What do you say when someone dies? Estranged/bad relationship edition.
September 20, 2020 12:00 PM   Subscribe

I have a few friends who have recently lost family members (e.g., parents) with whom they were not close and, in fact, sometimes had acrimonious relationships with (estrangement, abuse, etc.) How do you respond when someone experiences a death such as this?

In the cases of my friends, they all said they didn’t feel much, and in some cases felt happy or relieved, but still the death was a Big Deal. How do you provide support to friends who are experiencing this? What have you said to friends or acquaintances when you learn they have had someone die who they didn’t like or get along with? It feels coarse to say “I’m glad” but not appropriate to say “Sorry for your loss,” either. I understand that grief and mourning are often complex and ongoing processes (and perhaps even more so when the griever’s response doesn’t fit with the cultural norm or expectation) so I would like to know what others have said and done to support friend through this sort of situation. Thanks.
posted by stillmoving to Human Relations (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I have spoken to friends who have had abusive people in their lives and I've sometimes told them (if they were the type) to listen to John Darnielle being interviewed on Maron's podcast (sorry don't have the timestamp) talking about the complicated feelings, including relief, are that someone can have when their abuser dies. It's really hard when people are all giving you the "So sorry for your loss" and all you can think is "They will never hurt me anymore."

There are aspects of grief that are expected and they are often performative (i.e. people think you should act or feel a certain way) and that can, in its own way, be a difficult part of this. Googling "complicated grief" can sometimes help but being a non-judgmental person to be there for people to talk about how they are feeling, how they are really feeling, can be a kindness. I often say "Wow that sounds really complicated. Want to talk about it at all?"
posted by jessamyn at 12:07 PM on September 20, 2020 [7 favorites]

"I'm sure you must have really complicated feelings about this. I'm thinking about you, and I'm here if you want to talk about it." And after that, you can ask them how they're doing and take their lead about whether they want to discuss it or not.

I recently lost a parent with whom I had a mostly good relationship, and to be honest, I don't usually want to talk about it.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:09 PM on September 20, 2020 [8 favorites]

I usually say “I’m thinking of you,” or “I wish you peace.” That covers most situations where the person had a complex relationship with the deceased.
posted by corey flood at 12:28 PM on September 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

"I'm so sorry. That's got to be really emotionally complicated. It's a lot to wrestle with and I'm sorry you have to go through that. I hope you're able to take good care of yourself." Or some combination of these sentiments.

Basically not "I'm sorry for your loss," but "I know this is complicated and topsy-turvy, and I'm sorry you are dealing with that emotional upheaval."
posted by gideonfrog at 12:55 PM on September 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

“I’m thinking of you. I can only imagine this feels like a weird and complicated time. Grief is not linear, and looks different for everybody... just a reminder that there’s no right or wrong way to feel in situations like these. I’m here for you, and here to lend an ear anytime.”
posted by nathaole at 1:45 PM on September 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

Darnielle's comments to Maron about the death of his abuser come around 59:28.
> listen to John Darnielle being interviewed on Maron's podcast (sorry don't have the timestamp) talking about the complicated feelings, including relief, are that someone can have when their abuser dies.
posted by D.Billy at 1:52 PM on September 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've had two very close friends with estranged parents who died, and I think I semi-fucked it up both times. But I was lucky that both of them talked about it with me pretty extensively afterwards, and so I did learn stuff.

Your instincts are right that it is wrong & can be horrible to express sadness. It makes the person feel pressured to perform grief, and also it makes them feel lonely and alienated, because it makes them feel like the person expressing sadness doesn't really know/understand them :(

I think the best thing to do is to just neutrally ask them how they're doing and then mirror back / normalize whatever they are feeling. Like, one of my friends felt nothing when her father died, and what she wanted was a brief agreement that that was okay and didn't make her a bad person. And then she wanted to talk about other stuff. My other friend wanted to talk extensively about how awful it would be to get sucked back into his family of origin as a result of the death, and then he wanted vigorous affirmation that he was correct to not reengage with any of them.

Tone is a big deal. The "normal" tone of sorrow (being quiet, being slow, choosing your words carefully) is not necessarily appropriate and might even be offensive. My one friend wanted things to sound & feel like nothing had happened. My other friend wanted to make a million super-dark jokes.

So my basic advice is to not have any preconceived ideas, to ask how they're doing, and then to 100% follow their lead.
posted by Susan PG at 2:21 PM on September 20, 2020 [6 favorites]

When something like this happened to me, I wasn't upset about the death, but I did find myself suddenly grieving the relationship I never had. Trying to think of funeral appropriate stories to tell about the dead person made me hugely upset, thinking what it must be like for regular people with their ready supply of pleasant and non horrific anecdotes about their relatives. I was still sad about all the typical life things that people do with their (relatives) that I wouldn't get to do, even though it wasn't the death itself that got in the way of those things.

I was also extremely relieved that the person died in comfort and well looked after, since the person's circumstances had led us to live in fear of the news of a much less pleasant death.

Having someone else understand any of this would have been nice.
posted by quacks like a duck at 3:12 PM on September 20, 2020 [12 favorites]

When something like this happened to me, I wasn't upset about the death, but I did find myself suddenly grieving the relationship I never had.

This was me, earlier this year. I also found out after the fact which created an additional, unexpected emotional response.

I don't think there is any particular magical set of words, here. I think that a couple of the responses above would have been appreciated (sorry, complicated, here for you...) but some of the people who have known about this and responded were people who did not know or chose not to accept that this was an estranged relationship. I think I just thanked them for thinking of me but it did... rankle a bit at times. For this reason I am still rather selective about who gets this information.
posted by sm1tten at 4:22 PM on September 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

The police found my mom's body the day we went into lockdown, and she was a pretty complicated and occasionally abusive person before that.

It was a complicated time.

What really stands out for me are the people who showed up with food and no agenda, or who asked how they could help, and didn't assume any particular tone or role but let me do my thing, which turned out to be starting a baking blog and making eight million cookies about it. I'll always remember who was okay with dark jokes and who left a bag of flour on my doorstep and who asked me if I had books to read and if I was feeling up for reading and then bought me some books. I don't think of myself as particularly materialistic, but material offerings like the bag of flour, or a soup from another friend, or the books were really nice because they didn't presuppose that I was any which way.
posted by unstrungharp at 9:22 PM on September 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

“Sounds like a complicated time. Here’s some food. Let me know what I can do to support you.”
posted by bluedaisy at 11:38 PM on September 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Having experienced the loss of both estranged parents, I’d say don’t underestimate how complicated feelings can be. My parents were both occasionally loving, funny and supportive in between being hateful, spiteful, abusive and violent. I found myself cycling through a range of grief, relief, loss, guilt, shame etc in the aftermath of their deaths, quite unpredictably. I mean, one minute I’d remember a stupid dad joke and be devastated by loss and grief, the next minute flashback to being punched in the face and be ragingly angry.

I think it’s best to acknowledge the complexity and difficulty but avoid any specifics. I had people say - ‘oh but you weren’t close, were you’ (like that makes it ok) and also ‘I’m sure he was an amazing dad’ (I kind of snorted at that one and got looked at strangely).
posted by ElasticParrot at 2:11 PM on September 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

A late reply to say thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts and complicated and complex personal experiences.
posted by stillmoving at 12:15 PM on October 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

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