How to handle estranged father's funeral?
July 31, 2012 6:35 PM   Subscribe

My estranged father passed away last Sunday. I've decided to attend the funeral. Please help me conduct myself with something resembling grace. Overly complex snowflakey stuff inside.

My father left our family when I was three days old. He was an alcoholic, abusive, and manipulative. He had little sense of empathy for others and even less accountability to anyone. Last summer, he found me on facebook in a bid to establish contact. I went ahead and played along because regardless of the immense hatred I have for the man, I needed my curiosity sated. I figured the worst thing that could happen is that I'd find out he was the piece of shit I'd always assumed him to be. Short answer, I was right. He spent two hours blaming others (my mother, my grandmother, so on and so forth) and then after the fact he had the audacity to tell me he loved me. I'd never spoken to him in my life and the emotional tone-deafness of that move is still mindboggling to me. The one benefit I can say I got from speaking with him was the chance to get in contact with a couple of half brothers I have. One is a huge mess (like multiple psych ward admitions) and the other is successful but has made a point of distancing himself from the whole family.
My father passed away on Sunday. One of my aunts on his side contacted me to let me know. I've never spoken to her or anyone else on his side. She was very kind about the whole thing and cognizant of the fact that I might not want to go. I spent a few hours thinking it over and decided I would. After all, I may not get an opportunity to meet all of these family members again. I would also like to gain some perspective on my father from points of view that have biases unrelated to mine or my family's.
I fly out tomorrow and I am positively in shambles. I'm finding myself grieving for someone that I have spent my whole life hating or otherwise tucking away in a dark corner of my thoughts. I'm at a total loss how to comport myself with his side of the family. I don't know how to be there and not say terrible, hurtful things about him. I don't even have a suit for crying out loud. I am set on going. I think it's the right thing to do. But how do I deal with the family? How do I compose myself and act like a respectful human being around them? I don't want to offend them. This is the first truly significant death in my adult life and it's thrown me for a major loop. What can I do to make this go just a little easier? I know this is all very vague and I'm sorry for that. I just need to know how to not turn this into a trainwreck.
posted by Ephelump Jockey to Human Relations (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Sometimes we grieve for someone we don't know because now we've lost the chance to get to know them. Or we grieve for someone who we didn't like because now we'll never get the chance to learn to like them. When you meet the family members, tell them you are there to get to know more about your father. Tell them you didn't have such a positive relationship with him and you're there to learn about the other side of him and to meet the other side of your family. You may find a lot of empathy there. Good luck. And don't worry about the suit. Not everyone will be in a suit.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:48 PM on July 31, 2012 [18 favorites]

Best answer: Meeting the kind aunt who contacted you might make the whole event worthwhile.
posted by thatone at 6:52 PM on July 31, 2012 [16 favorites]

Acknowledge your grief. It sounds like you've spent much of your life actively hating and resenting a man you never met - you had a relationship with him, even if it was all one-sided. You had feelings for and about him. Acknowledge that.

And acknowledge that he was other things to other people. It's not your place to vent your resentments about a man you never met to people who knew him at his funeral. It would be much more helpful for you in the long run to meet at least some of the rest of the family (starting with the kind aunt) and see if you all might like each other. "Family" only has the weight we give it - you don't owe them anything, and they owe you nothing.

Good luck. I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by rtha at 6:55 PM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: So here's the thing about funerals and funeral-related activities: they're a little formal. That may not matter if you have a super-trainwrecky drama-loving family, but for the most part people are on their better behavior.

I think the useful nugget of truth for you is: you didn't have much of a relationship with him, but he was your father and you are sad. Another truth: your father probably wasn't the okayest guy in the world, and people probably knew that. Y'all don't have to talk about that. People can be sorry for your loss, and you can be sorry for theirs, and nobody needs to make excuses or explanations for that. It's not the time to talk about how horrible it was, and you are neither expected nor encouraged to do so. (You should, however, seek out ways to process those things when you get home. With someone who can actually help.)

