Telling an estranged adult child about a family member’s death: Do they have a “right” to know?

by Sheri McGregor, MA

telling an estranged adult child about a family member's deathThis morning, we buried our 17-year-old cat. After a couple of weeks of wasting, Neo had spent two days on the kitchen rug close to her water dish.

“She’s meditating,” my adult daughter said of our black and white shorthair in her nearly motionless stance.

Maybe she was, her trance broken only by occasional sips of water throughout the day. She had stopped eating. Why bother to eat when food no longer nourishes?

Early this morning, she took her last choking breaths, and then she was gone.

As the sun grew hot, we dug a hole and buried her. We sprinkled wildflower seeds on and around her grave near one of our fig trees, marked by four large stones. And as I wet the ground, imagining the future flowers blooming, I also pondered death. Yet another of the pets or people my children grew up with is gone.

A loved one’s death. Should you call your estranged adult child?

When an adult child makes the decision to step out of your life, do they have a right to know what transpires within it? A birth, a death, marriage, a divorce, or perhaps a move—does your estranged adult child have the right to know? Parents often feel a sense of duty about the prospect of telling an estranged adult child about a family member’s death or other big change or loss. They ask whether they’re obligated to make a call.

In the past year, our family has suffered several losses. One was the death of our children’s grandfather. Glen married my husband’s mother a year before I married my husband. So, although he wasn’t a blood relative, he was a father figure to me, and was my children’s Grandpa Glen.

The woman he’d been living with for the last several years was in her eighties, and grieving. Helping her to settle into a new life, alone, required empathy and care amidst the turmoil of our own grief.

When Glen died, I thought of contacting my estranged son. Maybe he had a right to know. Should I inform him of the death? The thought was fleeting and quickly dismissed. At this point in our estrangement, contact seemed pointless. Why bite off more emotional distress?

Does that sound cold? That I didn’t tell him of his grandfather’s death? That I didn’t think to call him this morning when old Neo died? I told my other adult children. I knew they would want to know—and they had comforting words that made the death less sad. They remembered Neo. They shared their memories, just as they had remembered and shared about their Grandpa Glen.

In my book, I relate the story of my husband’s head injury, caused by a hurried driver on a slick road after morning rain. It’s in a part of the book that deals with the married relationship, so I  didn’t tell the whole story, the part that’s relevant to the subject here. I’ll tell you now. Some months later, when my estranged son made contact, I had mentioned his father’s accident. But Dan seemed to shrug it off. Apparently he’d seen my public Facebook post about it. “It didn’t look that bad,” he said.

Thankfully, after months of physical therapy and care, my husband was and is fine. But his full recovery wasn’t obvious from the start. To me, Dan’s response seemed to indicate that he didn’t care.

Telling an estranged adult child of a family member’s death. Are you obligated?

Some of you are in the thick of a fresh estrangement, still in shock perhaps, or believing that the distance won’t last. You may be right. Every situation is unique. Only you can decide whether to continue making contact or tell an estranged son or daughter of a family member’s death or about other family occurrences. That’s why my book, Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, includes specific information and examples to help. It is possible to convey a specific message, and make contact without getting caught up in the response—or the silence—that follows. With real-life examples, the book also explores how reaching out for any reason can be reevaluated at any time, and new decisions about frequency or method changed.

When enough is enough

I did think of my estranged son, Dan, this morning when we buried Neo. He is wrapped up in the memories of that old cat. In my memories, I can still see and hear Dan laughing with one of my other sons. They used to call Neo “Cool Guy Wannabe” because she looked so much like our other cat who is still going strong. Neo was the standoffish one, while Cool Guy was always in the middle of our children’s fun. Neo was a part of our lives, just as Dan once was.

Those memories of my sweet children, mingled with family pets, relatives, activities, and fun as they grew from innocence to adulthood remain, and include a child who grew into an adult I no longer know. Those memories are real, and no matter what, are precious. But those days are also gone. I might reminisce about joyful times past with my other adult children, but that’s because they are a part of my life. Together, we are making more memories.

I feel no obligation to keep my estranged son up to date on the family he left behind. If he wanted, he could be with us too.

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17 thoughts on “Telling an estranged adult child about a family member’s death: Do they have a “right” to know?

