not having regrets about your estrangement. As Cap’n says, it was helpful to have been in counseling already, to have an impartial listener to help validate this, so I also recommend it if you have access/resources to do so.

    Love and jedi-hugs if wanted.

  44. Dear LW – do you have a grounding rock or some small item that you keep in your pocket? I have a small river-stone I sometimes keep in my pocket when I KNOW I am walking into anxiety/stressful situations. I just keep it in my pocket, the weight against my leg is a comfort, and if people are pressing my buttons, I just give’er a rub… or a thousand rubs… and it can really help slow your heart-rate, and you can count to ten. Count out ten rubs before you respond, rub it to slowly to control your breathing, etc.

    It’s a little piece of your own home to bring with you, and in a way, a small secret support system that you can bring with you.

  45. LW: you are strong, you have the scripts and the skills, you want to grieve as you want, and you are thoughtful and self-aware. What has helped me in these situations is to put an end date and time on it; e.g., “This will be over by tomorrow at 3 p.m., I can last that long.” Then I frame it in terms of my life: “this is only
    seventy-two hours out of my entire life.” After that, you are free free free to grieve whatever way you want , far away from people you don’t want in your life.

    No matter what happens, you are very, very strong.

  46. Hiya LW. I had a…remarkably similar situation with my mostly-estranged father’s death last year. The Captain’s advice and scripts, as others have said, really is excellent and is how I handled things or wish I would have handled things.

    I suppose the thing that surprised me is that, despite everything, I found that nobody asked me any tough questions. They were all too busy Performing Funeral and expecting me to also Perform Funeral as Child of the Deceased. I’m *sure* people talked about me later, because that is how these folks roll, but my direct interactions were all, as CA says in points 5/6, very vacuous civil small-talk; any mentions of God, I was able to just gloss over. And really, aside from telling me how sorry they were, people generally gave me far more space than I anticipated, this being the Midwestern US.

    I found that the funeral was actually somewhat helpful for me, which was a surprised; I found I had a lot of perfectly-okay-but-not-very-fun emotional instability in the interim (this was about two weeks and several thousand miles of travel after my father’s death). It both served as a marker to recognise the grief publicly, and also meant the anticipatory anxiety about the occasion was done, as was having to see certain people, etc.

    Working through this kind of grief, the grieving what never was and cannot bem is really complicated, and frustratingly, there aren’t a ton of practical resources out there that I was able to find–though in googling about grieving an estranged/abusive parent, I see there’ve been more people writing about this since I last looked. Please know that it is 100% true (even if it seems like everyone’s saying this, it’s hard to have it sink in) that whatever you’re feeling is VALID and OKAY, and this includes, if it’s the case, not having regrets about your estrangement. As Cap’n says, it was helpful to have been in counseling already, to have an impartial listener to help validate this, so I also recommend it if you have access/resources to do so.

    Love and jedi-hugs if wanted.

  47. I’m a cradle atheist with several family members who are religious-trauma atheists, and I stick close by them at relevantly-sectarian funerals because while they’re shaking with rage I’m just feeling like I’m at a scifi movie listening to something alien and fascinating. They write rude notes in the program for me and I respond with tic-tac-toe boards. I can listen and validate without having much response myself. I will say that in at least American Evangelical sects that emphasize bible study, it’s often the done thing to take notes during service, so that gives you some cover for doodling or writing down salad ideas.

    I also love the Captain’s advice that it’s not betraying your beliefs etc. to just complete the social circuit and get out of there. You deserve the privacy of smalltalk if you want that privacy. I also love the advice to look or just go ahead and be so overcome that no one makes you talk. What if you can’t keep a brave face up? What if this just sucks? Well, it’s a funeral. Go hide in the vestry and cry or text or look at cat pictures. You are there for your own process and you owe the event exactly as much engagement as you yourself need from it. People who want you to have feelings on their behalf or who want to pry for gossip can and will find another target when you go “oh, I’m just so overwhelmed, it’s been a hard week,” and move away rapidly.