She was very kind about the whole thing and cognizant of the fact that I might not want to go.

I think this is tremendous evidence that at least somebody on the inside is caring and cognizant, and she's probably not the only one. I agree that this is a very good reason to go.

Don't worry about the suit. Wear nice clean clothes. People don't dress up like they used to.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:00 PM on July 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm so sorry.

You're grieving the loss of the possibility for a positive relationship with your dad. Nothing to be ashamed of there. The rest of the family will be grieving as well, maybe also for lost possibilities. Hopefully they'll understand and want to be supportive. Maybe focusing on getting to know the family that is left, rather than focusing on what you've lost, can help you get through the day. No matter how you feel, though, the funeral is not the place to dump negative comments and opinions about the deceased. Keep a friend on speed dial and go make a call if you feel the need to let those thoughts out.

As for your dad saying he loved you... maybe he did, in his own way. Maybe he loved the idea of you as much as you now grieve the relationship you hoped to have.
posted by hms71 at 7:07 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with the sentiment expressed so far. I've never dealt with anything like this, but were I faced with it, I would most likely repeat to myself that this is a special and rare event to meet family members for the first time, an event that only coincidently happens to align schedule-wise with the funeral of a certain someone.

I'd also work on being as calm and focused as possible, while at the same time "forgiving" myself in advance for however I might feel or react, knowing that the situation is complex and unique, and being cognizant of and open to the idea that all I really know about how this will go down is that I don't know it will go down, but that's OK, because I will remain flexible and open.

Sorry to go a bit Stuart Smalley there, but gosh darn it, people DO like you (for real, I'm comfortable guessing), and I've found that in most similar situations, acknowledging what you don't know about yourself is often as important as knowing what you do know. My condolences, and good luck!
posted by jalexei at 7:17 PM on July 31, 2012

The process of a funeral/wake really allows you to sort out your feelings, because it's usually quite regimented.

Remember that the proceedings are mostly for the people who are left behind, so being gracious and kind to the people there will help you in your process, I believe. By concentrating on the formalities, you can work through the emotions.

There's a reason these rites of passage have survived for so long.

And my condolences.
posted by xingcat at 7:18 PM on July 31, 2012

Best answer: You can see this as a funeral for the father you should have had - that was a real loss that maybe you haven't fully mourned. You have every right to be there and mourn whatever you need to mourn: no one there can see what's in your brain. Just focus on accepting whatever sympathy people give you and refrain from analyzing it.

Also, if your brothers will be there you can continue to solidify your relationships with them. It's probably difficult for them in very similar ways as it is for you, even if he was actually physically present in their childhoods.

(You may want to have one or two stock phrases ready for various stock things people will say to you. Be ready for at least one "so how did you know Bob," and come up with something honest which doesn't cross boundaries too far and won't make you weep to say out loud - "he's my biological father and we recently got back in touch; Aunt Marge invited me" or whatever.)
posted by SMPA at 7:23 PM on July 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Just be polite and kind. If you don't feel like doing much more than introducing yourself to a few people, paying your respects and leaving soon after that is absolutely fine.

It sounds like your aunt is sensitive to the situation, so stick by her and she will likely set the tone and stave off any possibly awkward situations with others and really I think that's unlikely. They were his family and from the sound of it they knew what he was and what he did. If anything they will likely feel great guilt by association for his actions and be extremely moved you even showed up. I can't guarantee it, but that would be my guess.

