I don’t know which route your wife will choose, but here’s an option for her to consider. Instead of saying to her family members, essentially, “I’m angry with you and I get the last word!” (because by the time they learn about the funeral they missed, she’ll already be gone), she might say, “I’m angry with you, and I’d like to understand more about what happened between us before I die.”
She may learn that these relatives don’t realize how much they hurt her; or that they feel bad for having hurt her; or that they feel hurt by her, and there’s another side of the story she hadn’t been willing to consider before—her own role in the family drama. If that’s the case, there might be room for compassion on all sides, and while compassion won’t erase what happened in the past, it might pave the way for a greater understanding that allows a connection to find its way into their lives. And that small change can be potentially transformative, especially at this time in her life.
Of course, just because your wife does something differently doesn’t mean other people will. If they’re not willing to consider your wife’s point of view (remember, they don’t have to agree with it), if they place all the blame on her or are rude or insulting in these conversations, your wife can take a different tack. She can say she believes that the time to show respect is while a person is still alive, and if they can’t show her respect in life, it would be disingenuous of them to pretend to “pay respects” when she’s dead. For this reason, it would upset her to have them at her funeral, and if they genuinely want to pay respects, they can do so by respecting her preference for that day to go as she wishes.
They may say fine. Or they may still insist on coming, in which case she can ask them point-blank, “Why are you insisting on coming to a funeral for someone whose feelings you don’t care about and who doesn’t want you there?” Just hearing the stark truth in this way may encourage them to reconsider.
But here’s the thing: No matter what happens, your wife will have gotten to say her piece while she still can. Whether you have a private service or they attend her funeral, it won’t matter as much as the fact that she was proactive and forthright, spoke her truth directly to the people involved, and took control of what she had control over—how she wanted to live in a way that expressed her self-worth. Some people go their entire lives and never give themselves this opportunity. She doesn’t have to be one of them.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.