Attending a funeral of an estranged parent
October 14, 2011 6:17 AM   Subscribe

My estranged father passed away. Should I attend his funeral? Lengthy, snowflake details inside.

My relationship with my father is complicated. Growing up, he was neglectful and emotionally abusive to my mother, my sister, and myself -- when he was around. In practical and emotional terms, I consider myself to have been raised by a single parent - my mother. We (mother, sister, and I) consider the three of us, minus our father, to be our family unit. My happy memories of growing up and parenting moments involve my mother and not my father.

It was a huge relief to my sister and I when my parents finally divorced 10 years ago. The divorce was acrimonious on his end - he left believing my mother only married him for his money and spent her life turning her children against him (We have heard that he's told friends that my sister and I "don't care about him at all"). Since the divorce, we've been completely, mutually, estranged. He has made zero attempts to contact with my sister, mother, or I, nor have we reached out to him during this time.

I have long accepted that my father was, simply put, a toxic person with a lot of demons. He was bitter and resentful, and often alienated people. We are not his first estrangement. He has broken off relationships with friends, colleagues, and his entire former family (wife and two daughters from a previous marriage). I have also made our peace quite some time ago with the idea that he could pass away without any of us knowing if it happened, when it happened, or where (he moves frequently between several countries). He is who he is and I seek neither reconciliation nor closure.

However, in an odd twist of events, a few weeks ago we learned through word of mouth that our father was in an end-of-life hospice in our home city. He did not ask to see us and we had decided at the time to not see him. I do not regret this and firmly believe it was the right choice for our emotional well-being.

Yesterday I learned that my father passed away on Wednesday. Upon hearing news of his passing, my first reaction was sadness in the humanist sense of "this person did not live a happy life and will never get a chance to redeem himself" and also relief for him that he no longer has to carry his emotional burdens. Mercifully, my father had presumably named his old secretary as his executor as she has made the funeral arrangements. She sent emailed details of his funeral.

My sister and I feel some obligation (cultural? filial? -I am chinese) to attend this funeral but honestly, we do not want to go. We have accepted the departure of this person from our lives years ago and have zero interest spending a few hours plastering on a smile, remembering him, and putting forth platitudes about his life (I belong to the "if I don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything" school of thought). Particularly with a group of people we've never met. From what I can tell, the funeral will be small - other invitees are a handful of old work colleagues who I have never met, or last saw over 15-20 years as a child - so my sister and I will not be able to hide in a crowd. I am hugely attention adverse to begin and the idea of sticking out as the Estranged Children in this situation is incredibly stressful.

Mefites, I am stressing out over what I should do/ what I'm obligated to do/ and what I want to do. Should we attend this funeral or not? Is there any etiquette if we don't go, do we tell anyone or just not show up? Is there anything else about this whole situation I haven't considered?

The irony is that we were fully prepared for his death to happen far away, without our knowledge, but we never thought it would happen, literally so close to home. It feels like a chapter in our lives that we thought was neatly closed has suddenly, messily, blown open again :(
posted by kitkatcathy to Human Relations (35 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If there is nobody attending the funeral with who you feel would benefit from your being there, I don't see any reason to attend. Your father won't know whether you were there are not, and I feel that funerals are more to assist the living in transitioning from one stage of grief to another than for the person who is gone.
posted by xingcat at 6:31 AM on October 14, 2011 [7 favorites]

I generally think that funerals are for the living to comfort themselves with their close friends and family. Which is to say that if you don't want to go, and no one at the funeral would be comforted by your presence there, then I think you are free not to attend. You could thank his secretary for passing on the information, but I don't even think that you're obligated to do that.

It feels like a chapter in our lives that we thought was neatly closed has suddenly, messily, blown open again :(

My mother was estranged from her mother for over thirty years and was so much more emotional than she expected when her mother died. It's natural that his death has revived any feelings you have about your relationship with him. Give yourself permission to do whatever grieving you need to. Not necessarily for him, but for yourself, your sister, and mother.

