A funeral with a crazy family estrangement scenario
December 23, 2012 6:44 PM   Subscribe

How do I deal with my estranged brother at our grandmother's funeral?

My paternal grandmother passed away today, after a long illness, at the age of 89. Her funeral is in a Midwest state on Friday. I will be traveling by air to attend the funeral, without my husband or children.

My husband let my brother, from whom I am estranged for many reasons, most of which boil down to "he's an abusive asshole and I'm done putting up with it", know about our grandmother's death. This was at my request, because my father was worried about making sure he knew but could not deal with handling it. Please note that my brother and our father are also estranged, again mostly because my brother is a self-centered asshole who cut our father off for reasons that make no sense to anyone, ever. Our father is not perfect, but he, to my knowledge, did nothing to deserve my brother's behavior.

My brother's response to my husband was rude, abusive, and completely typical for my brother. My brother had maintained a minimal relationship with our paternal grandparents and some of our many aunts and uncles. The impression that I am receiving from multiple sources is that my brother intends to attend the funeral (3+ hours driving distance from his home).

My question: how do I make sure that 1) my brother does not add to my father's grief over the death of his beloved mother; 2) I do not completely lose my shit on my brother; and 3) I have a plan for what to do if my brother DOES, in fact, add to my father's misery or makes a difficult situation even more horrific?

(I am in therapy. I will not be able to see my therapist before I go. My brother and I are 40-ish. My dad is in his mid-60s.My husband completely supports anything I choose to do. I have the financial means to do anything reasonable.)
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse to Human Relations (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My sincerest condolences to you and your family.

Do you have any friends that are near where the funeral is being held that can accompany you? Because dealing with your brother (even with the good intentions of protecting your father) when everyone's emotions are running high needs to be dealt with by someone who will not be emotionally affected or be triggered by anything said. A friend could be support the you and also run interference. In a pinch, I would check the psychology today listing to hire a social worker/therapist to accompany you and maybe deescalate any situations. Interview a few over the phone and choose one that seems compassionate and capable. Alternatively, someone on staff at the funeral home may have a similar role or leads on appropriate people to hire.

Since this has the potential to be an ugly situation you need to bring the funeral director(s), clergy and any other professionals you are dealing with into the loop ASAP. They have seen/heard it all in terms of family dynamics and need to be fully informed and prepared (a recent photo of your brother may come in handy for them). Your brother shouldn't be excluded by them but they can work together to make him included in a positive way.

I'm sorry you have this stress on top of your grief and hope it ends up turning out well.
posted by saucysault at 6:57 PM on December 23, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Treat your brother the way you would treat an inappropriate and abusive coworker whom you had to spend time with at a work function---cool politeness is the watchword. Try to keep an eye on your dad so that your brother doesn't corner him. If your brother does say anything inappropriate or abusive, have some prepackaged responses ready: "Now isn't the time for this, John" or "Today isn't about you, John, it's about Grandma" and similar. "I'm not going to have an argument with you today, John" may come in handy.

Feel free to ask the funeral directors, personnel at the church or temple, and other family members for help defusing situations. "Can you take Dad into the kitchen for some coffee, Cousin Joe? I don't want him and John to get into an argument today" frames the issue fairly neutrally.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:01 PM on December 23, 2012 [14 favorites]

And I meant to say also that I'm very, very sorry for your loss.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:03 PM on December 23, 2012

If you have friends or family members on the maternal side who could do it (or even a more distant family member who is not close to your grandfather), you should ask one or several of them to try to keep your brother out of everyone's hair. You should absolutely warn the funeral directors/priest/rabbi/etc.

Sidhedevil's responses are good; you can also walk away or, when it's not appropriate, tune out and make acknowledgement sounds while you're not listening to a word he says.

I am very sorry for your loss.
posted by jeather at 7:15 PM on December 23, 2012

I have the financial means to do anything reasonable.

About 15 years ago, I read an Ann Landers column about how to deal with a crazy relative who was likely to cause drama and strife at a wedding, and make it all about herself. Ann Landers recommended hiring a psychiatric nurse to sit next to the relative (acting as just another wedding guest) and subtly redirect the relative if she started to act out. It might be worth considering in your situation.
posted by cairdeas at 7:17 PM on December 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for the condolences. She lived a long and full life; I am sad she is gone, and my upset is mostly for my father, who was her eldest child and went through quite a bit with her, including the early and unexpected death of his father/her first husband.

