is there something wrong with me
January 14, 2021 10:08 AM   Subscribe

My aunt passed away very suddenly last week. For various reasons, I came to an acceptance of her death very quickly, and my grieving process hasn't involved much sadness. The rest of my family is struggling mightily with this, and I'm wondering if I'm a monster for not being more sad. Please help me assess.

My aunt was found dead in her apartment last week. She lived in Calcutta. Medical examiner's report indicates it was likely due to complications from COVID-19. My aunt was afraid of doctors for her whole life and depended on a local homeopath when she was ill. My dad in California had video-chatter with her not long before she passed and he suspected she wasn't well - she looked exhausted and was wheezing. He encouraged her to see an actual doctor, or at least call her niece who lives 15 minutes away from her who is a doctor for some advice, but she did not heed his advice, so here we are.

I used to be close with this aunt when I was younger. However, my father's family is extremely dysfunctional and outright toxic, and dealing with them for much of my life ended up exacerbating what turns out to me a number of mental heath issues I have that I am now finally receiving proper treatment for. I have distanced myself from my father's family considerably as I have worked to get healthy (not hard as I live in New York) - I have an aunt, uncle, and cousin in Europe who I used to correspond with regularly who I now only interact with on birthdays. I haven't been to India in over 15 years. I almost never communicate with my family still in India. I only communicated with my aunt who passed on birthdays as well. I know they have noticed this, because my dad is a big gossip monger and has let slip over the years that the rest of the family often speculates about what my problem is, how I'm making a living, what my life is like. (This is kind of strange because I am Facebook friends with two of my Indian cousins and fairly active there so it wouldn't take much for them to see what I'm up to or interact with me if they wanted to.) My dad's family are also massive triangulators, and the precipitating event(s) that caused me to back away were approximately ten years ago when I found out from European Aunt that my dad complains to everyone that I didn't communicate with him and he didn't know why (he was abusive when I was a child, that's why) and my Younger Aunt (the one who passed) took my dad's side and constantly roasted my supposed selfishness to the rest of the family in India, and then subsequently in a conversation with Younger Aunt found out that European Aunt also talks a lot of shit about me being a typical entitled American, and then subsequently in a conversation with my dad found out that the Indian family has taken to pretending I don't even exist anymore since they don't hear from me (again, weird, because of my connection to two of my cousins on Facebook). After this sequence of triangulated communication that basically everyone in my family dislikes me, I realized that it wasn't worth it to even try to maintain loose ties with them. I have worked on improving my relationship with my dad, as he is my only living parent, and he has mellowed out considerably in his old age and with the influence of my lovely stepmother. However, his family brings out the worst in him, and now that my Younger Aunt has passed away so suddenly, the whole family has been summoned to come together via WhatsApp chat to share memories and process grief by my father. This is planting me smack in the middle of a family dynamic that I have actively and intentionally tried to avoid for my own well-being, and it's stressing me the fuck out. We did an international WhatsApp video call last Saturday spanning four countries and five time zones and it just reminded me again why I stay away.

Some more context and examples of my dad's family's toxicity are in this comment from a recent FPP I made (mods, if this is considered self-linking I'm happy to simply copy-paste that section of my comment here).

(Tangentially, that video call made me hyper-aware of how much of an outsider I am in the context of my dad's family - not only am I the American cousin, but I don't have a post-graduate degree, don't work in a high-paying field, am the only artist (I'm a musician), and most of all - I don't look like them. They all look so much alike - it's so clear that they are a family, those genes are strong... but apparently my late mother's genes were stronger, as I look exactly like her and her family. I felt so self-conscious because of that. I realize this is my own hang-up, but it certainly did not help ease my anxiety in this video chat at all. Half of these people regularly choose to omit me as a member of this family!)

Since that video call, it has become clear to me how much the rest of my family is struggling with my aunt's passing. I reached out to my cousin in Europe, as I've always been closer to him than to the cousins in India, and he told me flat-out that he is still in denial. The Indian cousins were very close to her and they are shattered. My dad was always close to Younger Aunt and he's taking it very badly, wishing he could have somehow intervened to help. My uncle who is the oldest of the siblings in that generation is struggling with the existential crisis that he has somehow outlived his baby sister. And European Aunt is the mastermind of a bizarre alternate theory that Younger Aunt did not die of COVID but of a heart attack and is gaslighting the rest of the family into agreeing with her and has largely succeeded (impressive considering one of that family is a doctor who SPOKE WITH THE MEDICAL EXAMINER), and now the official family story to outsiders is that it was a heart attack. I do not understand why we need to lie, and I refuse to.