All that being said, you owe no one a showing of grief. At the end of the day it is no one's business how you feel or how you work through these emotions. No one gets to judge you. You owe no one anything, so you don't need to worry about anything. Whatever you feel or do or don't do is ok.
posted by whoaali at 7:32 PM on July 31, 2012

Look at it this way - a funeral is the one place where it is absolutely OK to cry. So if you find yourself getting emotional and on the verge of tears, just let it out and cry. People will assume that you are crying for your dad, and they'll stop asking difficult questions.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 7:37 PM on July 31, 2012

Best answer: My alcoholic father also left my family when I was a baby. I saw him maybe three times when I was growing up. He died in 1998. There was no funeral, but because of his death, I got to know my aunt (his sister), who is now one of my favorite family members. And just this summer I got to meet her son (my cousin) and his kids, and they are now some of my favorite people on the planet. So all I'm saying is that great things can come from shitty things. Good luck to you. I know it's hard... feel free to get in touch via memail if you'd like to discuss further.
posted by sockpuppetryarts at 8:13 PM on July 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I'm at a total loss how to comport myself with his side of the family. I don't know how to be there and not say terrible, hurtful things about him.

If you think you will behave this way, then you shouldn't be there. I think that there is some good advice above about how to behave/handle the funeral. But funerals are for those who are still alive and in mourning. You certainly have the right to your feelings about your father, but so does everyone else who decides to attend the funeral. If you're going to be saying terrible, hurtful things you're going to come off as a jerk. Nothing that you can say at this point can hurt your father. Anything terrible and hurtful that you can say at this point can only hurt and upset people who are already grieving.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:39 PM on July 31, 2012 [7 favorites]

When my abusive father died, I had no desire to go to the funeral. At all. I bought a red dress and went to a movie instead. Afterwards I was sent a tape of the eulogy, and the almost literally blinding rage it filled me with after listening to only a few minutes told me that I had made the right decision.
When people die, the living say nice things about them. This is true even of bad people. When I heard the lies - THE LIES - about how much he loved his children, I almost broke my desk trying to shut the tape off. It was such a betrayal - these things they were saying as kindnesses that branded me a liar, put into public ears that my childhood wasn't true, that my scars inside and outside didn't exist.

Think about that then. Think about hearing things said about him that aren't true. That deny your experience. Can you handle that? Can you remain calm? And I mean really, REALLY try to imagine it, don't fool yourself.
If you can hear these things and remain in control of yourself, then go. If you can't, I say there's no shame in not going. He never earned your respect and you owe him none in his passing.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 9:26 PM on July 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am sorry for your loss and the pain it has created. If I were you, I would do my best to meet as many of the relatives as possible and LISTEN to what they have to say. I suspect when you tell them who you are and how you are related (if they don't already know) they will want to tell you all sorts of things. LISTEN. I would fight temptation to comment, argue or contradict. I would try to smile and gather as much information as possible. I would ask factual questions. Only at the end of the day or few days, would I state my opinion or peace. Finally, at the ripe old age I am, I learned that you can learn a lot when your mouth is shut. Don't argue, don't defend or offend; just listen and answer factual questions with as little editorializing as possible. "Where did you grow up?" "I lived with my mother in Peoria for 6 years, then we moved to Chicago." Not, "After my father walked out on us leaving us on our own broke with no way to earn a living, we moved to a small shack on the wrong side of Peoria then to a rough neighborhood of Chicago." If these folks sense hostility from you they will either argue or clam up. Oh, I would start by talking to the Aunt who called you or to the half brother who has distanced himself from the family. Good luck.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:58 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can rent a suit!

Looking appropriate will go a loooong way towards making you feel at ease.

Look into renting a suit when you get there. Tuxedo shops have what you need.

My best wishes to on this courageous journey.
posted by jbenben at 11:56 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just want to affirm what several.people are telling you about your grief:

I had a friend in your exact situation (with the addition of beatings and domestic violence). She told us at the time: "I'm not grieving for him, I'm grieving for the father he was never going to be."
posted by availablelight at 12:02 AM on August 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

Do you have a friend, significant other, or family member who would be willing to go with you? Someone who can be supportive because she doesn't have her own feelings about your father and their relationship to deal with? Someone you trust to take care of you, and someone you feel comfortable enough with to talk about any uncomfortable feelings that come up? Because I think that would really help.