My maternal side is not an option. My parents divorced, quite bitterly, when my brother and I were young. This is part of my brother's issue with both of our parents (he is estranged from both of them). For full disclosure, I have not spoken to my mother for about 6 months, since I told her that she was not to hit my children and she threw us out of her house. Yes, I know, it's fucked up. As I said, I am(we are - include my husband and children) in therapy. My brother found out about this issue with our mother, and threw it in my husband's face today on top of everything else.

I cannot believe I did not think of enlisting the funeral director! I grew up in a funeral home, and I know FDs are an outstanding resource. I will be there for the visitation on Thursday; I will be sure to corral the FD and fill him or her on the situation.

I'd truly appreciate more suggestions for keeping my cool. I am not above a flask or a Xanax (though if I have to drive, those will not be options). Ideally, I will be cool, calm, and collected (even through tears). I am also not above completely turning my back on him, but he is the type to follow me and hiss nasty things. I will keep the psychiatric nurse in mind, but he likes to cultivate an image of wounded poor dear, so hopefully he won't instigate a scene.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 7:51 PM on December 23, 2012

What about roleplaying? Might it be helpful to get someone who knows what your brother is like to pretend to be your brother and say whatever crazy things your brother could be expected to say in a situation like this? I know some people can be manipulative or instigative in very predictable ways and perhaps this is true of your brother as well. I'm not sure if that would be helpful or just bother you, but I feel like if I did this with a good friend, we might even have a laugh about how ridiculous he is and then when I was actually there with him and he started acting up, maybe I could think back to that and take some deep breaths and be able to stay cool.

I always feel better about nerve-wracking personal interactions if I've practiced them in the most realistic way possible. I like to go to the actual place where the stressful interaction is going to be and get comfortable with it ahead of time if I can - it sounds stupid but I have a nervous stomach and the more familiar I feel with a place and a situation, the less likely I am to let it make me upset.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:08 PM on December 23, 2012

Best answer: I am sorry for your loss.

I'm sure you are not exactly thinking clearly. It's OK! We're here to help.

Now. This is going to be harsh, and I apologize, but it has to be said.

There is a lot of trouble and strife in your family of origin. You made the classic mistake of having your husband call your brother and treat him like a civil person who is not estranged. Further, it sounds like a powder keg, and again, you are hoping against hope this will go well. Past experience tells you it won't.

We can't change the present. I'm letting you know all of this so you can put a pin in it for future family events. OK?

I'm estranged from my family. I'm sure I have not been informed when people I am no longer close with have gotten ill or passed. That's OK by me. There is a lot of strife between my family members I do not want near myself, my husband, or my child.

You have invited a match (your brother) to a powder keg (a significant and emotional family event.)

If you TRULY wish to handle this with grace, go in accepting that you can not control others. If people fight or are mean spirited towards you or each other, that is on them.

Were I you, I would behave exactly as I would want my child(ren) to see me behave. If someone is mean, walk away politely. If someone wants to gossip, bad mouth another, or use you as a shoulder to cry on, remain kind and somewhat aloof. Don't fuel the fire too much by commiserating in the heat of the moment, thereby heating it up more.

If it explodes, take cover.

Keep the bigger picture in mind, namely: you don't want to pass this dysfunction onto your children and their children as your legacy, so start disengaging when things get dicey.

The thing to remember is that you have never had control over these people. That won't magically change for the better starting this Friday. Start acting in accord with reality, let the rest go.

I'm really really sorry.

Trying to interact with mean angry dysfunction pretty much always backfires. Your best bet is to withdraw your energy from the fray.

Anything else just feeds the drama and trouble.

Be strong in your boundaries. You can do this!
posted by jbenben at 8:14 PM on December 23, 2012 [15 favorites]

Get someone to drive you, and hey, that is what a small glass of wine or a Zanax is for.

posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:25 PM on December 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm glad she had a good life, but I'm sorry for you for the loss of your grandmother.