But moreover... while I am sad that Younger Aunt passed away, as she was a mostly lovely person (except when she and my dad got together - all they did was talk shit about the rest of the family, their friends, and basically everyone; their negativity just fed off of each other and it made me miserable to be in their presence), and I am angry that she went to a homeopath during a global pandemic and then died of the very disease that comprises said pandemic... I've also come to accept that this is the way it is, and in a perverse way, it's fitting that this is the way she went. She made the same choices about her health that she always did, and thus I feel that she kind of died on her own terms. And I don't want to judge that - how many of us will get to say that when its our time to go? My stepmother once said to me "Character is destiny." I feel that applies perfectly here, and it has helped me keep all of this in perspective.

However, my acceptance and peace with her passing is in stark contrast to the rest of the family, and is another reminder of what an outsider I am. My friends who I've told about this keep checking in on me almost daily, which is sweet and I appreciate their care, but is also a constant reminder that I am not completely broken up with grief, and is making me wonder if there's something wrong with me. Like, am I a monster? Am I a robot? Am I an asshole?

I've dealt with a lot of death in my life - my mother died of cancer when I was very young, I've lost two friends to suicide in the past five years, one friend to COVID last April, and another friend to pneumonia after a bypass procedure in the hospital last summer. I know what grief is. But I just am not feeling the same deep sadness, or crying, or feeling of loss with my aunt as I did in these other circumstances. I feel like by accepting that this is the way she died, I'm accepting her for who she is, and I find that comforting. I am trying to remember my happier memories of her when I was younger and she was less embroiled in the family dysfunction. And I'm doing fine. So I worry that I'm horrifying my friends who are checking in on me by saying "I'm really okay, please don't worry about me."

So. After all this, please, Hive Mind, tell me: Is there something wrong with me that I don't feel more sad? Does any of how I'm currently processing this seem unhealthy or bad? I'm already struggling so much having to be back in the family's orbit - my anxiety has increased and I'm back to taking my anxiety meds 3x a day when I'd finally tapered down to 1 a day IF NEEDED, and feeling like an outsider, and knowing they all view me as an outsider, and my acceptance of my aunts death has me feeling guilty. Am I okay, or am I an asshole?
posted by nayantara to Human Relations (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I expect my friends and family to grieve however they need to. As much or as little as they need to, and in the way that is most meaningful for them. Trust yourself.
posted by aniola at 10:17 AM on January 14, 2021 [17 favorites]

You're absolutely fine. You are not an asshole.

Also, please know that you do not have to participate in video chats with your family, or group phone calls, or anything if you don't want to. If speaking with them causes you anxiety and makes you feel like an outsider or otherwise makes you feel terrible, you do not have to continue. It sounds like you had already drawn some pretty good boundaries but maybe you need to extend them a little further and only interact with those family members who actually treat you like family and make you feel welcomed and loved.
posted by cooker girl at 10:17 AM on January 14, 2021 [8 favorites]

You are totally fine. No, you are not an asshole. It sounds like you are experiencing a lot of distress around the death-related ancillary involvement with your father’s family. I expect your as needed medication is tamping down some of the visceral grief symptoms you might otherwise feel. That is totally fine.

There is no right way to grieve. You may find that different feelings about your aunt’s death surface later on. Or you might not. Do what you need to do to care for yourself, and know that this too shall pass. I am sending you peace.
posted by little mouth at 10:21 AM on January 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

You're fine. I promise. Grief, or lack of it, is highly highly individual and contextual.

There's no way you "should" grieve. Not grieving much is part of the ordinary grief continuum! Neither your family nor your friend circle has any right to tell you what to feel, nor have they any veto power over your grief process.

I suppose there might be some chance your aunt's death will hit you in a different way later, which is a thing that happens... but if it doesn't, that's perfectly fine too.
posted by humbug at 10:22 AM on January 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Everybody grieves differently, and for different reasons. The movie Garden State is about a guy who doesn't cry at his mother's funeral in part because he's on antidepressants. I'm not saying antidepressants will cause you not to grieve, just that anything psychological such as grief is so incredibly complex that it's nearly impossible to explain satisfactorily.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:23 AM on January 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You're fine. Those of us who realise it's a pandemic expect people to die. Those in denial are the ones shocked when it happens.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:28 AM on January 14, 2021 [11 favorites]

Best answer: In my life I’ve found that I grieve differently for people who are in my daily life as opposed to people who are not. The void someone leaves who is an integral part of my daily living is different than the void left by someone who i don’t see or communicate with on the regular. So take that into consideration as well.
posted by Sassyfras at 10:31 AM on January 14, 2021 [18 favorites]

Best answer: You're fine.