Also, if his colleagues do not realize that your family was estranged from him, be prepared that you might receive sympathy cards.
posted by gladly at 6:31 AM on October 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Why do you have to make things up if you go? I went to an estranged father's (not mine) funeral last year, and the eulogy and conversations afterwards were honest -- the good qualities he did have were mentioned along with his significant flaws. It appeared to satisfy the family. A business partner delivered the eulogy, too.

Also, a funeral is a perfectly acceptable place to not smile. If you go, you will be able to be serious, dutiful and politely quiet without offending anyone or being dishonest.
posted by michaelh at 6:31 AM on October 14, 2011

You are not obligated to do anything at all. You don't have to go.

If you do go, you don't have to lie about how you felt about him. My dad was a terrible alcoholic and one of the best things about his funeral was that the pastor talked at length about his problems in the eulogy, so we didn't all have to walk around pretending his life and relationships were wonderful.

But: You don't have to go.
posted by something something at 6:34 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

First of all, I would say that you shouldn't worry about what anyone thinks or about the etiquette of the situation. This is very personal and no one's business but yours and your sister's and a mother's, and in any case it sounds like most of the people who knew your father knew what he was like and will understand. At most, if you decide not to go, you might email back to the secretary thanking her for taking the time to email you the details about the funeral but saying you have decided not to attend, just as a courtesy to her.

As for whether you'll attend.... Certainly it's perfectly reasonable of you not to attend. I think your only consideration should be how you'll feel about it in future, and even then I doubt you'll feel much regret over whatever you decide. If you don't go and regret it, you could always visit your father's grave later on. If you do go and find it's too hard, you can just walk out. You can live with and work with whatever you decide, either way.
posted by orange swan at 6:35 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

You don't want to go and don't have a relationship with any of the people who will be there. So don't go. Really, it's okay. You don't have to tell anyone anything.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:36 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

If there is nobody attending the funeral with who you feel would benefit from your being there,

Well nobody except the poster.

Sometimes the right thing to do is the right thing to do. Go to the funeral. Pay your proper respects. Forgive the dead man in the box. Bury your bad feelings with him. OK? Don't carry the grudge on forever.

It's not for him, it's for you. In 10 years you will look back and be proud of yourself. Closure.

If you don't go in 10 years you'll still be asking yourself if you did the right thing. No closure.

Got it?
posted by three blind mice at 6:39 AM on October 14, 2011 [16 favorites]

If you don't want to go, don't go. A funeral is somewhere where you celebrate the life of someone you love (usually with other people you love). Only two members of my family attended my grandad's funeral because he was a deeply unpleasant man and the fact he had died didn't magically change that.
posted by ninebelow at 6:46 AM on October 14, 2011

It's not for him, it's for you. In 10 years you will look back and be proud of yourself. Closure.

If you don't go in 10 years you'll still be asking yourself if you did the right thing. No closure.

I think deciding not to go and allowing that to be the right thing (which, personally, I think it certainly can be) would also be closure, though.
posted by dlugoczaj at 6:55 AM on October 14, 2011 [9 favorites]

My estranged/abusive/bitter father died a few months ago. He was in prison, he was released and then he died an incredibly painful death from cancer a few months later. He was 52. I had not seen him in 15 years. I did go to his funeral, even though I absolutely did not want to go, and I'm glad I did. In some ways it helped me paint a fuller picture of his life and gave me an understanding of where he was coming from and why he was like he was. Like, his own mother didn't attend his funeral. And his sister told the story (from the pulpit!) of someone asking her if she was SURE he didn't die of AIDS since he had been in prison/getting raped for so long. In some ways attending the funeral solidified my feelings that we had no relationship. I didn't cry at the funeral, for example, even though I'm someone who regularly cries without hesitation.