I've been in a situation a little like this (and you can feel free to MeMail me if you want to talk more), and what helped me most was having someone there so that, when one more well-meaning person tried to comfort me and it was just too much, I could give the signal and be escorted from the conversation, handed a drink, and allowed to vent for a minute to compose myself.

I'm really glad I went, but having that safety valve took some of the pressure off, because I wasn't afraid I was going to explode and do something inappropriate, and I could just focus on my own feelings without having to manage the situation. So if you can, I'd do that. And if you can't, I'd make sure to have some ready reason to excuse yourself and take breaks. If you smoke, or can pretend to, that's perfect. Or tell people that you're having some sort of emergency that requires you to go outside and check your cell phone periodically. Just something to give yourself a breather when you need it.

I think that you're absolutely right that you'll be glad you went, and that even if it doesn't turn out exactly the way you've hoped or planned, just like your initial meeting with your father, you'll find it cathartic or helpful or valuable in some way. Best of luck, and feel free to get in touch if you want to talk to a stranger who sort of understands.
posted by decathecting at 7:00 AM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think that you're going to freak out and say horrible things to people. Otherwise, you wouldn't be asking this question. I think that the process will give you some closure and some perspective. You'll meet people that show you where your Dad was coming from. You'll meet people that were hurt by him. You'll meet people that loved him even though he was a jerk. I'd go to listen, talk, share and learn. This is the only chance you'll get to maybe get a more rounded picture of your father. Odds are this will be healing, affirming, bewildering and a bit of an emotional mindfuck. If you can be there with a wingman of sorts, a close friend or confidant, that would go a long way to keeping you steady.

People will come up to you and say, "I'm so sorry for your loss." Depending on who they are, here's some scripts for your back pocket: "Thanks, our relationship was complicated and this is a difficult time." "Thanks. I really hardly knew the man and this is a difficult time." "Thanks."

Good luck. It's hard to lose someone in your life. It's a different level of hard when you don't have positive feelings for the person. You are grieving the loss of potential and the loss of the past. He did love you. He seemingly could not show it in a productive way and that's the real loss here. I think the funeral will help you find closure. You need that. I'll be thinking of you.
posted by amanda at 7:50 AM on August 1, 2012

If you expect you may have a hard time hearing kind words being spoken about him and may react inappropriately, can you skip the sit-down part of the funeral? I'm not sure what it's called, but there's some time beforehand to meet people and talk, and sometimes then you all go sit down and close family or friends give short speeches. Use that time to take a nice walk if you need to. I think this may be really good for you to grieve for the relationship you never had and meet your family.
posted by amicamentis at 9:47 AM on August 1, 2012

As others have said in other words: you're grieving for the might have been. You have my condolences.
posted by deborah at 3:22 PM on August 1, 2012

Don't worry about the suit. Be clean shaven, hair neat, nice shirt tucked in. Tie if it would make you feel better about yourself. Funerals now are not nearly as formal as they used to be--unless the deceased was one of the upper crust. You'll be fine, and it will be appreciated by his family that you took the time given that they know the history.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:47 PM on August 1, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you all for your kind and throughtful answers. I just wanted to post a follow-up. I attended, and while it was emotional, brutal, and difficult, it was also cathartic and wonderful to meet all of the family I never knew aI had.I learned a lot and as shocked as I am to say it, I even found some empathy for my father in the process. The family offered me a position as pallbearer and I took it. I even spoke at the funeral briefly. I couldn't have done it without all the kind words and perspective you folks showed me, so thank you very much. The family is really great too.
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 12:18 PM on August 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

Oh, that's good to hear. I'm glad for you. I was at a funeral today for a person who had complicated relationships with people. Funerals can be very interesting and thought provoking events. I wish you well.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:55 PM on August 3, 2012

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