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How To Talk About A Broken Family

I grew up in a family that could be termed many things: Non-traditional, blended, broken, or dysfunctional. Whatever you want to call it, for the past 50 years, Doyle was there. He was Doyle, he was Dad; throughout those years I referred to him either way depending on my mood or his. More so as dad in the later years and when speaking of him to others I always said, “My dad.”

Today, those words will be spoken by mother at my grandfather’s eulogy. Doyle died last Monday, April 14 at the age of 81 after a short battle with leukemia. The funeral will be in California. My mother and I talked briefly about whether or not I should fly out to attend, but times are lean these days, and we both quickly decided it would be best if I stay here, so I will not be attending. This was not an easy decision, but it also hasn’t been hard to accept.

Though I loved my grandfather (a man who I also referred to by first name and family title whenever it suited me), his death has not affected me deeply. I have cried, yes, but not over the loss so much as the toll it’s taken on my mother, on my grandmother. I was told my niece, who is three-and-a-half years old, and who did have a relationship with my grandfather, woke up in the middle of the night the night before he died and told my sister she doesn’t want “Grandpa to be an angel.”

That has been the only time I broke down.

Outside of that moment, even my closest friends are just finding out about my grandfather’s death as they read this post. I haven’t told my co-workers because there is no need for me to take off work nor has his death affected my performance. I am not “going through it,” as they say. Of course, Gina knows. I told her, and I’ve talked at length about things I feel during this ordeal, but opening up hasn’t been challenging, because as evidenced by this blog, expressing myself emotionally has never been an issue.

The biggest challenge for me, personally, is talking about the dynamics of my family in talking about my grandfather’s death.

Those words by my mom at the top of this post are a spot on way to describe our family and the members of it. We were a modern family before there ever was a television show about one. And yet, explaining the patchwork that is my family to outsiders, has always made me uncomfortable, especially in relationships where the person I’m dating comes from something that resembles the opposite.

I know my girlfriend’s family is not perfect. Gina has told me as much, but from my vantage point, I have only seen a family like hers on the sitcoms I grew up watching. The two of us had only been together for a month when I heard Gina discuss her family’s annual holiday gathering with her two older sisters. They were on a conference call with each other for 90 minutes, getting along and laughing. Every year they agree on a specific cuisine from somewhere around the globe. Past years have included a French menu, a Portuguese menu and an Italian menu. Then they make it, together. This is in addition to another big family gathering they have every year in January for extended family. Around the same time this was going on, Gina’s sister was having an engagement party where I met tons of cousins.

As Gina was telling me about all of this, in my head I thought, “Wait, families really do this?” I was fascinated and afraid.

When Gina invited me to the holiday feast, my mother and I already decided I wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas, but I still hesitated before accepting the invitation. There was, for me, not only the pressure of meeting the family for the first time, the new boyfriend of her parents’ youngest daughter. I was also dealing with the insecurity that I looked like a man without a family of my own when that simply wasn’t true.

Fast forward to today, a funeral is taking place for the passing of a major part of my family. Like the holidays, not all of us will be there to take part in the rituals. I have my reasons, but other members of my family have their own that not even I know how to explain.

For those of us who don’t come from what my girlfriend has, there is a worry that where we see a family they see a mess. I am sure other people who come from families like mine know what I’m talking about. We may not be cynical about family, but we damn sure aren’t naive. We realize divorce can be our fate too, that not all holidays will bring everyone together, and family we love dearly can be people we don’t see for years or talk to often. When we talk about them, there is a fear that our partner will assume we are on a course to repeat history. There is a deeper fear within ourselves that our partner’s assumption will be correct.

Today my mom will go up to the podium at my grandfather’s funeral and in talking about his life will explain a broken, blended, non-traditional family. She will do this with a heart filled with love for a man she knew for 50 years, whom I didn’t know very well but was present my entire life. She will do this respect to him for trying his best to love us.

This has been my family for 32-years. I still can’t discuss them without getting tongue tied, especially to my lady whose own family story is quite different from my own. Sometimes the truth isn’t simple and the facts are complicated. If that explains your family history, I can’t tell you how to explain it to others, but I encourage you to do it with no shame because there’s no shame in it.

At one point, Gina asked me to tell her about my grandfather. By now she understands why talking about my family isn’t always easy, so she was patient, and told me to take my time. Yet the truth was, there wasn’t much to tell. When I finally did open up about him, it lead to me talking more about how I was more concerned about how my family in California was handling everything. Hearing the cracks in my mother’s voice as she gave me daily updates have been the hardest moments for me to endure. As for my grandfather and I, we never said a lot of things to each other, but he always said he was proud of me, he always said I was a good kid. And that’s pretty much the extent of our fond memories.

Yet, I feel the loss of my grandfather, like I felt the loss of my biological father whom I barely knew, like I felt the loss of my Uncle Jeff who always referred to himself as the black sheep of the family. I have felt every loss in my family whether close or distant, Through it all I have learned we may not be able to choose family, but we can always choose how we represent them, and I choose to do so with love and respect.

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  • Irnise Fennell

    This has always been my life. Coming to college was a shocker for me. So many people had this great support system while I was there just trying to figure it out with my grandmother’s prayers. Thank you for writing this. I just decided recently that I was going to stop being bashful when it comes to talking about my past, family or anything else that isn’t “normal.”