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A Guide to Funeral Etiquette for Estranged Family Members

Being separated or estranged from a family member can be a difficult experience. There may be many reasons why you are not in contact with them, such as a toxic history, divorce, or simply not getting along. If a family member dies, it can be even more complicated. Do you attend the funeral? Is it acceptable for estranged family members to attend funerals? Is it rude? Here are answers to some tough questions when it comes to the death of an estranged family member.

Funeral etiquette for estranged family

If you have been estranged from a family member, it is not automatically assumed that you will miss their funeral. The decision to attend or not attend the funeral is a personal one and depends on many factors. If you are considering whether or not to attend, ask yourself these questions:

  • What was the relationship like when the person was alive?
  • Was the estrangement mutual?
  • What is the reason for the estrangement?
  • Have there been any attempts at reconciling?
  • How do you think other family members would react to your presence?
  • How would attending the funeral make you feel? What feelings come up for you when you think about attending?
  • How would you feel if you chose not to attend the funeral?

The answers to these questions can help you figure out if you'd like to attend the funeral. Additionally, it's important to consider the relationship you had with the deceased and to be mindful of what feels right for you. You are not required to attend any funeral, no matter the relationship. Even if custom dictates that you should attend, you're free to make any choice you’d like, regardless of your history with the person who has passed away.

Expressing condolences for estranged family members

If you are not able to attend the funeral, there are other ways to express your condolences. When expressing condolences, it's not necessary to get complicated or to involve a lot of language. You can keep condolences for an estranged family member short and sweet (or make them longer, if you'd like). Here are some examples for how to express condolences towards the death of an estranged family member to their closer family members:

  • I'm sorry for your loss.
  • My thoughts are with you during this difficult time.
  • I may not have known them well, but I hope you know that I'm here for you.
  • Though our relationship had its difficulties, I want you to know that I'm here for you and am sending you my thoughts and prayers.
  • Regardless of our history, I wanted to let you know you are in my thoughts. My condolences.
  • My condolences on the passing of [Name], you are in my thoughts during this time.

Funeral etiquette for divorced couples

If you are an ex-spouse, there is no set funeral etiquette that says you must or must not attend your ex-spouse's funeral. This decision should be based on the relationship you had with your ex-spouse and how you think attending their funeral would affect you emotionally. If you have children with your ex-spouse, it may also be worth considering how attending (or not attending) the funeral would affect them.

Some divorcees choose to attend their ex-spouse’s funeral as a show of support for the family, while others may choose not to attend at all, especially if the separation was particularly difficult or bad. If you do decide to attend the funeral, it is important to be respectful and avoid any arguments or conflict with attendees and other family members. Though emotions are sure to be high, the funeral is not the place to settle old scores.

Death of an estranged parent

Dealing with the death of a toxic and/or estranged parent can feel uniquely difficult. Individuals may feel confusion, shame, frustration, and even anger when a toxic parent dies. While not attending the parent's funeral is certainly an option (and an acceptable option at that), it's also important to consider whether you'd feel any regret if you didn't attend the funeral. For some people, attending the funeral of an estranged family member can help bring closure. It can also be an opportunity to say goodbye in a way that feels respectful and meaningful or finally put an end to a relationship you may have left open and unresolved for some time.

If you do decide to attend the funeral when an estranged parent dies, there are some etiquette tips to keep in mind:

  • Arrive early or on time. This will help you avoid any awkwardness or potential conflict with other family members.
  • Dress respectfully. Funeral attire is typically somber, so be sure to dress accordingly.
  • Choose comfortable seating. Choosing a seat in the back can help you avoid any potential conflict and give you a quick exit if needed, but choosing a seat near the front is completely acceptable.
  • Consider your words. If you choose to speak with other family members, be mindful of what you say. This is not the time to bring up old grievances or unresolved issues, however difficult those issues may be.

I did not attend my mother's or father's funeral. How can I cope?

It's not uncommon for people to feel guilty after not attending a family member's funeral, especially if that person was close to them or if they had a strained or difficult relationship. It's important to remember that you made the choice not to attend for a reason and that reason is valid. If you're struggling with grief or regret, here are some tips:

  • Acknowledge your feelings. It's okay to feel sad, angry, or guilty after not attending a funeral. These are all normal reactions.
  • Connect with others in a similar position. You can find tons of similar feelings through community with others. You may find solace in the words and stories of others or prefer a more artful expression of your feelings. For instance, you may find comfort in poems, stories, or other media about the death of an estranged parent. Identifying with the feelings of others can help you figure out your own complicated feelings.
  • Talk about your decision. If you're struggling to come to terms with your decision not to attend, talk about it with someone you trust. This can help you process your thoughts and feelings and figure out why you made the choice you did.
  • Write about your thoughts and feelings. If you're not ready to talk to someone, writing about your thoughts and feelings can be a helpful way to process them.
  • Reach out to other support systems. If you're struggling to cope, reach out to your friends, therapist, or any other support system you may have.
  • Do something to honor your grief, however complex it is. Losing an estranged family member or deciding not to attend a loved one's funeral can bring up many emotions. Take some time to honor your grief in a way that's meaningful to you. This can look like writing a letter to the person who passed away, lighting a candle in their memory, or creating a memory box filled with mementos and items that remind you of them.

No matter what your decision is, it's important to do what feels right for you. There is no wrong choice when it comes to attending (or not attending) the funeral of an estranged family member. What matters most is that you honor your own grief and give yourself the time and space to process your thoughts and feelings.

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Last updated August 31, 2022
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