    1. Ugh, I just realized this sounds like I’m just bragging. What I meant was: there might be someone in your life – or at the funeral – who isn’t engaged with this but also isn’t as heavily affected by it, and if you can pull them in as a buffer they’re probably more than happy to do it. The size of the ask for you and the size of the ask for them will be different.

  48. IME, one of the most useful techniques for dealing with Emotionally Charged Situations with Difficult People is the old-fashioned politician press conference style.

    You absolutely don’t have to answer to any question you’re asked, or respond to any comment in a literal way. The Captain’s scripts are wonderful, and you can use them *even if they don’t match the question.* You can choose your Talking Points and stick to them.

    Another useful talking point is, “It’s a difficult day. I’m sure you understand.” And then keep moving. This one has worked for me on some extremely overbearing difficult people. Particularly the ones who are nosy or pushy because they think they are “helping”. They are never going to admit that they don’t understand.

    Best wishes, I hope everything goes as easily as possible.

  49. LW, I’m so sorry for all that you’re going through right now.

    I wanted to mention that it’s okay to be grieving too much to engage beyond the simple exchanges of “I’m so sorry”/”thank you” or [some kind of compliment about your father]/”thank you for being a friend to him.” As the captain said, these are ritualized exchanges that allow you to interact without having to think or feel too much.

    You can lean into the role of the child who is overwhelmed with grief. And I don’t mean this as in you need to act or put on a performance. You actually will be overwhelmed with a lot of emotion. And a funeral is a context where people can understand that. If you have a trusted friend you can bring with you, they can help by being a buffer and mentioning to people that you’re too grief stricken to really socialize. If your siblings are willing to take on that role, perhaps you can enlist them as well. And, for your part, you can mostly not engage, other than those simple ritualized exchanges that are appropriate for the occasions.

    If people push you to engage more (if they’re not being assholes about it), it’s okay to just mumble a response, thank them for being there, and then tell them you need a moment alone. And if they push you in a way that *is* assholeish, it’s totally okay to simply at them in sadness/surprise/confusion/anger and walk away.

  50. If it’s too much to try to keep straight, you can limit yourself to two options: “Thank you” or turn away in silence.

    You don’t need to enter into conversation with anyone, only acknowledge their presence, and “Thank you” is always socially acceptable. If sometimes it’s said through gritted teeth with daggers in your eyes, maybe they’ll get the message, and if not, it’s hard to complain about “thank you.”

  51. Note the beauty of all this advice and all these replies. Someone could have had the most fantastic relationship with their parent. It could have been close and warm and meaningful and all the good things. And that person could STILL want some private time and a chance to grieve in their own way and not feel like chitchatting and not want to manage other people’s feelings, and all that would be okay. Similarly, the other people attending the funeral could also be the best in the world, people filled with sympathy and understanding, and they’d probably say similar things about how much they thought of the deceased. So pretty much anything you followed with “I’m sure you understand” (whether that’s out loud or in your own head) is going to be fine.

  52. LW, sending you love, good vibes for healing, and jedi hugs. My condolences, and my best to you.

    And sending much love to The Captain for the beautiful compassion you always give. You’re so gracious and loving to this community, I really appreciate all the help you give us. Even when a letter isn’t something I can relate to directly, your advice always contains something that I can take away and learn from. Love and hugs.

    1. This.
      Cheers for the Captain’s compassion and the valuable jewels of wisdom in each answer, even when the facts are alien.

  53. I recently had cause to head to a religious funeral recently, and I’m faithful and religious, but this wasn’t my faith or religion. I kept bowing my head and moving my lips. It worked.

  54. Dear LW, *everyone* Performs Funerals, even the people who loved the dearly departed best, most, and desperately. Everyone performs. We’ve got built in sets of Things Which We Do At Funerals that are based on region, culture, and belief (whether that belief is spiritual or not). This surprised me when I unexpectedly had to bury my husband about a month ago. I was grieving, yes. Shocked by the unexpectedness with which events took place. Trying very hard to be Present through everything. In the midst of it all, the performative aspects took me very much by surprise. Even I did performance. I remember noticing that I cried “right on cue” at certain points in the service, even if I hadn’t been feeling particularly tearful moments earlier.