People die all the time for all kinds of reasons; now even more than usual, with COVID. You understand this. Your life is not actually going to be any different now that she has passed. You're fine and whatever you are feeling is fine.

It's nice that your friends are checking on you, but you don't need to apologize or think there's anything wrong with you or perform a different reaction. Just tell them they are kind to check, and you're ok, and how are they doing?
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:37 AM on January 14, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Hey, not only is it normal to feel basically any amount of sad or not-sad when you're grieving, it's also normal to feel concerned that you're not feeling the appropriate amount of sadness. I think this is pretty universal, at least among people with a tendency to be introspective.

For your friends who are reaching out, though, maybe try to just appreciate them reaching out, regardless of the reason. For your family, as you say, this has reminded you why you keep your distance.
posted by mskyle at 10:37 AM on January 14, 2021 [13 favorites]

Everyone grieves differently, you are not an asshole for feeling what your feeling, but that goes both ways. Your family are not assholes for feeling how they're and grieving either. Neither of you is right or wrong in how you grieve.

They are sad, they would like to talk about her, it is a common way to deal with grief, they would like your involvement in that. How you feel about helping your family cope with their grief is a different issue to how you feel about the death. If your family is dysfunctional it is perfectly OK to set boundaries, if you have a healthier relationship with them. Sometimes you just suck it up & do the thing you don't want to do because you love them and it helps them. You know your relationship with your family better than we do.
posted by wwax at 10:42 AM on January 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I felt totally guilty when my father died, because while I was sad about it, he and I weren't that close for most of my life and I wasn't grieving in the way I was "supposed to" when he died. I felt even more guilty because people were approaching me with very moving stories about how it was for them when their own fathers died, and by extension, how they assumed it was for me too. And I felt like a total heel not only because I didn't feel the way they did, but for the fact that their stories didn't really resonate with me the way they wanted them to.

So that's a long way of saying no, there's nothing wrong with you, and also that it's common for people to assume that everyone has the same feelings and reactions to death as they do, but that's on them, not on you. It's just one story people tell themselves about grief, family, humanity, and so on, but that doesn't mean it has to be your story too.
posted by holborne at 10:59 AM on January 14, 2021 [8 favorites]

You're human. Everyone grieves differently. Don't be surprised if it hits you at an unexpected time, though.
posted by scruss at 11:02 AM on January 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You feel how you feel, and to me - granted, I'm of a similar practical-minded nature as you - this seems an appropriate amount of grief for the relationship you had with her.

It sounds like from your description that the people who are doing the Big Grief thing are the same people who participate in the sick system that you have opted out of. For them, they will have lost a significant source of dopamine, one of the stars of their drama, and also...well, a lot of times in these dysfunctional systems there can be a race to be the most wounded, the best griever, the most devastated. So yeah, they're going to use you in that drama too as an example of someone failing to perform to their standards, and it has nothing to do with you.

Having caught COVID is a big shame for a lot of people, which is why the heart attack story. It's frustrating and it makes a lot of things worse in the world, but many many people are hiding/lying about it's just gonna happen. There's nothing you can do about it. Just know in you're heart that you're right and they are absolutely ridiculous.

You are doing the right thing for yourself by trying not to play the family game, and it is definitely a kind of gaslighting to be around it, because they have to exude a very strong delusional field to keep it going for themselves. I suspect even your friends know to some extent how bad it is, and that's why they're checking in on you so much.

I find it easier to live with any necessary contact to those kinds of sick systems if you really embrace your non-participation as a real deliberate firm choice you make for your health and functionality. Not something wrong with you, a choice to withdraw from something unhealthy. Accept that the reason it makes you feel weird is because it feels weird to be the only person on the stage not in costume with memorized lines, and it feels weird to be standing there like "um, y'all know that's a spotlight and not the actual sun, right?"

There's no point in saying it, because they're all making a choice too. You should focus your energy on bolstering your reality touchpoints instead of trying to make sense of their fiction. Of course it hurts that they barely treat you like family and the right thing would be for them to not do that, but there's nothing YOU can do to make other people act right. You don't get to dictate other people's behavior, it wouldn't be right even if you could, but you are also not responsible for other peoples behavior. They're shitty, it's fine to keep your distance.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:03 AM on January 14, 2021 [12 favorites]

You may also find that months from now you’re washing the dishes or something and suddenly become extremely sad about this out of nowhere. That happened to me after my godmother died. No tears until months later when they all came out for no reason I could identify.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:12 AM on January 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is not your experience and this is not a comment on your experience, just an acknowledgment that people respond differently to different deaths. When I was visiting my mom once from college, she looked a bit serious and said I need to tell you something. I asked her what, and she looked even more serious and said, your aunt X died. It got really quiet. I looked into her eyes and my mom looked into my eyes ... and then we both started laughing. Because this particular relative had not been nice at all. Reportedly she would do things like park the driver’s side of her car in the shade but the passenger side in the sun when she was driving my elderly blind grandparent places. She was awful and hearing the news was a relief.

