Mourning(?) one who contained multitudes
April 29, 2024 3:06 AM   Subscribe

My father recently died very unexpectedly. He was, by all accounts, a devoted, loving, and supportive father and husband -- to his young second family. I am a member of his first family, all of whom were in varying states of near-estrangement stemming from his being alternatively absent and terrifying during my childhood and emotionally manipulative in the decades since whenever we tried to reconnect.

For Reasons that include wanting to support other relatives and believing that memorial services are for the living, I cannot shrug off the service and ongoing contact with his more uncomplicatedly bereaved survivors.
The anger, coldness, and fear he displayed during my childhood never seemed to hinder him outside that setting, and he had a very successful career in a respected field (think physician, though not that) and a broad social circle that seems to believe he hung the moon. Reading the glowing obit made me nauseated.

I (and the sibling I grew up with) would love to know of any books (fiction or non), essays, personal experiences, etc. the hive mind has to share on the experience of death/grieving when there is such a broad divide in who the person who passed was to others or between their private and public personas. (To answer the obvious question: I and the other survivors in my family of origin have therapists.)

Bonus points for the perspectives of those who got the short end of the proverbial stick, but I am also interested in the experience of realizing post-death that a loved one was not honest about their past -- I am cognizant that second family may have their own struggles if they are interested in engaging with me and my full sibling.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I had a similar experience when my father died. He didn't have a second family, but he was well-liked and respected at his long-term place of employment, his coworkers were shocked and saddened by his sudden death, and they came out in droves to mourn him.

At home, he was a deeply abusive, manipulative and controlling man. I still struggle every day with complex PTSD symptoms caused by the ways he treated me while I was growing up, ranging from physical violence to emotional/verbal abuse and emotional/social/medical neglect.

Reading the glowing obit made me nauseated.

I had the same experience with the eulogy one of my dad's friends delivered at his memorial service; I literally did not recognise the man his friend spoke about as the same person who raised me.

The only thing that really helped was having a good friend from my past also attend the service; she came up to me after the euology and told me kindly but forthrightly that she, too, did not recognise anything about my experiences from the speech his friend gave. That the man his friend spoke about was not the man she knew as my father. Every time the topic comes up (and it will be ten years this December since my dad died), she reiterates that she believes/remembers my perceptions and feelings about how I was treated when I was younger, and restates her acknowledgement the public memory of my father is missing some really critical information about what a shitty guy he was to the people he was supposed to care about the most.

Just having one person repeatedly telling me they believe my version of events, that I'm not crazy to have a really different perspective on who my father was compared to the people who only ever met his reputation-conscious public face, has been hugely beneficial. Is there anyone in your life who can play that role for you?

I'm sorry for your complex loss. I haven't felt anything resembling true grief about my dad's death in the years that have followed (just relief heaped upon relief that he can't hurt me any more, and a lot of complicated sadness about how much he was responsible for so much of what I still struggle with as an adult and how I'll never get the chance to tell him how much he fucked me up, not that he would have been capable of listening if he'd lived), and it's okay if you don't end up going through a traditional grief process due to the nature of this loss and the specifics of your relationship with the deceased. Don't let anyone tell you you have to mourn in a socially appropriate way. I'm still angry with the not-a-good-fit therapist I was seeing at the time who told me my grief would inevitably catch up with me; it hasn't, because the conditions that might have allowed it to occur never existed in the first place.

You might already be prepared for this, but I still struggle with the reflexive "I'm sorry" type comments that people come out with when they hear I lost a parent while I was comparatively young; it never stops being awkward to explain that his death was a blessing to me, that it was so much less painful for him to be gone suddenly than it would have been to keep having to negotiate his uncomfortable presence in my life. If you're a planner, you might want to think about ways of dealing with this type of conversation that allow you to honour your truth while navigating (to the extent that you want to) the feelings of the more-uncomplicatedly-bereaved survivors in your community.
posted by terretu at 3:30 AM on April 29 [42 favorites]

It's not the whole topic of the book, and Orson Scott Card is a bit of a problematic fellow, but there's a concept from his book Speaker For The Dead that may be some food for thought. It's a sci-fi book, but in it there is a movement called "The Speakers For The Dead" where its "priests" (for lack of a better word) are appointed to do a super in-depth analysis of the deceased person's life, and then give a super-accurate, honest, in-depth eulogy they call a "Speaking". A Speaking doesn't gloss over the bad bits - but it also contextualizes them in ways that the people who knew the deceased may never have known themselves. In one of the book's Speakings, the priest makes no bones about how the deceased was an abusive person - but the priest also gives the backstory about how the abuser got to be that way, as well.