    I used the phrase “well, I’m upright and able to talk” as a gentle deflection. From there, most people tended to nod their heads sympathetically, repeat a few token phrases, and wander off to talk to a more familiar face. People expect the grieving family members to not be capable of much more than basic pleasantries. Pick one or two stock phrases from the Captain’s excellent suggestions and don’t be afraid to use them for every comment/question you get. Have one or two people with you who are willing to head off more intrusive behavior and support you, . Limit the number of phases you feel you need to attend, and possibly even tell people organizing things that you really can’t bear to be at X event for longer than Y time. People Understand.

    1. I’m so sorry for the loss of your husband. May you take comfort in good memories in the years to come.

  55. Things I found helpful when dealing with a difficult funeral: First of all I stayed very busy. By their nature, funerals will tend to have a lot of tasks that all need to be completed last-minute by a bunch of people feeling intense and complicated emotions. I could almost always find something that needed doing to keep me occupied. If I was doing it with someone else it also made it easier to either not talk, or to talk only about The Task.

    Secondly, I had my outside and my inside voice and I prepared answers for both. For example, if someone told me, “[The deceased] was so kind!” I would mentally fill in,”….to you.” Outwardly I would say something like, “I’m glad you had a chance to know her.” Not agreeing, but mirroring back what they said in a way that they couldn’t tell.

    You’ve gotten a lot of good responses on ways to handle things that people might say. If you can think of the few things that are most likely and then figure out what works best for you as a combination of respecting your estrangement and also grief while not getting any more involved in “but why?” conversations then I think that will help make you feel more prepared for this.

    Also, I am so sorry. It sounds like you have some tough times ahead. May you pull through okay.

  56. LW, I’m sorry for your losses – both of your father and of the hope / wish for a good father. And thank you for asking this question, and the Captain for the detailed response. I am fresh from the funeral of my Frightful Aunt (my father’s eldest sister) and having seen how badly the clan all behaved over her, I’m looking at his failing health and bracing myself. We’re not estranged but we don’t get on very well (British Understatement TM) and the whole thing will be their chance to edit him into a good man and rub out the drink problem, the verbal abuse, etc etc etc. Not to mention the religious angle/angles/angling. I am going to print out this thread and keep it to re-read when I need it.

    I don’t pray but I send you strengthening thoughts, and my hope that it will be the least unpleasant for you that it can be. Hugs if helpful

  57. One of my favourite things I’ve learned from the good Captain is Return Awkwardness to Sender.
    In case anyone does try to push or pressure you, or get overly personal, “What an odd thing to say to me at a time like this” is also a good option.

  58. Hand signals that you work out with supportive siblings / friends can be super helpful. No one else kniws and it’s a great way to signal for help / rescue.

    Coded phrases agreed on previously are also helpful if you and social buffer / sibs feel trapped by whatever. Sometimes it’s not so clear thst “I need a rescue, get me out of this” to the aforementioned. Then the person knows to act.

    Sending you a bright soothing bubble of strength and hugs.

  59. I appreciate the Captain’s approach of,”I’ll feel better if I know I was polite,” but want to add a gentle reminder that you don’t actually have to be polite or act gracefully.

    A funeral is probably one of the few times it’s perfectly appropriate to just run out of the room crying. If the attendees at the funeral are mostly fellow congregants from Dad’s sect, it sounds like they’re not people you care aboit, not people you want in your life, and not people who are going to think well of you anyway.

    I’m fine with you throwing open the doors in the middle of the service like a a snubbed fairy, saying your piece, and putting a curse on them all. If the person leading the service starts saying something offensive, (“his one regret was that his daughter’s immoral lifestyle would prevent them from being reunited in heaven”), I’m fine with you screaming “fuck you all” and storming out.

    You might not be okay with that, but it is an option. Even if you go with “polite, but distant,” it may help you to know that it’s not an actual requirement. Nobody’s going to melt into the floor if you’re performance of “grieving daughter” doesn’t meet their expectations.