  1. Dana

    Thank you for this. We are currently going through this with my stepdaughter. We have been estranged from her for close to 3 years. My husband’s mother is dying. My MIL requested that we don’t tell my stepdaughter and we respected her wishes. My stepdaughter has not tried to contact her grandmother in any way, shape or form in years. She didn’t even wish her Happy Mother’s Day. She found out she was dying and sent a very nasty message to us. She stated we are so selfish, dumb blah blah blah for not telling her. She has broken my heart so many times over the years it just doesn’t any more. Relationships can’t be forced and sometimes they just can’t be repaired.

    Reply
  2. Mandy616

    This is the fourth year I haven’t heard anything from my Adult Child (AC). There could be children and I wouldn’t even know it. I might be missing out on something but I just don’t allow myself to think about it…just like I can’t think about if the neighbor has more than I do. There are certain lines of thinking that are just not healthy for me to entertain. I embrace life as it is; not what I thought it was “supposed to be”. Some things when they are over they are just over. This is a new chapter of life. I don’t think AC has died; haven’t seen an obit or an RIP on FB. Of course deaths don’t have to be published but I think I would see it on FB. I don’t even hear anything about AC from anyone else and I don’t ask. I don’t consider if I need to tell my AC something; it doesn’t ever occur to me. I have friends to tell all about it when something large or small happens. At first it bothered me because it seemed as though my AC rewrote the whole childhood years and was attacking me about how lousy of a person I am/was before they rejected me. Really AC said something to me I would have never said to anyone and especially my mother. AC has done worse by me than I ever did to AC. I don’t feel guilty. I am grateful the break was done by AC and not by me. It may be the greatest gift AC ever gave me. I am not controlled and put down anymore; finally I am good enough. I am comforted because I have friends that were there with me back then when I was raising children and they remember I was a good mother. But at first it did hurt and make me question myself. I felt it in my body the first 3 days after AC dropped the bomb; was sick in bed. I am in my fourth year and I have never had it so good!. I am the luckiest person in the whole world. This break wasn’t up to me and I know what happens in the future is not up to me. I don’t allow my mind to go to the future because I start fearing AC will come back and it will be stressful. I just stay in the day, take really good care of myself, be creative and busy, do things with friends, love my dog, and enjoy my life. If I see AC again I will cross that bridge when I come to it. I hope I have developed healthier boundaries and I don’t allow AC to hurt me much if I have to have AC in my life again. I have it good and I am so grateful. Live and let live. I love AC deeply and wish the best life for AC but that is not AC’s business. AC can just go in peace. It is okay; really okay. So if anyone is hurting, know that storms do pass. You will be happy again; you will.

    Reply
  3. Karen

    We are 1 yr estranged through the yrs we had heard rumors our daughter couldn’t stand us. Three yrs ago after she had been drinking she said, I sant wait to sell all of your property and out you two in a nursing home. This past yr we received a email that said, your have never cared about my wants and needs, have never helped me do anything, I am seeing a therapist I no longer want you in my life quit guilting me into coming to see you. I am on a long journey to get my mind right. We bought her a house at 18 paid half down and titled it in her name. Her first job at a bank she couldn’t get on we went and talked to the president of the bank family friend. My daughter is a user. She has been disinherited of a $5 million estate. I do not care if I ever see her again.

    Reply
  4. Carol M.

    I agree with at least one person that said if they are estranged, they have chosen to extract themselves from the family. They don’t get to have their cake and eat it too, When they make a decision to walk away, they are adult enough to know something like this may happen and they will miss out. The same way they will miss holidays, birthdays ,deaths, marriages and other family celebrations Knowing that they leave anyway. I don’t think there is any obligation to tell them about any more family news until they rejoin the family.
    Doesn’t matter who died. THEY requested no contact and blocked text and phone calls so you had no choice you about reaching them. They left parents and siblings and shattered their hearts for months, years or decades. I know I may sound vary harsh, but when they amputate themselves and don’t think about anyone’s feelings but their own, its hard for me personally to feel bad for what they miss out on.

    Reply
    1. Kate

      Carol M.
      AMEN to everything you said! That’s exactly how I feel. And no, you don’t sound harsh—they chose to “amputate themselves” from us. We, their parents, never ever would have done that to them.

