Funeral etiquette with estranged family
February 27, 2018 11:42 AM   Subscribe

My grandmother is likely in her last days, so I'm expecting to attend her funeral soon. The catch- I've been estranged from my mother (by my choice, for reasons that I think are valid, but she disagrees). How do I handle seeing her at the funeral with grace, but without letting her violate my boundaries?

I would like to go to the funeral to support some relatives that I'm still somewhat close with, and I missed my grandfather's funeral because I was out of the country years ago when he passed, so I'd feel very bad missing this as well.

I don't want to cause a scene by completely ignoring my mother (which, honestly, would be my preference, but I can be a bigger person for a day). She has a life-long habit of pushing boundaries, and I don't know how to balance showing her some kindness with being firm that I'm not open to reestablishing our relationship. She knows (or at least, I've communicated to her) the reasons why I cut her off, but I suspect that she doesn't really know, in that I don't think she can see things from another perspective at all. Our estrangement is relatively recent, since 2016, so it's not like it's been years and years since we last spoke, and there may be an expectation that this will be a time to patch things up, but I'm not interested in patching things up. Fun fact: my brother is also estranged from her (for more than a decade), but I'm not sure if he'll be going to the funeral or not. So this whole estrangement scenario is not exactly new in our family, but it's new-ish for me.

In case it's relevant, mental illness has been a significant cause of her behavior for my entire life, and she treated me like her therapist when I was kid and young adult, until I learned to how to set boundaries, so that's part of the dynamic that I really want to steer clear of at a time that's going to be emotional for everyone.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork to Human Relations (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm so sorry this is a concern for you at this time. Are you familiar with the concept of "grey rock"? It comes up a lot regarding interacting with narcissists, but is really helpful for situations like this regardless of the exact reason(s) for estrangement. If you want to use it, coming up with specific scripts beforehand can help you prepare, and on the day of, it's nice to have a reminder of your plan like dressing in grey, or carrying a rock/similar token.
posted by teremala at 11:56 AM on February 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Be polite but dismissive, like she's a stranger you have no interest in getting to know, if she attempts to interact with you. Take someone else along to act as a buffer, if possible. Stay calm. If she melts down, that's on her.

And check JustNoMIL on reddit. Those with JustNoMoms are welcome, too... and you'll have found an understanding community with lots of commiseration and helpful advice.
posted by stormyteal at 12:20 PM on February 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hmm. I have a different opinion, which might be unpopular, which is that in case of family conflict, more distant relatives should yield and let the people most affected by the death grieve in peace if it's at all possible. I know it always isn't possible, e.g., if two sisters are in conflict and a parent passes, but here it seems clear that it's your mom's mom and it might be nice just to let her focus on that and reach out to the other relatives in different ways.
posted by salvia at 12:33 PM on February 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Well, the nice thing about a family funeral is there's always someone else you need to say hello to and comfort. Say a polite hello to your mother, say a few appropriate consolation/funeral words and then move on to someone you want to interact with. If your mother crosses your boundaries, you notice your aunt (or whatever safe relative) across the room and you go talk to your aunt.

Also at a funeral you always have the excuse of being overcome by grief and needing to take some time for yourself. Not saying you should fake anything, just that it's generally OK to remove yourself from the situation. And you can pretty much always redirect a conversation back to the deceased person.

You don't need to call attention to the fact that you're minimizing your interaction with your mother, and you don't need to be unkind about it; you don't necessarily need to assert your boundaries out loud in this particular situation.

I think there's a way to do this where, on this one day, you're kind to your mother but interact with her minimally, but it kind of depends on your mother's particular style of boundary-pushing.
posted by mskyle at 12:42 PM on February 27, 2018 [10 favorites]

neutral, polite. Express condolence the way you would to anyone else.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:51 PM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I went to a parent's funeral/memorial and stayed several days in a house with my estranged sibling and other siblings from whom I am not estranged. I knew going in that I could handle anything short of a screaming fight, and was as neutral and polite as I could be, and otherwise avoided contact. It was weird and hard. I am sorry you have to deal with this.

Use your duties as a near relative as an excuse to talk to people other than your mother.

Spend time with the relatives you want to talk with. Talk with your mother only in larger groups. Don't get in a car with her (like from the memorial to the graveside, if that's how things go).

Say things that are technically true without getting into details (one thing I said to my sibling at one point, to forestall a fight, was "we're okay" - this was a statement I hoped to make true by saying it, and meant for the moment only rather than as a promise of future contact).

Don't count on the memorial giving you a chance to grieve. My siblings and I have all had to process our parent's death at other times and with other people, since it wasn't really safe to be vulnerable while our other sibling was present. If you can, get together with people later in order to talk about your grandmother.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 1:08 PM on February 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I was in a similar position two years ago, when I went to sit with my estranged father as he was dying. I found the phrase "I'm not here to re-litigate anything." extremely helpful. It allowed me to do what I went to do without creating or re-igniting family drama.