I found that instead of mourning my father's death in a straightforward way, I am mourning the fact that we never had a relationship, that he was such a violent, shitty father, that I missed knowing what the support of a parent feels like. There is actually much more grief and pain than I would have expected. I personally am glad that I went to the funeral but holy shit, I was so, so, so relieved when it was over. I think the driving force behind my decision to attend was the fact that I'd never get a do-over. My shitty, estranged father is never going to die again. So I would rather take part in the full experience, as it were, to save myself any regrets or heartache down the road.
posted by kate blank at 6:56 AM on October 14, 2011 [22 favorites]

What three blind mice said. Unless there is overnight travel involved.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:56 AM on October 14, 2011

three blind mice, a person doesn't necessarily have to go to a funeral to get closure. A person doesn't even have to go to a funeral in order to grieve. My aunt, who is afraid of flying, skipped out on my grandmother's funeral (my grandmother was her mother-in-law) -- even though she loved her. Instead, my aunt took a hike on the day of the funeral and spent the day in reflection by herself, and for her, that was sufficient.

OP, grieving is a very personal thing -- and yes, even though you didn't have that much of a relationship with your father, what you're doing is still grieving. And how you grieve is entirely up to you, and what you think is best. A friend of mine had a similar relationship with his father, and he skipped out on the funeral as well -- I think he reached out to some of his half-siblings with whom he got on well, but that was it.

And he's fine. Because not going to the funeral was what he decided was best for him. If not going to the funeral is what's best for you, and you KNOW this, then good. There is SOME point to "getting closure," but if you're pretty sure you're not going to get that from going to the funeral, then that's perfectly fine.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:02 AM on October 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

Good for you kate blank. I'm proud of you.

I think the driving force behind my decision to attend was the fact that I'd never get a do-over.

This is my point about closure. Of course going to the funeral isn't going to resolve a lifetime of issues, but it will resolve this particular issue. Why add doubt on top of the pile of shit? In ten years kate blank will not be asking herself "should I have gone?"

Being the dutiful Chinese son at the funeral of your undeserving father makes you the bigger man. Show up in a suit and tie. Be respectful.
posted by three blind mice at 7:21 AM on October 14, 2011

The fact that you are asking about this funeral but not about the deathbed situation tells me that you should consider going. He won't be able to hurt you in death. This will be on your own terms. Feel free to mourn the father that you never had.

That being said, please give yourself permission not to go. This man was not good to you and is your father only by blood. You do not owe him anything just because he is now gone. If you think of attending the funeral, make it about your own healing and not about other people.

My thoughts are with you at this time. <3
posted by 200burritos at 7:58 AM on October 14, 2011

Oh, Kate Blank, that made me cry. And I so agree: you don't have to go but it may help you grieve the relationship that could never be and let that to rest. Funerals are for the living -- to mourn, to support each other, to celebrate or to say "this is done." I'm so sorry that you had such a tumultuous relationship with your father. I think this would help both you and your sister move on. I have yet to regret attending a funeral no matter how much I wanted to avoid going.
posted by amanda at 8:00 AM on October 14, 2011

Yeah, be the bigger person and go.

This is simultaneously not about you and totally about you. Funerals are a place to finally bury any hatchets that may be still around. Even if you have to pull them out of your back first.
posted by Sphinx at 8:06 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Funerals are for the living, not the dead. It makes zero difference to your dad if you go, and there are no other mourners requiring your support, so you should do exactly what you want to do. Which appears to be not going.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:14 AM on October 14, 2011

I don't believe that you are obligated to go. You wrote your father off in life. I don't see how this changes in death.
posted by Sir Cholmondeley at 8:16 AM on October 14, 2011

My dad was a terrible alcoholic and one of the best things about his funeral was that the pastor talked at length about his problems in the eulogy

This sort of thing was helpful for me when my father died earlier this year. He was a brilliant guy with a terrible alcohol problem that slowly estranged him from those around him and he died in a way that sort of fit his life. I didn't have the choice to go or not go. While I think any decision you make is the right one, I found that talking to other people I didn't know well about how aware they were of my father's shortcomings and how he didn't have the perfect exterior persona that I thought was super helpful to me in doing a similar grieving process for the father I never had. I sort of felt that it had been a secret. That everyone thought he was a great guy and only me and a select few people [people he was abusive and horrible to] knew the full story. And while this was sort of true, it was helpful for me to know that there were more people with a fuller picture of him, who sympathized with my lifetime loss of a parent, not the immediate loss of a non-parent.