Orson Scott Card later wrote that he received many letters from readers who held "Speakings" at funerals for people they knew, telling him that it helped them when the deceased was something of a problematic figure and not everyone had the same opinion of them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:58 AM on April 29 [14 favorites]

My sympathies for your loss. This kind of situation is really hard.

The only thing that really helped was having a good friend from my past also attend the service; she came up to me after the euology and told me kindly but forthrightly that she, too, did not recognise anything about my experiences from the speech his friend gave.

This is really excellent! OP, hopefully your sympathetic sibling will be there for you during the memorial service. I had a pretty similar experience with my father, and having my siblings there at the service made all the difference.

I feel as if the service and then the ongoing contact are two different things. With the service, you just go and try to behave reasonably well, and it's done. In our case there was a strong sense we would not be seeing much of the other family after that day and it was surreal but it went by fairly quickly. Then as far as the ongoing relationship, you have a choice about how involved you want to be. It may take some time to figure that out.

I'm having trouble thinking of the perfect book. Perfection, by Julie Metz, is a memoir. The author's husband died and she found out all kids of crazy shit about him. If I were getting ready for my fther's funeral today, i would probably watch the last few episodes of Succession.
posted by BibiRose at 4:20 AM on April 29 [4 favorites]

Not a book but Meredith goes through almost this with Lexie on Greys Anatomy so there are some episodes from when they are first trying to get to know each other (season 4, episode 2) and when their father gets sick and needs a liver transplant (season 6, episode 4) and eventually dies (season 15, episode 11) that you might find meaningful.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:13 AM on April 29 [2 favorites]

I am so sorry. I got through something similar by reminding myself that everyone had their own relationship with the deceased, and those relationships were/are real, just as much as mine was real even if no one else saw it. As your headline says.

It also helped that I could feel sad for people I loved who were actively mourning. I could witness their grief, and somehow being able to feel sad for them helped. Maybe because I could feel something other than anger in those moments?

One thing I did not expect was that after the service, there were so many people who were delighted to see *me*! And that's what we talked about--me, and them, and not the deceased. It was a really nice surprise.
posted by orange (sherbet) rabbit at 6:44 AM on April 29 [5 favorites]

Can you try to reinterpret those standard phrases "I'm sorry" and "I'm sorry for your loss" to mean something much more personal to you? Namely, the loss of the childhood you never had but deserved, the loss of the father you never had but deserved? That internal twist in meaning might make dealing with this less painful and more empowering. Sharing this secret and personal interpretation with your sibling might comfort both of you.

I am so very sorry for your loss, OP.
posted by citygirl at 7:31 AM on April 29 [16 favorites]

I'll start with the punchline: The disconnect never resolves. Well, at least in my situation. It gets worse with some people, as well.

I went through something remarkably similar to what terretu describes in their excellent comment above. For me, it was mostly my mother and I who suffered from my father's abuse. My sister and he had a better dynamic. But when we heard the speeches and eulogies from people at work, I think all three of us were stunned. The person they described sounded loving, empathetic, proud of his family, and curious about the world--things my father never was with us.

I handled the memorial service by deflecting when people would express their sympathies. "Thanks, I appreciate it. I'm really here to support my sister and my mother," is what I'd say.

And it hurt to know that other people--strangers--had easy access to parts of my father that I needed throughout an emotionally brutal childhood. I started to imagine that maybe, he even had a secret life none of us knew about. Weirdly, this helped.

