How do I handle communications with friends of my deceased father?
February 3, 2016 12:54 PM   Subscribe

My father passed away quite suddenly in December 2014. Do I need to help all his close, personal friends through their grief while I'm still grieving myself?

My father was a ... mercurial man ... absolutely beloved by the students he taught for 30 years. He also maintained deep friendships (some I'm sure inappropriately) with former girlfriends (he was married at the time of his death) and had one close friend, whom I'll call Uncle Buddy, for 45 years. They were brothers in the truest sense of the word and I love Uncle Buddy as a true uncle, though he and I are not related by blood.

My relationship with my father was difficult at best. We sometimes went for years without speaking to one another. He never paid formal child support and partied, drank and snorted away much of his income and never outgrew his need for a good time. Nonetheless, we were very much alike in personality and both shared a deep love for a good laugh, good books and music. I loved him fiercely in spite of himself.

Since his death, I regularly receive phone calls and emails from Uncle Buddy (usually drunk and tearful when he calls) and an ex-girlfriend of my dad's I'll call Kathy. Kathy and I were close as a child, when she and my dad lived together but haven't spoken much since they broke up during my college years. I learned after his death that he and Kathy emailed each other almost daily and it seems to me that I'm now getting those emails instead of my dad.

I certainly want to stay in touch with both Kathy and Uncle Buddy but I don't want to feel obligated to respond to every tearful phone call and email outreach. Uncle Buddy is a longwinded somebody and once he gets going on stories about good times he and my dad shared, it could be hours before I get him to stop. I'm also still processing my own grief and sometimes, I'm just not in the mood to do all the reminiscing with him.

How do I handle this, Hivemind?
posted by nubianinthedesert to Human Relations (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Get caller ID and don't answer the phone when they call. Call Uncle Buddy back when you feel like it and when he's likely to be sober. Don't respond to Kathy's emails any more often than you want to.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:56 PM on February 3, 2016 [25 favorites]

Nthing advice above. After my mother died, one of her friends, a stranger to me, would call every two weeks or so. After every call I would hang up the phone and burst into tears because this person was deeply religious, which I am not, and would tell me about how my mom was busy doing things in heaven, etc. Or other stuff that made me sad. She was having dreams about my mom, for example, and I was so jealous because I wanted to see my mom however briefly with all my heart. Eventually I asked this stranger to stop calling me because it was too painful, which it was. Your situation is different, but your primary responsibility is still to yourself. Caring for yourself requires putting yourself and your own needs first and responding to the drunken uncle when he is not drunk and on your own timeline. It's true that it can be useful to grieve with other people. But these folks are asking you to comfort them at your own expense. That's not OK and you need to train them to stop expecting comfort on demand. My condolences on your loss. I'm about to lose my own cranky, crazy dad whom I love very much despite his alcoholic, narcissistic ways. And I expect losing him will be very hard. So you have my sympathies.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:14 PM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

You don't owe anyone anything. It's OK if you can't deal with the grief of your father's friends. You don't have to talk to them. You don't have to answer their calls or emails.

Take care of yourself first.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 1:16 PM on February 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I loved him fiercely in spite of himself.

I had a similar thing happen several years ago. Dad dropped dead all of the sudden leaving people who had ... weird relationships with him unclear of where to put that weirdness and some of it came back to me. I did a lot of polite putting off. "Hey thanks for telling me that story, I'm not free to talk right now, want to set up a time to get together next month" (or something, I don't know if this is geographically feasible). So I shifted some people to emails which I gradually stopped replying to and I did in fact stop answering the phone.

People want what they want. You can think about what you want and if it's to NOT have these conversations with people that is 100% fine. You can work with boundary-setting if that is your thing "Hey Uncle Buddy I like to talk to you but it's got to be before dinnertime because otherwise I'm putting the kids to bed" (or whatever) or just be a little more passively unavailable.

And with people you are not blowing off, it can be helpful to say "Hey Id like to stay in touch but now is not a great time for me and I can't handle this level of communication about Dad right now" Do you have siblings you could maybe pawn people off on, or even cousins who you could commiserate with? Could you move some of these interactions to facebook or email?

I'm sorry for your loss, I had some luck reading up on "complicated grief" where you lose someone who was also sort of a pain in the ass. It's tough enough on its own without other people's baggage making it harder. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 1:25 PM on February 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

You do not have to work through these people's grief in addition to your own. It is totally ok not to want to do this.

Obviously I don't know much of the particulars, and this could be the world's dumbest suggestion, but do/would Uncle Buddy and Kathy get along? Could they work out some of this grief energy on each other?
posted by mskyle at 1:29 PM on February 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

Nthing you absolutely don't have to take those calls. I'm sorry for your loss and I can identify, not with the particulars, but with your own grief process being co-opted by others. Draw your boundaries where you need them to be. You're not wrong or selfish to do so.

