Estranged Families: Offering Condolences and Funeral Etiquette

October 15, 2021

Family dynamics are hugely complex and each one is entirely different. We don’t get to decide who our family is so over time those relationships can become strained for a multitude of reasons. Once a family member passes, it can stir up many feelings because it initiates reflection on those relationships. For many of us with tense relationships (either with the deceased or other surviving family members), it’s not an easy nor a simple decision deciding what the best course of action should be. You may find yourself asking things like should I attend the funeral? Is it weird to reach out? What type of flowers is even appropriate?

The truth is, there aren’t any set rules when it comes to navigating these emotional times and difficult relationships. Each is different in its own way, so you’ll have to rely on your own judgement to figure out how you’ll best find peace and comfort in those circumstances. This guide is simply food for thought to support you during those complicated moments so you can give the right amount of care.

Offering Condolences to an Estranged Family Member

You might decide it’s best not to attend the funeral, or for other reasons, you might not be able to attend. Still, you can offer your sympathy in a variety of different ways.

It can be difficult to determine when the best time is to offer your condolences to the deceased’s family. If you were estranged from the deceased, you might no longer be in contact with their immediate family, or if they’re relatives of your own, you might be concerned about how this passing is affecting them. You’re not obligated to give them anything, particularly if they don’t deserve it, but if you can put your differences aside temporarily, it could relieve you to do something kind for those in need.

If you come to the decision to attend the funeral, it might be better to wait until then to offer your gift. If you’re unable to attend or decide not to, it’s generally best to send your sympathies as close to the passing as possible.

So, what gifts are appropriate?

With estranged family, it’s best to keep the gift-giving simple and avoid overthinking it. A sympathy card is a touching way to spread kindness without the added pressure of a back-and-forth conversation that could bring up long-standing feelings. It lets the grieving family members know that you’re thinking of them and care about the passing.

If you can’t seem to find the words you wish to say to them, sending flowers is a common and inoffensive gift that lets the family members know that they’re in your thoughts. If you don’t wish to send them directly, you can post them to the funeral home ahead of the service.

Another approach to reaching out is to send food to the grieving family. Cooking yourself can feel extremely personal so if that's too uncomfortable, you can also send gift cards, vouchers, or hampers.

If you find a physical gift all a bit too much, remember that condolence gifts don’t have to be tangible, and reaching out via phone or email could mean just as much to the recipients. If you’re close with the family of the deceased, offering your help in those testing times will not go unnoticed. Whether it’s helping them directly in the first few days after the passing or helping them take care of the funeral, they will welcome your service and it won’t be forgotten.

When you’re thinking about showing sympathy to the estranged family, it will ultimately come down to how comfortable you feel and your relationship with them. It’s absolutely key to set healthy boundaries for yourself and your own needs so bear that in mind when choosing if you are willing and able to provide comfort during this time and to which degree. This time is not necessarily about you or the person who has passed, it’s about the surviving family and their last opportunity to say goodbye to their loved one.  

Etiquette for a Funeral Service for an Estranged Family Member

Now let’s focus on the bigger elephant in the room: should you attend the funeral? As mentioned above, there is no clear-cut answer but it’s important to remember that this day is not about you or the issues that caused the distance between you and your family. That means if you do decide to attend, you must put your own needs aside to comfort those grieving.

If you feel as though your attendance would disrupt the service or upset the family, it’s probably not appropriate to go so think of sending a sympathy gift or other ways you could offer condolences and show your support at this time instead.

If the deceased was a close friend or family member, was close to one of your existing friends or family members, or you feel as though you want to support the deceased’s loved ones, then it’s more appropriate for you to attend. It will give you chance to pay your respects and find your own peace, even if that wasn’t possible to do during that person’s lifetime.

Maybe you’re still in two minds about whether or not to attend the funeral? If so, discuss it with your family and close friends who understand more about your specific situation. They’ll have more insight on whether it’s suitable or the right thing to do.

If you do decide to attend the memorial service, it’s important to remember why you’re there – either to support a loved one or pay your respects. It’s essential that you keep a clear mind at this time and avoid discussing your personal and emotional history with other guests as it may draw attention and upset the grieving family. Instead, surround yourself with those who support you, focus on the ceremony and reflect on the loss – it might even help with your own inner peace.

You could find that other attendees want to bring up past issues or act disrespectfully towards you, and if that’s the case, it’s completely ok to disengage. It could be helpful to prepare yourself with what you are going to say if there is a possibility of this happening. Be polite yet dismissive, respectfully reminding them why you’re there.

Now you’re probably thinking, well, how long should I stay at the service?

Again, there are no set rules for this. Depending on the religion and culture, funerals can vary in length. Typically, it’s expected you stay for the full duration of the service and after offer your condolences to the immediate family, while the reception tends to be optional.

If you are not planning on staying for the full service or feel you might want to leave before the rest of the crowd, take a seat towards the back so you can leave quietly without disruption. If the pressure to stay for the full ceremony is putting you off going, remember that most people will be touched that you showed up to pay your respects regardless.

Preparing for a funeral is never easy and when you have the added pressure of complicated relationships, it can be all the more overwhelming and intimidating. When weighing up your options, make sure the decision you make is one you’ll be content with in the long run. Although you’re not required to do anything, if you're willing to offer condolences or attend a funeral, you’ll prove to yourself that you are able to put aside your differences in times of need.

Emily Davies

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