How To Manage Complex Relationships at a Funeral or Memorial Service

If you had a complex relationship with the person who died or with surviving family members, knowing whether or not you should attend the funeral or memorial service and knowing how to act can be difficult and delicate. Though there are no rules for managing complex relationships at a funeral or memorial service, it’s usually a good idea to go with your gut. It’s also important to consider the feelings of others, and to remember that, for the most part, having the support of others at the service can make a grieving family feel loved and cared for.

Break-ups, divorces, and re-marriages

When a former spouse or partner dies, many feelings can arise, especially if children are involved. You may want to attend the funeral or memorial service but feel emotionally conflicted, or you may want to attend the service but don’t know how your presence at the event would be received by other family members. If you have children with the person who died you may want your children to attend the service though you may not want to attend yourself, or you may not want your children to attend though other family members may want them to. If you are re-married, there may be questions around whether or not your new spouse should attend the funeral or memorial service, as well.

For all these situations, and many other complex relationships and circumstances, there is no “right” way to behave. As with less complex relationships, if you feel you want to attend the service then you should do so. If you feel you do not want to attend the service then you should not attend. If you are concerned that your choice (either to attend or not, to bring children or not, to bring a new spouse or not) may upset certain family members, you might consider reaching out to those people before the service to have a conversation about your decision. This can help manage everyone’s expectations around the funeral or memorial service, and can avoid any unwanted surprises at the event itself.

Family rifts

Many families have experienced rifts or estrangements for a variety of reasons, both within immediate families and extended families. When a death occurs and the family is not intact, knowing how to reach out and deciding whether or not to attend the funeral or memorial service can be complicated. In some cases, a death can reconcile people who had been divided, and can reconnect those who were previously estranged or separated. In other cases, a death may do nothing to repair a falling-out.

If you feel like you want to attend the funeral or memorial service but aren’t sure how your presence will be received, you may want to reach out to those family members to have a conversation about whether or not you should attend. If you feel like you would like to attend but know that your presence would upset the family, or if you do not want to attend but want to acknowledge the death, you may consider writing a letter to the family expressing your condolences.

Personal grievances and bad feelings

Many personal and professional relationships are damaged or come to an end for a variety of reasons, and it can be difficult to know if you should attend a funeral or memorial service where there may be “bad blood.” There are many reasons that relationships are damaged or end, and sometimes those reasons seem meaningless in light of a death, while other times those reasons become magnified.

If you want to attend the service but are unsure of how your presence will be received, consider the effect that your attendance might have on the family and those closest to the person who died. If you and the family have mutual friends, you might consider reaching out to those friends to get their thoughts on the effect your presence might have. If you think that your presence would upset the family but you want to reach out and acknowledge the death, you might consider not attending the service but instead writing a letter to the family expressing your condolences.

For advice on how to write a condolence letter, see our article How to Express Sympathy: What to Say and What Not to Say.

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