If it were me, I wouldn't drink or use Xanax, simply because my verbal boundaries are much lower when I imbibe. It would just add more fuel to the fire. If you're one of those folks who gets quieter when they imbibe you may have better luck.

When I have to deal with situations like this, I put on my Professional Face. I treat it like a work event. Cool, calm, and collected are the words of the day. I also try to think of things that are likely to happen - as others have mentioned, people tend to act out in predictable ways. Think of ways you'll want to deal with them when they happen. For instance:

"If my brother corners me, I will excuse myself to check on X elderly relative. 'I'm sorry to cut you off, John, but Mabel seems to need some assistance. Please excuse me'"

"If my brother starts berating my father, I will seek the assistance of the funeral director."

"If my brother starts yelling, I will quietly ask him to leave, or have ((distant relative or inlaw)) ask him to leave."

I find that practicing with a neutral party - a friend, for instance, or my husband - beforehand helps me during the actual events. It's like muscle memory for my emotional reactions.

I wish you luck.
posted by RogueTech at 9:47 PM on December 23, 2012

I'm sorry for your loss.

Would you be able to have a phone session with your therapist?
posted by brujita at 9:47 PM on December 23, 2012

Enter with compassion.

Assuming that your brother has only ever been verbally abusive, call him yourself. Get your relatives aboard and tell him that everyone wants him there. Lose your connection at the first hint of ire, but you can't really do anything about whether he attends. If he blows up at you and still shows up, you know he wants to be there for reasons he may not be able to articulate.

Give your brother an enthusiastic hug when you first see him. Get your dad and everyone else your brother feels estranged from in on that and see what happens. Even if that doesn't go well, you'll all feel better for having tried.

He might run, or he might just be nice for the day. He might manifest demons. He might be nice forever. You might have to throw him out or you might see him cry. Problem solved, you did your best.

The most recent hostility might stem from his being told about this by someone he doesn't know. Or it might be from something else. Something you don't know anything about.

Is your brother older? Did he have a few years with your family before you arrived? A different experience with your parents and grandparents? Do you look like your mother? You really can't imagine how he might interpret your shared childhood without talking to him. Sounds rough.

It's a difficult time for funerals. Dredges up all kinds of stuff. Best wishes.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 10:36 PM on December 23, 2012

Best answer: To not completely lose your shit: I have difficult relationships with many members of my family, and am easily stressed in social situations. I deal with this by pretending that I am observing a group of monkeys in the jungle. Seriously. I observe but don't comment on unusual behaviors, take note of odd family dynamics, and try to view any fights that break out as hyenas and lions just being themselves. I can't change these people, and they can't change me. The best I can do is be assertive to protect myself and let the chips fall where they may.
posted by xyzzy at 5:04 AM on December 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I was just now reading about a similar situation over at Captain Awkward's blog, concerning how to deal with an abusive relative at a wedding. You might find the post, and the comments there, have useful ideas?

I think they, and the wise folks above, have managed to cover anything that I could say - other than sympathy and good luck.
posted by Someone Else's Story at 11:34 AM on December 24, 2012

Best answer: This happened in my family exactly. The pastor and funeral director were QUITE experienced with this, and knew exactly what to do to diffuse the entire thing. They NEVER left the family alone...if the abusive one (Uncle in this case) made a move toward anyone not in their immediate family, one of the two of them would literally step in their way and motion them to someone else or engage them in conversation. I was amazed at their experience and the tactful way they did this over and over. As soon as he could, because nothing dramatic was allowed to happen, he left. He trash-talked all of the 'enemy-family' on facebook, BFD...in a nutshell, the people you pay to help your family are professionals and have dealt with this many times, allow them to help you.
posted by msleann at 6:46 PM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I wanted to come back and let everyone know how things went. I had an opportunity to talk to several aunts and uncles about my concerns. They were very understanding and reassuring.

My brother and his wife only came to the church for the funeral mass. I stayed far away from them. My father chose to approach my brother, and extended his hand, which my brother shook, and thanked him for coming, to which my brother did not respond.

I was a pall bearer. My brother sat in the back of the church. They did not come to the cemetery or the luncheon.

So my worry was for naught, but your reassurance and suggestions were a great help. Thank you.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 7:18 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

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