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Urban Etiquette

Ellen Vanstone answers your questions about the annoying behaviours, poor manners and impatient encounters that dot the days of a city dweller.

Urban Etiquette: How do I explain to my son why he wasn't included in grandma's obituary?

After his father died, my son spent summers with his paternal grandparents. But they eventually lost touch and now we had to find out they died from Google.

Ani Castillo

Dear Ellen,

I was in a relationship with an individual who went from drinking to drugs and gambling. When our son was five, I asked him to move out. A year later he committed suicide. His mother made an effort to keep in touch, and my son spent summer breaks with her when he was little and enjoyed his time with her a great deal. His grandpa would say hello to him, but conversations did not go much further. My son’s aunt took him for lunch once. His uncle asked me to drop my son off for a visit occasionally, which I always did. I felt it important for him to know his father’s family. About four years ago we stopped hearing from any of them. I recently learned that grandpa died three years ago, and grandma died a month ago. My son was not notified, nor was he mentioned in either obituary. He is very hurt. I don’t understand how anyone could be that mean to a child. Should I say something? 


Dear Donna,

Please accept my heartfelt sympathy for you and your son. It’s sad enough he lost his father. But for his aunt and uncle not to tell you about his grandparents’ deaths, and then to ignore your son’s existence in the obituaries, is not merely rude, it’s cruel.

The cruelty may or may not have been intended. Maybe they mistakenly assumed you were the one who cut off contact. Or they’re following their late parents’ misguided wishes in avoiding contact. At worst, they don’t want to share a portion of the estate. At best, perhaps your son is too painful a reminder of their poor dead brother. It doesn’t matter. They are adults. Their pain doesn’t give them the right to inflict pain on a child, or trump a son’s right to be acknowledged. I’d even argue they’re hurting themselves by cutting off communication — indulging in a form of denial likely to hinder their own efforts to get past it.

Your situation is more complex, but it speaks to a common etiquette problem with couples who split. Friends and family pick sides, and then shun the children as well as the ex-partner — feeling morally superior to the “bad ex,” while blithely inflicting pain on innocent children who also suffer the searing effects of that shunning. I always remember the wise words on this subject in the classic teen movie Clueless. Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is complaining to her father (Dan Hedaya) about having to spend time with her step-brother: “But you were hardly even married to his mother and that was five years ago. Why do I have to see Josh?” He stands firm: “You divorce wives, not children.”

For your own sake, and your son’s, you can still do the polite thing, and send a sympathy card. Tell your son’s aunt and uncle how sorry you were to hear about their parents’ deaths, mention how much your son enjoyed time with his grandmother when he was young, and wish them the best.

Don’t expect a reply. The point is that you will feel better for having done the right thing, and the door will be open if they ever want to resume contact.

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