Of course this only works if you then proceed to NOT re-litigate anything. Do your absolute best not to play into the drama. Think before you go about why you're going and keep a laser focus on your purpose there.
posted by workerant at 1:26 PM on February 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Can you talk to your brother about the situation? He's been doing this not-talking-to-your-mom thing for a long time, and he may have advice that's more geared to your specific mom than we can provide. Also, if he is going to the funeral, he may be able to offer a shoulder to lean on while you're there.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:50 PM on February 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Don't get in a car with her (like from the memorial to the graveside, if that's how things go).

If you can just avoid getting into a car with her, that's fine, but please don't make a fuss if someone has already made an arrangement that requires you to do so. I had an aunt who refused to ride with her sister at my father's funeral (and he had died very suddenly, so we were still in shock), and that was not something my mother needed to deal with right then (these were the funeral home cars, so it wasn't just a matter of people who were driving their own cars). My aunt ended up looking like a terrible person for bringing her family drama into a tough situation. It sounds like you aren't going to do that, but I just wanted to bring it up.

Remember too, in the oft-cited circles of grief, your mother is closer to the center than you are. It sounds like you can manage being polite but distant, but if you can't, even if it's your mom's "fault," I think you need to be the person to quietly take your leave.
posted by FencingGal at 1:55 PM on February 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If she says something you don't want to hear about, tell her you're here for Grandma, or that it's Grandma's day. Don't engage. If it's your mother's mother, say the proper sympathetic words, maybe ask her how she's feeling about losing her. It's always okay to say nothing and look away if your mom is being difficult. Or rehearse ways to change the subject. If other people are close by, you can address any of them about anything you want.
posted by wryly at 2:47 PM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Perhaps contact her before the funeral and say you're sorry about your Grandmother's death, you hope she's ok, and you're thinking of attending the funeral if that's ok with her. And then do your best to put aside any weirdness and just be kind and warm-ish to her at the funeral. Hug her, bring her a coffee, ask if she needs anything.

If you think you'll need to be kind of cold with her (especially to the point where others would notice), or if it's more than 20% possible that your being there might spark any kind of drama, I think it'd actually be selfish to go.

It's her mother and I assume their relationship was closer than yours was (well, perhaps not if your Grandma raised you but in general)... if so, I would suggest you let her have the time to grieve without worrying about your presence. Send notes or call the other relatives. And go see your Grandmother before she dies if you can, to do your family duty and get to say your goodbye in case attending the funeral doesn't work out. I'm sorry you're in this tough situation.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:03 PM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think it'd actually be selfish to go.

My mother sounds exactly like yours and I wanted to gently push back on this. If your mom turns it into drama, that's on her. If this was an afternoon luncheon it would be as likely that she'd turn it into drama as a family funeral, yes? You're not there to talk shit about your mom, just to grieve your own family member who you had a personal relationship with. And just because you have a mom that is mentally ill does not mean you shouldn't be able to do that.

So I'm with others: check in with your brother to see what his deal is. Keep in mind you absolutely do not have to go, but it's fine if you do, even if you're chilly-polite to your mom. Arrive late, leave early. I used a variant of grey-rock called "loving broken record" in which I basically say "Hey I care about you but I'm not going to have this conversation with you right now" and then move on. More weirdness? Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Sorry for your impending loss.
posted by jessamyn at 6:38 PM on February 27, 2018 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Due to a similar estrangement I did not attend a funeral for someone I was fairly close to. Sometimes we think that we should do what we want without "letting other people define us." (I haven't read the other comments yet, but I hear this line a lot.)

But funerals are for the living, and would I really be processing my grief appropriately with the focus on avoiding or confronting the estranged person? No. So although I was sad I didn't participate in a communal grieving ceremony, at the same time grieving on my own was far better than dealing with the estranged person. Tl;dr; does your attendance with your mother there still benefit you more than your not-attendance? If yes, go. If not, don't.
posted by ticktickatick at 9:42 PM on February 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

I agree with the minority view here in thinking that you'd actually be being the bigger person by not going. She will soon have lost both her parents; highlighting the fact that she's also lost her children, however much that may be her own fault, loses you the moral high ground and does not really seem adequately counterbalanced by wanting to support relatives you're "somewhat" close to.

If you do go, consider that your family situation means there's a much higher than usual chance that the next time you interact with your mother might be when her funeral comes around. Let that inform how you plan to behave, what you hope you get out of your attendance, and what significance this event carries forward into your family's future.
posted by protorp at 2:47 AM on February 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You have every right to attend your grandmother's funeral. I like the idea of having someone around to act as a buffer and distraction, and the phrase, "I am only here for my grandmother today and prefer to focus on that. Be sparing in your words, but polite, and be prepared to leave the room if necessary.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:22 AM on February 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

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