You have given perfectly good reasons for feeling the way you feel about your aunt passing. But it wouldn’t matter even if you had no good reasons because emotions aren’t about reasons. They aren’t necessarily logical and they don’t need to be defended. I think the hard part of this for you may be how it emphasizes your difference compared to your other relatives. I know that’s hard, but I hope you draw strength from the fact that you don’t look like your abusive father and you don’t seem to act like him either. That’s an awesome accomplishment. Congratulations, and I mean that sincerely.
posted by Bella Donna at 11:23 AM on January 14, 2021 [4 favorites]

Grief is weird, and I don't think it's ever appropriate to judge the way other people grieve. Sometimes you can be so exhausted by the circumstances of a death that the death itself doesn't hit you as hard or it doesn't hit you until later. I think this pandemic is so exhausting that is going to affect how people grieve as well. I've had to write two condolence letters this week, one to a cousin and one to a friend, and I'm mostly just tired and kind of sad, but focused on other things I'm dealing with too.

But I'd equally advise against judging the grief of your other relatives, which some people here seem to be doing. You don't know what's going on with them either, and it's really unkind to decide that other people are being performative or gaslighting you. Best to just accept that you feel the way you do and not spend time worrying about how others are grieving.
posted by FencingGal at 11:28 AM on January 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Different people react to grief in different ways. We generally go through the 5-stages of grief, but not in a particular order, and we can cycle back and forth before we eventually reach acceptance.

It's also possible you're still in a bit of denial, that you know it happened, but the consequences haven't quite "sank in".

But there's no "normal" way to deal with grief, nor a defined "socially normal grieving period".

I've been estranged from my family that remained in my home country for a VERY long time, that I don't even ask about them. If one of them had passed away I would not be surprised, or that much shocked. They are just not close to me any more, and hadn't been for a long time.
posted by kschang at 11:52 AM on January 14, 2021

I hadn't spoken to my mother in almost ten years and once I confirmed that she had died, I went into a what felt like a weird grief pattern that I still find myself in sometimes. It took me a while to accept that there is no one true proper way of grieving and that there are a range of appropriate emotions to feel for someone who was absent, antagonistic, or both. I doubt you are horrifying your friends at all but if you are -- well, there are people out there who don't or won't understand and that's okay, so long as they accept that grief is not a monolith/emotions are complicated, and aren't shaming you for it.

(If they are, DTMFA.)
posted by sm1tten at 12:23 PM on January 14, 2021

My multiple-decades-long best friend died very suddenly and painlessly from a stroke two years ago. I mentioned my concern to another friend that I did not cry about it or feel much real grief. She said it is because my friend went very quickly and did not suffer. You are not a monster; you're fine.
posted by SageTrail at 1:15 PM on January 14, 2021

I haven't grieved for people until I see the passed person in a casket at the wake. Then I get flooded with emotions for about 10 minutes and then am over it. This has included friends and family members. I had a wonderful aunt who died young in her 60s and I really didn't mourn because I didn't go to her funeral. Suicides are more difficult for me and sadness is longer lasting. If my husband or child died I would likely be mourning for a long time. So, if you ask me, you are totally normal. Read Camus' The Stranger for insight into how people who judge those who don't respond with the feelings that are expected of them are actually absurd.
posted by waving at 2:31 PM on January 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

you are not an asshole for feeling less grief over the death of an aunt who had become a rather distant relative than her closer relatives feel. you had a different relationship with her, especially recently, than they did. you feel for her what you feel, it sounds justified, and it isn't a choice in any case.

for this, however,

I am angry that she went to a homeopath during a global pandemic and then died of the very disease that comprises said pandemic... I've also come to accept that this is the way it is, and in a perverse way, it's fitting that this is the way she went. She made the same choices about her health that she always did, and thus I feel that she kind of died on her own terms. And I don't want to judge that - how many of us will get to say that when its our time to go? My stepmother once said to me "Character is destiny." I feel that applies perfectly here, and it has helped me keep all of this in perspective.

if you are telling yourself she died of COVID because she went to a useless homeopath but would have lived if she'd gone to a real doctor, you are telling yourself a story. by the time you need medical attention there is no guarantee it can save you. as you well know: since you know another person who did not have your aunt's character but who died of COVID anyway. it is not "perversely fitting" that she died in a pandemic. she did not die on purpose and she did not do it to herself.

