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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