Family

When There’s Death In A Dysfunctional Family

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woman putting flowers on grave

Recently, I got the news that an older member of my family is very ill and may be passing soon. Since I’m out of the loop, that person may have already passed by the time I’ve written this.

In writing this essay, it is not my intention to “kick people while they’re down” or malign the hurting and deceased. My goal is simply to share a natural part of the reality of what happens when you’ve gone no-contact with abusive family members and other relatives.

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It’s an aspect of “going no-contact” with abusers that is not a fun or popular one to discuss, so I want to start that conversation.

Although it’s a difficult, painful topic to address, I think it’s necessary for those considering cutting off their family to consider how they want to handle this scenario before it inevitably happens.

Unhealthy family members frequently try to reel estranged family members back when a crisis hits

While no one reached out to me about this development except for a relative outside of the situation with whom I stay connected, I was prepared to hear from some of the folks with whom I’d rather not interact.

Since I’ve made it clear that I am not open to communication from abusive and toxic family members, I appreciate that they’ve been respecting my wishes so far.

Still, if you come from a dysfunctional family, don’t be surprised if they reach out when a crisis like this hits. Be prepared for how you will handle it and how much communication you’re willing to entertain in extenuating circumstances.

I’ve already grieved the family of origin whom I left behind

This isn’t to say that I’m not sad about what is happening. It simply means that I have already accepted that I have lost all of these people in my heart.

Mostly, it pains me to hear that this relative is suffering and that those helping this relative have to watch that.

For those who are closer to the situation, I can’t imagine how heartbreaking it is. I’m sorry that they are going through it and I hope they have the support and care they deserve during this time.

Hearing about this did reopen the wound of that grief for a moment. I crumpled into a good cry at first and then I rallied against how unfair it is that I don’t get to grieve the loss of an older relative like “normal people” do.

Still, my family’s abnormal, dysfunctional way of life started well before this happened. It started well before I came along. I could never justify sticking with a group of people who are sure to bring me down and jeopardize my safety so that I could say I have a “normal” family relationship.

Even if I had been there all along, it wouldn’t be better or easier. Losing people of all ages is tough. Facing your mortality and change is tough. Being present in one way or another doesn’t mitigate the hurt, it just shifts what it looks like.

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I know there’s no one-size-fits-all idea of a “normal” family, but I think most folks can agree that abusive families should not be normalized.

I’m not part of the family so I don’t feel that I deserve to grieve with them

While everyone views grieving and cultural rituals around death differently, this is my personal perspective on my specific situation.

This can be a tough truth to swallow. Although I did have a relationship with a relative who is passing when I was younger, I’ve been estranged from them for years. Since I haven’t been there during the last few years of their life, it doesn’t feel like it would be right for me to be there as they pass.

I also didn’t feel right reaching out to offer condolences to the family or support because it doesn’t feel like my place. Although I did it for solid reasons, I ultimately rejected my family of origin.

They are human beings just like I am and they are entitled to their feelings. As they are grieving, I can’t imagine that it would feel good for them or me if I showed up unannounced or worked my way back into the picture only to leave again when I inevitably felt unsafe in their company.

The adage “let sleeping dogs lie” resonates here. We’ve already put our bonds to rest — I don’t need to resurrect them at a time when everyone is vulnerable and hurting. That seems like a recipe for disaster on all sides.

Cutting off your entire family has consequences — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it

Missing out on births, deaths, and other major events in a family is hard. Lacking a connection with the people who raised you is hard. Being an outsider in the one group that should have included you unconditionally from birth to death is hard.

Hell, life, as a whole, can be hard. To loosely paraphrase a concept from The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, we don’t get to choose our happiness in life, but we can choose our problems. I’d prefer to choose the problem of grieving these relationships on my own over the problem of fearing for my safety and well-being all the time.

The choice to prioritize my own safety, well-being, and happiness was worth the cost to me. It might not be worthwhile to everyone, but I’m not living everyone’s life — I’m living mine.

When I entered adulthood, my safety and my security were more important than a sense of family ties.

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Some people feel differently. Some folks stay close to their abusers to avoid the grief of losing family. That’s a valid choice, too, even though it’s one I would not be able to make.

I don’t regret that I left my biological family behind

I regret that I had to do that in the first place.

I regret that they couldn’t protect me even when I gave them clear instructions about how to protect me.

I regret that I couldn’t trust my family to have my best interests at heart.

I regret that we weren’t a happy, healthy bunch who were safe to stick together through thick and thin.

I regret that they are not the type of people I can lean on and I am not the type of person they could lean on, either.

I regret that there are so many questions left unanswered because I would not be able to have a conversation about certain things without my family delving into topics I’d rather not discuss.

In life, all we can do is the best we can with the tools we have

I believe my family did the best they could with the broken, dysfunctional relationship tools they had.

I like to hope that I’m doing the best I can by protecting myself in ways that no one was able to protect me as a youngster. We all have our choices to make.

No one said it would be easy or that it would always feel good to do the next right thing.

Still, I’ve made peace with how I live my life and I hope that as my biological family goes through this time, they reach a sense of peace in their own ways, too.

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Maya Strong is a professional writer who has spent the last six years blogging about relationships, LGBTQIA+, mental health, lifestyle, and cultural commentary online.

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.