Something I read that resonated with me was the Charles Kuralt story about his secret life, secret spouse, and secret family. (How has nobody written a book about this yet?) As far as I know, my father didn't go to quite such extreme lengths, but in hindsight, I wish he had. Sometimes when someone deeply unhappy and abusive sticks around, it's worse for everyone.
posted by yellowcandy at 7:48 AM on April 29 [7 favorites]

Just a quick note from the other side.

While my older brothers and sister were growing up they dealt with an angry, judgmental, rigid man who left quite a bit of scarring. At the same time, like your father, he was widely admired in the community. I dealt with that when I was very young, but at a certain point he turned it around and I got a more settled, loving and caring father.

My experience does not invalidate theirs in any way, and I fully expect them to talk about their experience at his rapidly approaching funeral. I won’t be offended in the least: knowing that someone had a dark side only makes one appreciate their better behavior more.

Memorial services are to give the living a chance to grieve. I think you should grieve the person you knew, and I don’t think that is going to deeply derail the grieving of others.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:52 AM on April 29 [3 favorites]

Alison Bechdel's Fun Home deals with this. Though they weren't estranged, her father died very unexpectedly (by apparent suicide) and she later pieced together that he was closeted and gay. One of the themes the book goes into is Alison trying to figure out who her father really was.
posted by fight or flight at 9:53 AM on April 29

My mom died unexpectedly about 10 months ago. We were mostly-estranged (and I had already been grieving our relationship for many years). She was not a good mom, but it became clear at the memorials that she was a really good friend and wonderful coworker. Ahead of the memorials I did what terretu suggested -- I asked a couple of my best friends to come to the services so I had someone who knew + validated my experiences and history. I could not have done these memorials without someone there to say "I see you, I know, I see you".

I got through all the "I'm so sorry, your mom was a great lady" stuff by saying "thank you, thank you for coming" and zoning out. I looked at the screenshots of text messages people had sent me after the immediate death to remind myself that there were always people all along saying "I know you were not close, and I know she was not nice to you". I rolled my eyes at/with my sister a lot. I kept to myself. I thought about how I contain multitudes and how there were things my mom didn't know about me either. I reminded myself that funerals are for the living. I simply ignored "your mom loved you"-type comments.

As for the "residual" condolences that come when people find out you have a parent who died when you were youngish... I'm still working on that, honestly. I try to remind myself that people mean well and get privately angry about it later. "Ah, well!" and a shrug has seemed to get through to people that I do not want to talk about it. I journal and cry and rant to my therapist. When I feel like I'm not feeling "bad" enough, I remind myself I was already grieving her for many years and had gotten used to some of those feelings.

I'm really sorry you're dealing with complex grief. No one prepares you for it! It is often very lonely, but you are not alone.
posted by sc114 at 10:13 AM on April 29 [7 favorites]

Whoof. I am dealing with this as well - my dad is still alive but we are no-contact at my choice. Growing up, he was mean, patriarchal, and emotionless, as well as the dispenser of physical punishment. My parents split when I was 8 and he remarried and found god, at which point he became merely? fortunately? distant.

At my stepmom's funeral, I recall standing by whilst numerous people my age came up to my dad to tell him what a huge influence he had had on their lives, providing them with guidance, support, a listening ear, coaching. They held him up as an example of how a father should be. I can still remember reality splitting for me in that moment, where I realized that he could be - and was being - that person to strangers, but could never be that to me.

I am super torn about attending his eventual funeral. I do not know any of his friends or his third wife and it might just be easier for everyone if I remember who he was privately and mourn what I did not have. And, I guess, generously, mourn who he could have been if he'd had different parents himself.

I really appreciate the links provided already.
posted by some chick at 11:17 AM on April 29 [5 favorites]

My father and grandfather (and by extension the grandchildren) were estranged at the time of his death. This was after a long history of abusive behavior and some truly awful treatment of my father. My father (and all his issue) were written out of the will. My grandfather was never awful to me personally, but we were never particularly close and he never displayed much interest in learning about or being involved with his grandchildren.

At the time of the funeral, my father was overseas, so my sister and I decided to go to the service. We ended up connected with my grandfather's nephews and cousins. They were able to share more stories about my grandfather's siblings, his parents, and past events that really shed a lot of light on the whole dysfunctional dynamic.

