“It is time to teach society on how to be empathetic with people grieving.”
― Nathalie Himmelrich
As most will know I very seldom write about my own family or family estrangement. I also very seldom make definitive declarations about “how to be estranged”. I’m going to make an exception to both in this post.
Now is not the time for why's
My dad passed away December 17. 2016. I don’t know many of the details as we weren’t in contact. There’s no need to delve into “why” we weren’t in contact. At this point in my estrangements I find “why” questions to be completely without merit. It really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we haven’t spoken in at least 10 years.
I didn’t know that he was sick (cancer I’ve been told) or how long exactly he was sick (though I am advised it was quick). I didn’t speak with him before he died, since I wasn’t given the opportunity to do so. I wasn’t given the opportunity to attend his funeral (though by virtue of the fact I live on the opposite side of the planet and am swamped by responsibilities here, it would have been impossible to be there). My two young adult children also missed the opportunity to connect or say goodbye.
We found out three months after the fact, in about the worst way it is possible to find such things out. My dad’s birthday was on the 26th of March and my son posted a message on his Facebook page wishing him a happy birthday and bemoaning the lack of connection. His message was quickly picked up by someone in the “family” that my son doesn’t know, neither do I for that matter – and was dealt with righteous indignation … “how very DARE you …. He’s DEAD”. Of course much drama ensued after this, which for the first day at least, eclipsed the functional reality – I had lost my dad, and my kids had lost their grandfather. It was three months ago. We didn’t know.
It gets worse. We of course looked for his obituary hoping to glean some information about his passing. What we discovered then was that neither myself (as his eldest daughter) nor my two children (as his grandchildren) were mentioned as surviving family members. Their dogs were mentioned, but we were not. The kids and I were … are ... devastated.
Let’s get three BIG misconceptions about estrangement out of the way.
1. Being estranged from a family member doesn’t mean you do not love or care for them. It is QUITE possible to be unable to maintain contact or connection and still care.
2. Being estranged does not mean there is no emotional investment – in fact, estrangements often occur because emotional intensity runs high, not because there is lack of emotional involvement.
3. Sometimes there isn’t caring or emotional investment, yet people still want to know that a part of their history is gone.
Despite doing the work I do as a therapist with 1) people (and their families) who are estranged 2) people (and their families) who are in palliative care/end of life; despite my academic research about family estrangement, despite my own long journey coming to terms with estrangement, there is still room for me to be surprised.
Whilst I have not spoken to anyone in my family, I have read the messages and heard about the conversations my kids are having with family. It astounds me that after 10, 15, 20 years even with no contact, the stories are about people and events that happened long ago. It is as though all the anger, hurt, and upset has been encased in amber, unchanging, waiting to be activated again. There is still so much anger and bitterness that the simple act of sending a message, “I know we’re not in contact, but thought it important you know that your dad/grandfather is sick, is dying, is dead” was dismissed out of hand. I did not deserve to know because ... reasons … and my children by default did not get to know because I did not get to know.
Some estrangement etiquette around dying and death:
1. Assume emotional investment. You may not have spoken with someone for however many years but family relationships matter. There is shared history, however long ago, your story entwined with theirs. This deserves respect.
2. Inform the family. This is not always possible but when it is, it is simple courtesy to inform family members that someone in the family is terminally ill, dying, or has died. You don't have to have a conversation - send a message, do it through a neutral third party if you have to, but INFORM the family. What they decide to do with the information is up to them, but you will have done the humane, considerate, responsible thing.
3. Think carefully, very carefully, about denying family members the opportunity to say goodbye. Sometimes this can go sideways and end up messy – but sometimes it gives both the person who is dying and their estranged family member an opportunity for goodbyes and closure.
There are exceptions, of course there are. Step back from your feelings; think it through like a rational adult. The dying and death of a family member is NOT an opportunity to further punish people who are estranged. Let me just say that again … The dying and death of a family member is NOT an opportunity for punishment.
4. End of life. Now is not the time to rehash history. If you need to do this, it is probably best you do not rock up at the bedside of a dying person. If you cannot sit beside that person in the current day/month/year, please don’t sit there at all.
What do people need to know? That you are there and that you loved them (however imperfectly that might look). The most powerful words in my palliative practice “I/They were proud of you, I/they loved you.”
5. Obituaries. It doesn’t matter if there is no contact; the FUNCTIONAL REALITY of family relationship is all family members exist; you may not want them to, you may wish they did not, but they do. Writing a family member out of the family history is ultimately disrespectful and it is a lie. That’s right. A lie.
6 Funerals. It is my experience when there is long standing entrenched estrangement, people generally opt out of attending the funerals of people they are estranged from. Not always, but often. Even so, people need to know about funerals.
7. Rules of engagement if you are going to invite someone who is estranged to a funeral or if you have been invited:
STAY IN THE CURRENT DAY/MONTH/YEAR. Now is NOT the time to revisit family history - who said or did what, who didn't say or do what. Now is not the time. Again ... NOW IS NOT THE TIME.
Be respectful. Be kind. A funeral takes a few hours; ANYONE can behave themselves for a few hours, if they have decided they will. It’s not all about YOU.
Estrangement is hard. Loss is hard. Grief is hard. Let's not make it harder than it needs to be.
You might be wondering why any of this matters. Bereavement and grief are hard work even in the healthiest of relationships. Estrangement almost always complicates grief - we don't get a "clean" grief experience. On top of grieving the person who has died, we are grieving all the many, many other relational losses. For families where estrangement is a factor, bereavement can become so complex and result in complicated grief – which is incredibly painful and life altering.
We can make things simpler, easier, kinder. We can.