    1. “I’m fine with you throwing open the doors in the middle of the service like a a snubbed fairy, saying your piece, and putting a curse on them all. If the person leading the service starts saying something offensive, (“his one regret was that his daughter’s immoral lifestyle would prevent them from being reunited in heaven”), I’m fine with you screaming “fuck you all” and storming out.”

      Thank you for this delicious piece of advice!

    2. “Nobody’s going to melt into the floor if you’re performance of “grieving daughter” doesn’t meet their expectations.”

      And it doesn’t matter if they do. Grieving is not a performance art, so eff them.

  60. LW, I wish you all the strength in the world. Been through this, organising a funeral in keeping with what I hoped my father, who I met a handful of times in my life, and his friends would want, including a very complicated repatriation of his body that, oh God, no, let’s not go there. I spent the day trying very hard to be gracious as his cronies told me what a wonderful man he was – with the innocent assumption that I had a relationship with him. Nevertheless, I wanted to throw them all into the crematorium fire. Lucky for me, I had one cousin, the only other family member present, who knew what I was enduring. He was my shield and the person who told me afterwards that I had acted with complete honour. I hope you have that one person, who knows what it’s costing you to be there to make your farewell. And if you don’t, well, you have all of us. x

  61. After my estranged (and toxic) mother died, I was at her house with my not-estranged-from-mom sister. I was getting freaked out because I was triggered and couldn’t say anything that I was REALLY feeling and thinking. My sister said, “It must be very emotional for you being here.” Yes, very emotional. We don’t need to say what emotions and everyone fills in the blanks however they please. I filed that handy phrase, “very emotional,” for the next time I needed it!

  62. Question that I hope someone can help with related to this — I am a praying person now, but come from a non praying background/family, and I completely understand the discomfort when people say they don’t like people to do that with/for them. What is a good way to express support that I plan to do in the form of prayer that isn’t uncomfortable? I usually say something like “I am thinking of your family” or “Sending support your way” and then privately pray, light a candle, etc. I am also happy to just pray without telling someone I am privately praying for them or their situation, and I usually go this route if I am thinking they wouldn’t appreciate the verbal expression of it (or if I am not sure).

    I should mention that any prayers are in addition to what I am certain they can use or appreciate, not in lieu of that. Any ideas?

    1. I think the general expression of support (and praying privately) is just fine.

      I don’t get upset at the idea or the information that someone who prays is praying for me in a situation. “That’s very kind of you, thanks.” Especially when it’s someone I’m close to and know to be kind.

      I do get very uncomfortable when there is an enforced performance of the thing, like, suddenly my hand is clutched and I’ve got to ‘politely’ settle in while they do their thing, especially when the person is not very close to me or the situation, especially when the prayers are offered instead of the possibly useful help I need or asked for, especially when the person doing the praying is not actually kind to me or people in my life in other situations. Unfortunately in my (admittedly narrow but nonetheless real) personal experience, the louder/more performative/more insistent the prayers, the less kind or helpful the other interactions with this person are likely to be. In the LW’s case, when they are returning to an abusive church for a memorial service, I can see why any and all prayers are, idk, kinda tainted by the whole history, despite individual people having good intentions or meaning well, which is why I included that paragraph. It sounds like you are very thoughtful about this, so, keep doing what you’re doing!

      1. Thank you for your thoughtful response to my question. I agree and understand what you are saying about the LW’s specific situation, particularly the performative nature. I will think more about how to best support people in the way they want and need it.

    2. In my experience, it varies widely by person. Other people who share my faith are happy to hear that they are being prayed for, as are some who follow a different faith. My friends who are devout atheists or have been hurt by the church would rather not hear about it. (Especially in those times when prayer is all I have to offer). I tend to err on the side of keeping it quiet unless I know the person prayed for would welcome the information.

  63. Hi everyone, it’s OP. My father has indeed passed away and I appreciate all the sympathies, advice, and care from Cap and in the comments. ❤ I'm a little too overwhelmed to respond individually, but I'm going to hold onto a lot of this as I continue to navigate through the bereavement process and talking to people about it. A lot of these small talk scripts are also going to come in handy when discussing it with coworkers, etc.

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