So, please do whatever you feel like, but I was surprised that some of the motions you go through when dealing with a loss were helpful to me in ways I could not have anticipated. I wish you peace in this troubling time.
posted by jessamyn at 8:21 AM on October 14, 2011 [6 favorites]

Funerals are for the living

This phrase was invented for people who want to mourn in the way they feel is most appropriate for them. It would be better said as "Funerals are not for the deceased". Just because you are, indeed, living, does not mean that this funeral, or any other funeral, has to be for you.

Yeah, be the bigger person and go

To my mind "be the bigger person", means that you should refrain from stooping to the level of someone you disapprove of. I don't see why your lack of attendance at a funeral is stooping to anything. The guy is dead. He isn't going to be offended if you are not at his funeral, and neither will anyone else.

If you don't want to go, don't go.
posted by emilyw at 8:22 AM on October 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm currently estranged from my mom, sisters and step-dad. It's physically healthier for me. My mom has begun recently calling to let me know she has a tumor/lesions on her brain. She is also a hypochondriac, lives a couple hours away and I don't drive. I don't know what her physical situation is, but I have struggled with your question. I think I would go to her funeral, even though most likely everyone there will refuse to acknowledge my existence and blame me for everything wrong.

You're on the other side of this from me. It sounds like your situation is stable - you know your place in your life, you're secure in how your life will proceed and you don't repeat his behaviors. But you're still conflicted.

I think you should go, but you don't have to stay. Go for a short time to the wake (or viewing, I don't know what it's called in your area). Pay your respects to the infinitesimal part of him that was good enough for your mom to marry him. Give it fifteen minutes, maybe thirty, but you didn't know him well enough for more than that. Then leave and feel better. Let it go. You'll have done what you were struggling over and it will be over.

I hope that whatever decision you make, it's the right one for you.
posted by doyouknowwhoIam? at 8:25 AM on October 14, 2011

The funeral is only nominally for him. The funeral is really for the survivors, an apt word in your case. If there will be others there that you wish to see, or if you want an opportunity to respond to the idea that you didn't care about him, or, perhaps most importantly, if you want some closure, then go. If it were me, I would go. I would absolutely not think less of you if you choose not to go.
posted by theora55 at 9:09 AM on October 14, 2011

would you feel obligated if you hadn't gotten an specific invitation and just heard about it through word of mouth? the fact someone reached out to you individually may be causing some of those feelings.

I don't know that going to the funeral is going to give you closure, only you know that. funerals are for the closure of a life lived and lost, not a relationship lost. If you feel you may gain some insight to the way he was or you need to say a last goodbye, by all means go. If the only reason you would go is to please someone else or keep up appearances, don't go.

The only thing i can tell you with any certainity is not going will not prevent old feelings from being dredged up. if that is going to happen, it will happen whether or not you go to the funeral. I have watched a friend recently lose an estranged parent, and there are some things you may deal with that you wouldn't if you lost a parent you were still in a loving relationship with. you expect to grieve someone you love, grieving someone who made it so impossible for you to love them is confusing and sometimes unexpected. my friend is grieving a whole lifetime of abadonment that she thought she had come to terms with, even though she didn't want him in her life because of the person he was.

