Q. My aunt just died, and I want to attend the funeral. However, I haven’t spoken to my cousin (her son) for several years after a series of arguments. What should I do? I’m afraid he’ll be annoyed to see me there or even challenge me.
Funerals and memorial services are meant to be healing rituals for survivors that bring us together to share the loss of a loved one. But that doesn’t happen if the bereaved are estranged. Such rifts are called “emotional cutoffs,” and are ways to manage unresolved issues with parents, siblings, or other family members. Or sometimes the problem is an absence of communication skills to handle disagreements or grievances.
Enmity can continue for years (even decades), and set a pattern for the next generation. Antagonists may derive a certain comfort in their hostility — until a death shakes up the whole family. Suddenly, they experience the price they pay for continuing to nurse anger. In some cases, the death, especially if unexpected (as in an accident), brings a new perspective. What’s happened in the past seems unimportant. The funeral or memorial service may present an opportunity for healing and reconciliation — or not.
Some possible ways to handle the situation include:
1. Call your cousin and say, “I loved your mother, and would like to attend the funeral if possible.” This gives your cousin the room to say “yes” or “no.” Perhaps a conversation can follow.
2. Talk to a third party (a relative or mutual friend) who can assess your cousin’s mood and ask whether your presence would be OK.
3. Attend the funeral and hope for the best, although this is likely to increase anxiety in an already awkward situation.
Whether you go or not, you can, if you wish, make a donation in memory of your aunt to a charity or cause. Or you can write a condolence note, as in, “Dear ---, Aunt Stella was very good to me, and I mourn her passing. I send my condolences.”
Incidentally, a similar situation can occur between feuding neighbors. Voices escalate — and even lawsuits may arise — over who had the right to cut down a tree. At a later date, someone dies — leaving the dilemma of whether to attend the service. There may even be community pressure to forget the past.
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Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a blog for bereaved spouses and partners.
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