Relationships between a parent and child can break down for many reasons. Many things can contribute to an estrangement including disagreements, childhood abuse, and the failure of a parent to protect their child. Other things can also cause a family to fall apart. There might also be nothing to blame. Certain unresolved issues can linger from more recent times.
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An estrangement between a parent and an adult child can happen because of things that happen later on in life. Divorce, feelings of inadequacy, preferential treatment of one child over another, and personal failures can all be sources of contention.
The feeling of not being good enough, or not living up to a parent's expectations can lead to hurt feelings and estrangement between a parent and an adult child. Upon receiving the news of an estranged parent’s death, it can be hard to know what to do and what to say. Below you'll find ways of coping and dealing with the death of an estranged parent.
What Can You Say When an Estranged Parent Dies?
Anytime someone dies, it can be an emotionally charged time for everyone who's suffering from that loss. It can be challenging knowing what to say when someone dies, especially when the two of you were no longer on speaking terms.
If you find yourself faced with the news of the death of an estranged parent, consider thinking through how you'll react. The words you choose can have a lasting impact on others. It may also be difficult for you to recover from any further damage caused by what you say when remembering a family member.
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1. Keep things short
Whenever it's hard for you to offer sincere words of condolences, it's best to keep things direct and to the point. Practice saying out loud a few variations of common phrases people say to offer sympathy to a bereaved family. Keep in mind that this is also your family. They're grieving the loss of their loved one, even if you aren't suffering from your loss.
Some things that you can try saying are:
- “I’m really sorry to hear the news that mom’s died. How are you holding up?”
- “I just got the news that dad’s died. Is there anything I can help you with?”
- “The news of mom’s passing has got me thinking that we haven’t seen each other in a while. Mind if I stop by to see how everyone’s holding up?”
2. Be respectful
Try finding ways to show respect even when you feel that your estranged parent didn't deserve it. You can direct your words of sympathy, love, and support to the other members of your family.
You don't have to say anything at all that acknowledges the relationship you had with your parent. Some things are better left unsaid during this time of mourning. The opportunity to rebuild a relationship with your parent is already gone. Try and focus your attention on strengthening the ties to your siblings and remaining family.
3. Say nice things
When confronted with friends and family at a funeral or memorial service for your estranged parent, take a deep breath, and think before you say anything hurtful. It's in poor taste to speak poorly of the deceased at their funeral. Try going over in your head all the positive qualities they possessed.
Begin with the most recent and relevant memories you have of them. Then list whatever nice things you can remember them for. When you've compiled a list of five or six nice things to say, then you're ready for your first face to face with any of your relatives. Some examples of how to check your speech are:
- Instead of, “Yes, mom took good care of us. We all made it out alive.” Try, “Yes, mom did a fine job. We’re all proud of her accomplishment in having gotten us this far. Bless her weary soul.”
- Instead of, “Dad sure did love the ladies. Got so many dang kids out there we don’t even know about.” Try, “Yes, dad was sure loved by many. He always found the time to take care of everyone’s needs. May his soul rest in peace.”
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4. Say nothing at all
When frozen in fear of what to say, remember that you don't have to say anything at all. You can always use the “grief card” when faced with an uncomfortable situation. All you have to do is kindly excuse yourself so that you can go regain your composure. Promise to catch up with your relative at a later time. You can determine what defines the word later. Try not to feel pressured into saying anything that you might later regret.
No one knows what you're feeling inside, and they can't tell for certain if you're suffering from grief, or just trying to avoid them. If you practice before you go, you'll be more relaxed, and the words will flow more freely.
Try saying these phrases out loud in front of a mirror:
- “I’m sorry, Aunt Martha, I’m going to have to excuse myself so I can get it together. I’ll catch up with you later.”
- “Uncle Bob, it’s good to see you after so many years. Please excuse me. I’m just not feeling myself at the moment. We’ll have to catch up later.”
- “Hi, sis. I’m terribly sorry for the loss to the family. I know it’s hard on you. Can I go get you a glass of water or something to eat?” (Then quickly leave, regardless of how she answers.)
What Can You Do When an Estranged Parent Dies?
When an estranged parent dies, you can try and make up for your differences by helping plan and pay for the funeral expenses, donating in their honor, or simply go on with life as usual. How you act and react to the news is entirely up to you. What you shouldn't do is feel guilty or pressured into taking action.
If you don't feel the need to participate in a funeral or memorial service, you don’t have to. It's okay to skip out entirely, and it's okay if you're not invited to the funeral. Unless, of course, you want to be there, and no one extended an invitation.
Keep in mind that most funerals or memorial services are publicly advertised to friends and family and anyone else who happens to like reading obituaries. If you choose to attend even when not invited, you'll need to brush up on funeral etiquette for an estranged family.
5. Attend the funeral
Whether you've been invited to attend the funeral or memorial service, or if you've interpreted the online death notice as an open invitation, there are certain protocols you should be aware of when dealing with estrangement within the family. If you're the one who's removed yourself from a toxic relationship, you might be okay and needn't worry too much about how others will take your presence there.
If, on the other hand, you're the reason for the estrangement, you might want to think twice about showing up to a funeral where you aren't welcome. Your presence might cause further suffering at a time when your family is already grieving.
Here's a list of the basics of funeral etiquette when estranged from your family:
- Quietly take a seat near the back
- Don’t engage others when they’re being rude to you
- Offer a gift of flowers, a sympathy card, or something to eat like donuts or pastries
- Don’t make your presence known by being loud or the center of attention
- Leave as quietly as you came in
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6. Write a eulogy
Just because you were estranged from your parent at their time of death doesn't mean that you can't or shouldn't write a eulogy in their honor. If you aren't comfortable with speaking at their funeral, you can always post one online if there's been a memorial page set up.
A rough outline of how to write a eulogy is as follows:
- Start with the basics. You can take up a lot of time just reciting the facts of when and where they were born, who their parents were, and even what the weather was like the day they were born - if you look online hard enough for that information.
- List accomplishments. Tell everyone about their accomplishments in life. Where they attended school and what education level they attained. You can also list any professional and personal accomplishments so people can get a more complete picture of the deceased’s life.
- Talk about their hobbies. If you knew what some of their hobbies were, you can list them here. If you aren't really sure, talk to other family members about what they know about your parent’s hobbies.
- Speak your truth. When you get to the point where you get to talk about how you remembered them, it’s your choice whether to speak your truth or give only the positive qualities that you can remember.
7. Send a gift
If you don't want to attend the funeral or memorial service, you can opt for sending a sympathy gift. When there's more than one surviving sibling, an appropriate gift would be to send flowers to the funeral home or graveside.
You can also send sympathy cards individually to each of your siblings, or invite them all to have lunch as a way of reconnecting with them.
Saying Goodbye to an Estranged Parent
There’s no universal right or wrong way to deal with the death of an estranged parent. It may be too late to reconcile with them or to mend a broken relationship, but it's never too late to heal from whatever led to your estrangement. Consider rebuilding relationships with your surviving siblings, if any, or rebuilding your self-love and self-worth.