Take care.
posted by domino at 9:45 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

You sound like you have worked through this thing entirely on your own and there's nothing about the tone of your post that makes you sound like you need 'closure'. It sounds like you said your goodbyes a long time ago. You don't need to explain anything to anyone. I think: just don't go.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:51 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

honestly, we do not want to go
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:53 AM on October 14, 2011

Nuts. I meant to add: this was the line from your post that stood out to me.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:53 AM on October 14, 2011

Your Dad was the same as my Dad. Agreeing with everyone else who said that you are under no obligation to go unless you feel it would benefit a family member and that does not sound like the case.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 11:26 AM on October 14, 2011

You're saying that you "have zero interest spending a few hours plastering on a smile, remembering him, and putting forth platitudes about his life". Couldn't you go to the burial-focused, non-social part and remain in the background, sort of slightly separate from the main group there? And leave once the more social, face-to-face condolence part begins? You could either listen to what is being said, or just be there for a while with your own thoughts. Make your peace with your father, or be angry with him, or feel the sadness brought on by your past loss, or for the losses in your father's life - just allow your emotions to emerge in this space which is, to some extent, designed precisely for that, and then go before you lay yourself bare in front of the others present there.
posted by miorita at 1:05 PM on October 14, 2011

I'm in a similar situation, with one difference: I'm actually not sure if my father is still alive or not, and don't care enough to find out.

If he is, I won't be attending his funeral. He wasn't worth a phone call alive; he's certainly not worth a cross country trip dead.
posted by coolguymichael at 2:56 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Maybe, maybe not. I was in a very similar situation to you and I decided not to attend the funeral. Best thing I ever could have done as it spared the:

"why didn't you love you mother and support her in her every move despite her repeated abuse towards you! We know only second hand, one sided stories but that will not stop us from unloading all of our pain onto you loudly so that everyone will think that we are sensitive loving family members!"

discussion that her family was dying to give me. Thus, I avoided turning my mothers funeral into a sh*t show by not giving them a target for their misguided and uniformed opinions.

If your family does not think that you are "bad children" then go if it will help you. If not, it may be best not to attend.
posted by Shouraku at 3:15 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you don't want to go, don't. If it would divide your family, help them cope, or you think you might regret it then I would consider it. You might send a sympathy card or flowers, if you choose not to. After all, he meant something to some people, but that doesn't mean you're obligated to do anything.
posted by metaphorik at 4:53 PM on October 14, 2011

I grew up with no father I have some life-long "issues" pertaining to that early parental loss. My father did not have a funeral, but if he had, I would have gone. For one thing it would have been very interesting for me to hear if anyone had anything good to say about him.

I am very sorry that you had to grow up without a Dad also. Even though our fathers were not good fathers they were half of the equation who made us. You might have some qualities that your Dad had (and maybe some of those qualities are positive). Think about going only to say goodbye to one of the people who brought you into the world. It is only a couple of hours of your time and perhaps you will learn something worthwhile about your father....or perhaps you will confirm things you already know. In either case, you only have one father and this is an opportunity. Keep an open mind.

My heart goes out to you and your sister.
posted by naplesyellow at 10:30 PM on October 14, 2011

If it's beneficial for yourself or for someone you love for you to go, then seriously consider going. Otherwise probably better not to.
posted by nickji at 12:36 AM on October 15, 2011

If you don't want to go, then don't.

That said, and I could be totally wrong here....

My intuition tells me that if you go, you will have at least one illuminating conversation that will forever change you in a good way. I feel that if you show up, you will get answers to questions you never even thought to ask.

The only reason I see not to go is if going will put you in emotional or physical distress or danger.

I have a fanciful imagination, so y'know.... YMMV.
posted by jbenben at 11:54 AM on October 15, 2011

If you do not want to go, you need not. I did not go to my abusive stepfather's funeral and I've never for a moment considered that it should have been otherwise. I knew than as I do now that sometimes you have to simply let people be on the other side of a chasm you don't cross.
posted by Anitanola at 9:39 PM on October 15, 2011

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