  5. Tommi

    I am in the midst of reading Done with the Crying, just purchased Beyond… I have been estranged from not only my biological son, but my two step daughters as well… So, if all three reject us, does that make us bad parents? No, we gave them everything we could, it was just never enough.. and my son’s wife is super happy now being the center of ‘their’ family circle – which does not include us.

    But… my father is fighting cancer. I did send a text to my son about his grandfather, no response. Now on Tuesday, he is going in for surgery and has a 60% chance of making it… I wonder if I should reach out and let him know, just in case. And, if it should be a phone call – as I think they have blocked my number.
    I know I am danged if I do, and danged if I don’t.. either way I am the crazy mom that would not accept their rules, stipulations, and their statement of not wanting me to “be a part of any of their life events”. So I am not sure if he deserves to know. But I do feel obligated – be it my own ethics on this matter.

    Do I see a reconciliation? Nope, not as long as he is married to this wife. Not from any of them… pains me, but it is what it is, and they are who they are.

    Reply
    1. Hope

      3rd party influence is our adult child being an empath to the wife..partner.. and his god! Their god has control over their ability to separate his family from “their” family.

      I just lost my mom.. I have not reached out to our son , but he knows from cousins. I think he will show up at funeral to “show” everyone he cares. But funny thing, in July when he was right next door to where my mom lived , he never went over to see her! Sooo what love and care was THAT? I pray God open up his heart yo be kind and not use this to insert hateful words into my heart. As he did in a text in 10/2020.Blaming me for their attack on me ( wanting to put me on trial for something that happened in 2014 that I deeply apologized for not once but twice! And years of good happy visits and events, vacation together and their just dropping in to hang out!!! It was insane! He totally blamed me that bc I refused to allow the trial I offended his gf and bc I did that he wanted to teach me a lesson! Just totally insane!! Broke my heart. Then his sister has breast cancer and she reached out to him and he used it as a Segway to make it all about his gf (he estranged from his sister before us) and said good luck with ur diagnosis! Evil!! Just evil.

  6. Mimi

    Sheri,
    Thanks for this article. Our dog recently died and the same thoughts occurred to me. Do I tell ED? Well, we did not. But, this wonderful dog IS tied to memories of a happier time with ED. There are other things too, like we changed the paint color of our house. What a silly thought to want to tell them! But, it was a major change from a pale yellow of 25 years to a rich green color. My impulse was to tell all my children. They mostly grew up in this yellow house. Would they be curious to know.? After all, it’s their home. I’m thankful that you have this website. I’m thankful that you understand and are compassionate.
    Mimi

    Reply
    1. rparents Post author

      Hi Mimi,

      I understand this feeling about changes such as the painting of the house. They’re connection points and hold so much history (and background … in photos and in our lives and memories). You probably did well not to go with your impulse.

      I’m really sorry about your pooch too and know that you will miss your loyal friend.

      HUGS to you Mimi. Great big hugs.

      Sheri McGregor

  7. Caroline A.

    My own belief is when an adult kud walks away from family they forgp all knowledge of the family. My son would only see it as a reason to make contact anyway. But im at the stage of moving on and doing what is right for me and not allow my son control my emotions anymore. I have realised just how stressed I was. My husband was rushed to hospital last week with a heart attack. My first response was to pick the phone up and let our only son know. I put the phone back in my bag and have dealt with it on my own. I don’t care anymore what my son thinks. I spent 10 years being abused, picking up the pieces both financially and emotionally. To realise your only son has such little respect hurts but I have come to terms with it . I no longer have hope we will reconcile and I’m comfortable with that. So neither side needs to know what’s happening in the others world. This may sound cold, but it’s the only way I can deal with it. I’m looking after me and my husband happiness now. So no. They have no rights to know anything. They choose to walk away.

    Reply
    1. Mimi

      Hi Caroline,
      I agree with you. The adult child should not have the power to control our emotions. I don’t want to live in a prison of sadness.

      For many, many years, I have only seen my 32 year old daughter once or twice per year, at a distance. She also has never called me. ED has been totally gone from my life. When I did see her, it was at a family function. And, at those functions, she would leave as soon as possible after barely speaking to me. Then, out of the blue, last February, she texted that she was getting married in September and would we like to meet the fiancée? Of course, yes! I organized a dinner reservation to host them at a nice restaurant .

