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When Not to Attend a Funeral

Published: 12/18/2008
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Q. Suppose your ex-wife refuses to allow you to go to the funeral of her father, even though you had a long marriage and a good relationship with her family. This happened to me. Although I wanted to pay my respects at her dad’s funeral, I was told not to attend because my ex didn’t want me there, and it would be uncomfortable for everyone. It was very upsetting for me, but I respected her wishes. I have known the family for 25 years. Now I wonder what will happen if my ex dies before I do. Should I go to the funeral to support my children? What would be appropriate?

A. Variations of such situations arise more often than people realize. A funeral is a time when family members can find forgiveness or compassion for each other and heal fractured relationships — or cement rifts that began far in the past. When a death has occurred in a family, it is essential to be as sensitive as possible to the bereaved and their wishes. You don’t want to inject unnecessary tension on such an occasion.

This particular situation must have been extremely painful for you, but you did have to bow to your spouse’s desires. As far as thinking ahead to the possibility of your wife dying first at some point in the future, there are two ways to look at it. On the one hand, it’s the person’s own funeral and her wishes should be respected. However, others (your children) will be affected by her decision. If and when the time comes, you can ask your children whether they want you to attend their mother’s funeral as a comfort to them. They may indeed want you there. Or they may have very complicated feelings about it (that have nothing to do with their love and regard for you) and prefer that you stay home. In the latter case, you can still support them before and after the funeral. Grief can go on for a long time. The point is to focus on your children and their needs. Your ex did not do that when the children’s grandfather died. But you can.

Keep in mind, too, that you may feel very differently years from now if your ex actually dies before you. Feelings sometimes change. You may not want to go to the funeral.

Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes and Eulogies. She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a blog for bereaved spouses and partners. Have a question for Florence? Send her an email.

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