While it didn't lessen the pain entirely it provided a lot of context around the behavior we experienced and that helped with letting go of anger and hurt feelings. We also got to feel good about how far our generation had come in breaking patterns of dysfunction and reconnect with really good people from my father's side of the family.

Of course, this may not be what you experience, but know that good can come from such a potentially painful event. Wishing you the best and lots of healing.
posted by brookeb at 12:34 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]

It’s worth remembering that obits and eulogies only rarely touch upon the complexities of the deceased. It would be refreshing to have an honest eulogy saying “This person made some very bad choices in life but we’re here today because it’s good to get together and dude needs some burying.” but in practice that tends to be stifled because societally people try not to speak ill of the dead.

You’re not obligated to mourn in grief. I have definitely been to some funerals where there just weren’t any tears that needed to fall.
posted by donut_princess at 1:38 PM on April 29 [4 favorites]

It could be that the second family did experience this side of your father, and are not talking about it for propriety's sake. And people he was an arsehole to aren't going to come with condolences and eulogies.

My grandpa was a sweet old man and beloved in his retirement village and by my aunt and her children. But what I learned later in life is how mean and controlling he was to his wife and to my mother, who moved cities specifically to reduce contact. I can't really talk to my cousins about this - their experience is so different and their "family history" as relayed by their side of the family doesn't gel. I don't really have an answer here, but I'm saying this because it's an example of irreconcilable accounts of family life in my own family.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:41 PM on April 29 [4 favorites]

There are all kinds of reasons why a person might be one way with some people, and another with others. It's very common, actually.

It's admirable that you want to be there to support others who are grieving the loss of a man you never knew.

You won't, I expect, ever know why your father either was a better man for the second family or managed to maintain the performance with them.

Although this does not relate to your situation, you might enjoy the movie: Film About a Father Who..."
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:33 PM on April 29

Something else I wanted to tell you: a while back, someone I knew committed suicide. He was beloved in the professional community he belonged to, nationwide, and had a huge circle of devoted and admiring friends on the basis not just of his work and vision but his generosity and energy in other people's projects, his gregariousness, good nature, etc. He had divorced and was in a new relationship and it was terribly shocking.

I went to his funeral in a packed venue, where many learned for the first time that he was a serious though functioning alcoholic, but I was one of only a few people who knew that he beat his ex-wife and his kids refused to attend (I went for the sake of our mutual friends). I believe these kinds of double lives, public and domestic, chapter one and chapter two, are fairly common, and we don't know because by nature that which is hidden stays hidden.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:14 PM on April 29 [5 favorites]

Not quite the same but these have been helpful to me:

The band “Gang of Youths” album sings about discovering secrets after the death of the singer’s father in brothers

The poetry book and EP “Dead Dad Jokes” by Ollie Schminkey were written after they were caregiver for their dying, alcoholic father, who they had a (let’s say) complicated relationship with.

Sometimes grief hits family harder than they expect because they’re not only grieving the father they had, but the father they never had and wish they did.
posted by slightlybewildered at 3:06 AM on April 30

I managed to write a brief obit for my father that recognized him for what he was without being mean, and when I finished and looked at it, I thought, "He should never have gotten married or had children, but he was kind of an interesting guy if you weren't related to him."
C was an adventurer and a wanderer. He always traveled light and enjoyed staying with friends and family wherever he went. After college, he volunteered for the American Friends Service Committee in Mexico, and he retained a love for the country that lasted all his life. He joined the Peace Corps in mid-life, going to Colombia to help people learn to do market research. In between times, he lived in Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, New York, Tennessee, Virginia, and South Carolina. Now he has traveled on to his next destination and undoubtedly is camping out happily and keeping his costs low.
It was a very worthwhile exercise because the resentment by that point was just hurting me, and he sure as heck wasn't affected by it.
posted by Peach at 11:55 AM on April 30 [4 favorites]

If you want a fictional and slightly humorous take on it, the "Free Churro" episode of Bojack Horseman (S05E06) is a eulogy for an awful mother. And, as someone else already mentioned, the last few episodes of Succession.
posted by snarfois at 6:37 AM on May 2

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