      So, this dinner was a big thing for me! A turning point, I hoped. We sat down to dinner as if there had never been an estrangement. We all had a great time. Her fiancée impressed me as a solid, common sense man. But, as it happens, this would be the first and only time I would talk with him. Well, we had many happy laughs during dinner and exciting talk of the wedding. It was almost as if we had never been estranged. My husband and I immediately offered a gift, a substantial amount towards the wedding costs. After dinner was over, we hugged and kissed on the cheek a happy goodnight. It was a wonderful evening! On the car ride home, I told my husband that it looked good that our relationship was on the mend.

      Well, a few days later I texted asking if I could host a dinner to meet her in-laws. I suggested a nice restaurant. ED didn’t answer for several days. She was noncommittal. She was non communicative. She was cool and remote. I asked, “ will everything be good between us now?” After a few days, ED texted that she has boundaries in place against me and that she will be sure to let me know what those boundaries are. And, ED implied again that I am in need of counseling.

      I then told my daughter that I would not be attending her wedding. My husband did go to the wedding without me. But, our daughter had her best friend walk her down the aisle. Her dad just sat in the pew watching. Then, during the reception, the groom danced with the mom, but, ED did not do the father/daughter dance. My husband left in the middle of the reception unnoticed by ED. Oh, the humiliation. I’m so glad I didn’t go. It makes my face feel hot with embarrassment and shame.

      My daughter has effectively killed my remnant love for her. We have done nothing wrong. I am just a regular ole basic mom. He just a basic ole dad. Why does she hate her parents without cause? I feel an immense rush of relief washing over my body as I am releasing her from my life. No more stress! First of all, I have my dignity and self-respect. I’m not going to beg as if she is my superior. Second, I must respect her choices too. I will not force ED to have a relationship with me. Thirdly, would I accept that horrible treatment from an acquaintance? Or a neighbor’s child? No. I wouldn’t. Therefore, it’s done. I’m done. I will be happy without her. That said, I am not vindictive. I pray all the happiness in the world for her.

      To all the moms and dads out there, I’m on your side. My daughter really changed for the worse when she went to university. What are they doing to our children? Mind bending stuff. And all the horrible shows on tv that disrespect family life and the parents. Rude tv character s speaking rudely to the parents. It’s truly a brainwashing thing. Anyway, hang in there everyone! 🙂 xo

  8. Angie

    If the person in question was a large part of the deceased’s life story, you might consider that honoring the history and sweet memories carries some weight in comparison to the very different lives you lead now. Would your father-in-law want your son mentioned? Families have a minimum to do with blood; they are predominantly the history you’ve shared. The moment of estrangement you may be in now may be a different set of circumstances than decades past, but nothing will erase the path of one’s life and those that are touched by it. The feelings of the deceased and the memories of all should be considered when processing death, and that an obituary should be weighted to history, not personal sentiment in the moment. Conscious omission makes the situation about you instead of the deceased and their life. Also of note, if you reconcile at a future date, having made the conscious choice to rewrite a person’s history may be a permanent point of contention. It is wounding for wounding’s sake.

    Reply
    1. rparents Post author

      Dear Angie,

      That’s an interesting perspective, and one worthy of consideration. In this case, there were no official obituaries or eulogies (long story). I think you’re correct though, that in an obituary, it would, in most/many cases, be a good thing to mention all survivors.

      Hugs,
      Sheri McGregor

    2. Gene

      When my grandfather and my mother died we sent word through an intermediary to our estranged son of their passing. We knew that neither he nor his controlling wife would respond or attend the funerals but it was still the right thing to do. They were also mentioned in the obituaries just like the other surviving children and grandchildren. Now, it’s seven years onward and my in-laws are not in the best of health. They are not in imminent danger but when their time comes we will again send word and include the names of our son and his family in the death announcement. While we hold little hope this will make a difference with our son the idea is that somewhere down the line our grandchildren will read it and know that they were always considered a part of the family.

  9. Teri

    I often wonder what is the proper thing to do in the case of notifying my estranged daughter if something were to happen to the family pet or a family member. Would not telling her make things worse? I have tried calling to say that I hope she is well during the Covid 19 situation but I don’t get a reply after leaving a message. I have texted her and still no reply. A week later I received a text “I am fine” so I don’t know what I should do. Call or text or perhaps just not notify her if something bad happens.

    Reply

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