Back in the day there was nobody to say you're not wrong or selfish to do so - so I didn't do so. Not doing so lengthened the grief process considerably. Take care of yourself.

(And if you are a reader you might enjoy Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn - a well-told memoir featuring a father who sounds not unlike yours.)
posted by headnsouth at 1:36 PM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Drunk dialing is sadly pretty meaningless, even to the person who does it. Caroline Knapp did a great job in Drinking: A Love Story of explaining how being very emotional while smashed is often a way to express feeling without actually feeling it or getting past it or maturing. No, you don't have to respond to those calls or call back. When he is sober, tell him these calls are hard for you because you are still working through your own grief.
posted by bearwife at 1:38 PM on February 3, 2016 [7 favorites]

Don't answer Uncle Buddy, unless you have time to kill. One trick I've learned from my friends in the south is the phrase, "I'm right in the middle of something so I'm going to let you go now. Talk to you soon!" Then hang up. Only talk to Uncle Buddy when you have 15 minutes to spare, and no more than that.

As for Kathy, just ask her to back off. "Hi Kathy, it's been great reconnecting with you. I have a lot of unresolved issues with Dad and right now I need to concentrate on other things. As much as I enjoy an occasional email to catch up, I'm not in the right frame of mind to discuss Dad and his relationships with other people. Thank you for understanding." Then once a month send her a quick note to keep in touch.

I'm sorry for your loss. I know how this is, and you need to take care of yourself.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:55 PM on February 3, 2016

When I was growing up, there was a friend of the family who worked from home and was terribly lonely and you could never get her off the phone in under an hour. People dreaded hearing from her. I was a teen and sometimes took the call kind of out of compassion, but lots of very kind people just wanted nothing to do with her because she was behaving like an emotional vampire. She just had no respect for the fact that other people had things to do and it wasn't really okay to expect folks to drop everything and meet some of her needs for the next hour every single time she called.

This is a bit like that. Uncle Buddy's behavior isn't really about grieving per se. He may be treating you as a substitute for your dad, which he really has no right to do, but this isn't really grief. This is someone who is emotionally needy and has decided to latch onto you without your permission. There probably is a relationship between your dad's death and his decision to do that, but it really isn't about grief. You are just a new shoulder to cry on and he never asked if that was okay with you. For whatever reason, he feels entitled to decide that unilaterally.

Same thing with Kathy.

You are not obligated to meet their emotional needs in a one sided relationship where they mostly take and have no respect for your boundaries. In fact, I think it is kind of icky that Kathy is contacting you. To me, what you have described sounds like a pseudo romantic relationship between her and your father and now she is expecting you to fill that void even though you are the offspring of the person of pseudo romantic interest.

It sounds to me like both of these people are trying to keep their feelings for your dad alive and you are the totem through which he "lives on" in their minds/emotions. And it isn't a role you asked for and they never asked you if that was okay and it is not okay to unilaterally decide to just use someone in that manner.

Neither of these people has healthy boundaries. The death of your father is kind of "The Excuse" for latching onto you, but they probably just habitually latch onto people and don't have very healthy relationships. You do not have to put up with that.

I will also suggest that disengaging from these two people is the best thing you can do for their mental and emotional health. Letting them just transfer all their feelings to you because they don't know what to do with their Feels just supports their desire to not actually accept that he is dead and life will never be the same. It just helps them continue to live in denial. So I tend to feel very okay about choosing to disengage from such things because I feel I am doing them a favor, though they won't appreciate it.
posted by Michele in California at 2:00 PM on February 3, 2016 [13 favorites]

Put Kathy and Uncle Bob in touch with each other.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:19 PM on February 3, 2016 [18 favorites]

Seconding everyone, but I think it at least owe it to be a little honest with your father's friends:

"I'd love to talk, but to totally honest, I'm also still processing my own grief, and sometimes, it's still really hard for me to talk a lot about my father lately. I hope you understand."
posted by suedehead at 3:50 PM on February 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

N'thing everyone who is telling you that you don't owe either Uncle Buddy or Kathy anything, including your time.

But you say you do want to maintain some contact with them. So, what you need to do is create --- and hold! --- boundaries. You don't need to explicitly tell them what your boundaries are, just hold yourself to them. For Uncle Buddy: you are NOT required to answer your phone any time anybody feels like interrupting you. So don't: don't more than every third or fourth call, and after half an hour politely tell him you're busy and have to go, and HANG UP --- he can't physically prevent you from putting down your phone, no matter how talkative he is.

For Kathy: you say she emails almost daily. Okay, let her: just stop responding more than once or twice a week. Don't worry about answering her point-by-point either; just make broad bland replies.
posted by easily confused at 5:34 PM on February 3, 2016

Decide what level of contact you do want. If you want to talk to Uncle Buddy weekly, than answer or make a call weekly. If you want email contact, decide how much, and reply or email at that level.
posted by theora55 at 8:58 AM on February 4, 2016

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