Communicating About Family Events

Family gatherings go on without themAt some point, if you’re estranged long enough, something will come that will make you wonder, “Is it okay to contact my child about this?”

Last month I talked about birthdays, and how to “dial down” on gifts, cards, etc. This month we’ll look at how to handle weddings, graduations and other family events, as well as medical emergencies and sudden death, when your adult child has asked for no contact.

“Thought you’d want to know.”

Most parents’ hearts leap at the thought of making contact with an estranged adult child, but if there’s no reason to believe your child would be interested in what’s happening with their third cousin twice removed, it will go better for you in the long run if you don’t reach out.

If someone important to your child is having, say, routine or outpatient surgery, again consider whether your child will appreciate being contacted about it. Somehow they always know when you’re just contacting them because you want to, rather than because you know it matters to them.

When the situation clearly warrants a report, such as a medical emergency involving someone your child is close to, provide important information freely, right up front.

Using whatever form of contact is most reliable, lead with a concise and helpful account of what’s happening. E.g., “Grandma fell while taking a walk and broke her hip. She had surgery this morning and will be at XYZ Hospital until at least Thursday. She’s groggy but in reasonably good spirits.”

Provide the facts. Don’t tease with incomplete details (e.g., “Grandma’s in the hospital” and no further information). Don’t ask them to call or visit anyone. Let them decide how to respond to the information. They’re adults now.

Though you probably won’t hear about it immediately, your child will notice if your communication is selfless, thoughtful, and respectful.

The biggest challenge here is to offer the right amount of information — not too much and not too little.

Ask yourself, “What are the first 3 questions my child might ask when hearing about this situation?” and make sure to answer those in your initial report.

Happy Occasions

If your child has asked for no contact, this unfortunately includes invitations to family events. If you’re worried they’ll feel left out if you all get together without telling them, well … they asked for it. They literally requested to be excluded.

You may feel pressure from friends, neighbors or extended family to invite your child to a wedding, graduation, bar mitzvah, etc. on their behalf.

Don’t be a go-between; you can’t afford to create unwanted contact. Your child is an adult, and presumably the person getting married or graduating is old enough to invite their own guests. This includes your child’s siblings. Let them handle their own invitations.

If you’d rather people didn’t know about your estrangement, keep in mind that many (most?) parents, including those who enjoy close relationships with their kids, don’t know their adult children’s schedules.

Thus it’s perfectly natural to reply, “You should really talk to her directly; I don’t know what she’s got going on in June.” That’s not enough for anyone to suspect you two don’t communicate.

If you’re hosting an event that you’d like your child to attend, you can certainly invite them. Keep your invitation short and sweet (“We’d absolutely love it if you could join us,”), and resist lengthy explanations or justifications.

A death in the family

Not every family event can be anticipated. In the unfortunate event that there’s been a death in the family, assuming it’s someone your child knows, follow the same guidelines for “I thought you’d like to know” above.

That is, provide information and let your child decide what to do with it.

E.g., “Uncle Sid passed away peacefully in his sleep last night. The funeral will be on [date] at [time] at [address].”

If your child was close to the person, of course it’s appropriate to express your sympathy. E.g., “I’m so sorry; I know how much you loved him/her.”

Your child might not decide till the last minute how to respond. It’s not necessarily rudeness; these decisions are very difficult in many cases.

Give them time and try not to push. Knowing human nature, the more you push, the less likely they are to show up.

In general, don’t invite your child to anything where an RSVP is absolutely necessary.

(And if you’ve had a death or another difficult passage in the family recently, please accept my condolences.)

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