The Washington Post Sunday
Grievance hijacks grief when a sister-in-law skips the matriarch’s funeral
Dear Carolyn: Our family has always been very tightknit. This has been tested in recent years, following my brother’s marriage to a woman we believe has intentionally created rifts between us.
Our last living grandparent passed away after a lengthy illness. Even though we knew it was coming, it was a huge blow to our entire extended family, as she was truly our rock. She was always kind and welcoming to my sister-in-law, of course.
For the funeral, my sister and
I packed up our families and spent the weekend planning the service and reminiscing with family members. My brother was the only grandchild not present.
He came the day of the funeral. His wife and three young children were not with him, and we overheard him giving various excuses for their absence (“We have so much going on”). Their absence was very conspicuous.
After the service, our brother apparently got a call from his wife — I wasn’t there — berating him for losing track of time and not leaving earlier, to pick up their child from sports practice. He high-tailed it out of there.
We’re all hurt and confused. My sister-in-law apparently texted my parents to express her condolences. Several cousins and friends asked us why they weren’t there, and we had no satisfactory explanation. It felt like a slap in the face. I’m still fuming.
Is there any way I can express to her how disappointed, hurt and angry we were (or at least, I was) by her seeming callousness toward my grandmother, who welcomed her with open arms? Is this appropriate? My therapist suggested years ago that my sister-in-law may be a narcissist. Does constructive criticism get through to people like that?
— Grieving and [Ticked] Off
Grieving and [Ticked] Off:
What would be constructive about the criticism you plan?
Your pain is understandable and I am sorry for your loss. I can’t know what you’re feeling, but I have my own experience with losing the emotional center of my extended family. Grief is disorienting.
But it doesn’t give you say in things that aren’t your business — and how your brother conducts his marriage, even a terrible one, is none of your business. Full stop.
You don’t know what goes on between them. You don’t know what role your brother had in decisions about this weekend. A family with three littles (+ pandemic!) could have a dozen reasons to opt out. You don’t know how your grandmother's relationship with your brother or sister-in-law worked, either. You have your lenses, not theirs.
You also don’t know how your “very tightknit” ways greet newcomers. It’s clear you took exception to your brother’s wife early; did the trouble start with her behavior toward all of you, or all of your behavior toward her? We could spend pages on chickens and eggs.
So I’ll offer two pieces of advice that I hope will make the hard work of your grief a little easier.
First, set the bone of your brother and sister-in-law and their marriage and their priorities and her funeral absence and her maybe-kindapossible secondhand-hunch diagnosis down. Open jaws, drop bone. Completely. Walk away. Keep loving your brother, of course, and welcome him any and every time he shows up, and extend the same welcome to his wife and children as the right thing to do, but walk away from thinking you can fix his family.
If it helps with the settingdown: It’s possible she does have some disorder he feels trapped by, since that happens and it’s terrible — but he also has agency. Agency he used to choose her. So it’s possible, too, this very-tight-knit-family member chose a mate he knew, on some level, wouldn’t blend or buy into the fam. That also happens, where people wanting some distance (boundaries?) seek out marital reinforcements.
Second piece of advice, recognize your attendanceoutrage as the tempting distraction it is. You have big, heavy feelings from your loss — and no one to blame but the universe. To be part of an incrowd scandalized!!! by a disliked outsider’s behavior is a form of relief and release. Her, you can blame. There’s a reason evil outsiders are standard in fairy tales. They’re helpful vessels for dark feelings.
But not here. You’re all real, and remaining respectfully warm and welcoming to your brother and his family is important. If his wife is controlling and he needs your help someday, then this is how to remain connected. If he’s just fine and living life and attending funerals on his terms that are his business, then this is how to remain connected. And meanwhile, your main source of distress, losing your center, deserves your full focus and attention.
Besides — your rock, your example, your grandmother, is someone who’d unite here, I’m guessing, not help “create rifts.”
If you’re still pained as the grief recedes, then ask your brother someday — not his wife — what was up. But never lose sight of what matters: missing your grandmother, not who was missing from what.