Q: My father, who I haven’t seen in 35 years, has died. My brother wants me to go to the funeral, and there will be relatives there who I haven’t seen in years. I still have a lot of animosity towards my father. Should I go?
That’s a tough one without knowing what happened between you and your father. If there was extensive emotional or physical abuse, then the fundamental father-daughter relationship simply may not be there.
For example, I was working in group therapy once with a teenaged girl whose parents had both died in an accident. The group leader told the girl how sorry she was that the parents had died. Without even missing a beat, the girl responded, “I’m not. My father molested me for 15 years and my mother was an alcoholic. My life is so much better now.”
The reality is that no matter what your relationship with your father, you will have mixed feelings. For this girl, her parents’ death triggered not only relief, but also grief. That grief was mostly about why her family couldn’t be different, and why her father couldn’t have been a better person.
If your relationship problems aren’t as extreme (or sometimes even if they are), I see all the time that closure can be important. Closure is an opportunity to let go of anger, to let go of your father’s ability to continue to hurt you. That can be really liberating, especially after 35 years.
The bottom line is that not all parents are good people,
and not all family relationships are healthy.
But just because your father died doesn’t mean the time is right for you to seek closure. Think about what you need from this situation. I give you permission to be selfish here.
What I would ask yourself is, will you be angry you went? Or angry you didn’t go? Think about what you might regret later.
If you do decide to go, prepare by building in a few safeguards to protect yourself. It can be difficult at a funeral to hear people speak highly of someone you had a bad relationship with. Be aware that the majority of others at the funeral did not see him in the context that you saw him. The funeral will be reflective of his whole life, not just your life with him. Perhaps you want to sit in the back and slip quietly out if you need to. You get to decide how you want to participate.
You can tell your brother in advance that you plan to come, and explain that because it will be difficult for you, this is how you plan to be involved. You probably already recognize that his relationship with your father was very different from yours. Your brother may have unrealistic expectations of you.
The bottom line is that not all parents are good people, and not all family relationships are healthy. Just because your father died doesn’t magically make that go away. And just because he died doesn’t mean you should automatically aim for closure before you are ready. Death is not always this emotionally perfect thing. It’s messy.