either say you don't judge or say (but not to anyone who cared for her) that "character is destiny." there's no having it both ways.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:56 PM on January 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hi there. I just had a relative die just before Christmas on the side of the family that doesn't give a damn about me (it was not COVID but COVID-related restrictions did not help). I have no interest in lying about the kind of person this relative was to me and my immediate family, not even to "save face". My friends also assume that I am broken up with grief and are a little confused when I express that I'm not. I think that for me (and perhaps this mental model may be useful to you) that I had emotionally separated from this relative a long time ago. I knew our relationship was never going to be better than it was and, while not fun or pleasant, I accepted this. I also feel more for those relatives that really were close to the deceased. "I'm just focused on being there for [immediate family member] right now, they were very close to [deceased relative]" has been a useful phrase to employ when people ask about my own feelings, and I look forward to using it more when I have to be around that side of the family again, whenever that is (YMMV).

In short, you're not alone, at the very least. I think you're ok. Grief is above all things complicated, and family dynamics are complicated.
posted by koucha at 5:37 AM on January 15, 2021

Response by poster: Hey cool queenofbithynia thanks for making me feel worse for chastising me for feeling angry that she went to a homeopath and how I'm trying to put that aside to find a way to process what happened to her with what I feel is more honesty than lying about her cause of death and a measure of acceptance for who she was. Not sure why you think I'd share any of this with anyone in my family who is grappling with a more intense kind of grief than I am. Considering that you were the person who thought I was callous enough to tell my problematic niece to her face that I didn't like her it's hard to feel like you approach any question I ask here in good faith without immediately finding a way to shame me for having trouble navigating complicated feelings about my family members who treat me poorly. I wish you wouldn't do that. It's completely unnecessary. Not every question in AskMe needs tough love and not every person needs to be reminded not to be actively mean to others who are suffering. In a question where I am genuinely wondering if I'm an asshole for not being broken up by grief, you managed to find a way to insinuate that I am in fact an asshole for other reasons. Thanks for that. Lovely way to start my day.
posted by nayantara at 6:05 AM on January 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I always think I don't feel enough, and I was told from a very young age that I was heartless and egoistic because I didn't feel as I ought.

And I guess it's true, in a way. Two years ago, my MIL had a reaction to medication and lost consciousness right in my house and I was just...mildly annoyed that both her husband AND her son were freaking out to the point that it was me who had to call the ambulance and organise all the stuff. But, you know, I called the ambulance. I talked to the guys. I organised stuff. In the end, I did my part and MIL need never know my feelings were deficient.

Last year, my husband's aunt, who I liked very much and who was involved in our lives, died. She'd been hospitalised and already had dementia. I think I was the last person to visit her in hospital. It was difficult to have a conversation with her (she was hard of hearing as well as demented) but we managed and had a nice chat and told each other how we liked each other and I was glad I'd put in the effort.

I guess I decided long ago that it's more important to do the right things than feel the right things, you know? It helps nobody if I'm broken up inside. It's better to just go and make a cup of tea for the person who is broken up.

I did have a friend who died and I only really started crying about it three years later. I think I felt I hadn't been a good, empathetic friend enough to deserve honest grief. But maybe that's different.

I guess what I'm saying is, it's okay. It's okay to not grieve. Even if you never end up grieving. Perhaps it's you, but perhaps there just wasn't any relationship there to grieve for. Perhaps you did all your grieving a long time ago, for the person you wished she'd been. Do the good you can, whatever that may mean for you, and that's what counts in the end. Maybe I'm not the best source for this, though!
posted by Omnomnom at 7:20 AM on January 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Perhaps you did all your grieving a long time ago, for the person you wished she'd been.

This is really resonating with me. I think that is exactly what happened. Thank you Omnomnom.
posted by nayantara at 8:12 AM on January 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Sometimes grief can be numbed, delayed, or put on hold - you might at first find yourself trying to do what you can for those relatives you're closer to. It also sounds like a lot has come up to process for you which could be a factor.

Later, grief might come at you - seemingly out of nowhere. And then it might be in part for yourself, the passage of time, the role you carry in your family .. or you might not grieve, or not in any way you recognize clearly as grief.

It's okay to feel the way you feel, when you feel it. Be kind to yourself and accept what comes.
posted by bunderful at 3:37 PM on January 15, 2021

Best answer: I'm wondering if I'm a monster for not being more sad.

You're not. Grieving is the most deeply private and personal thing there is. Anybody who tells another person they're doing grief wrong needs to stfu and gtfo.
posted by flabdablet at 5:26 AM on January 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

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