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Opinion: Family is not to be taken for granted

Being related to someone should fill us with responsibility, not entitlement
A family of four out on a sunlit hike.

Those of you who regularly visit the Pique website may have seen a column with a fairly jarring title last month: “‘Finally kicked the bucket’: Daughter writes brutally honest obituary about dead dad.”

In it, an Ontario woman named Amanda Denis recounts the sad and non-existent relationship she had with her recently-deceased father. “After suffering multiple strokes, one thankfully leaving him unable to speak, the abusive, narcissistic absentee father/husband/brother/son finally kicked the bucket,” Denis wrote, among other things. “Because he treated people with disdain, there will be no service.”

The funeral home where her father was cremated did not allow the obituary to remain on their website, but Denis stood her ground.

“This is the truth, this is the way he was,” she added later in the piece. “It’s my family’s truth and I am not going to change that because somebody won’t post it.”

Another family member, Bonnie Kandulski, is quoted as backing that sentiment.

“It was a true reflection of who he was. I am very proud of Amanda for having the courage to write an accurate obit for such an evil soul,” said Kandulski, adding that her husband called the deceased the “evil one.”

Many of you may feel strongly about those words. Some might applaud Denis for her candour, while others may be appalled by a person speaking so harshly about their family—and in such a public manner to boot. Personally, I respect Denis’ actions. Here’s why.

Family: a fickle thing

Admittedly, I am much more blessed than Ms. Denis was in this particular department. My dad (though not perfect) is a hardworking man who always tries to be there for his family. I owe to him and my mom the privilege of a happy childhood, the privilege of a university education and the privilege of entering adult life with two staunch allies in my corner. In fact, I wouldn’t even be here if my father hadn’t resolved decades ago to move out of China and into a brave new beginning.

Without a doubt I’ve had conflict with my dad, but we have moved past it, and in the end I can say that my old man showed up for me.

It sounds like Denis can’t say that about her own father. That’s why her blunt obituary is perfectly understandable—perhaps even justified. 

Familial relationships are complex things, and we all have different experiences with them. Some are blessed with healthy and loving families, while others have been deeply hurt by nasty individuals whom they happen to be related to. Many fall somewhere in between those extremes. 

Our family members may also saddle us with heavy baggage. Some people may willingly cut ties with toxic former friends, mentors or even significant others, yet yearn for the approval of difficult fathers or mothers. An abusive or absent parent often inflicts a lifetime of damage on their child, leaving that young boy or girl to wonder why they didn’t receive love from a person that should have been their rock.

Families are beyond important. Yet, that is why I believe family members should hold each other to account.

People, responsibility

I’ve frequently encountered the notion that if someone is related to you by blood, they are entitled to a place in your life even if they have severely and unrepentantly wounded you. “So-and-so may have hurt you, but they’re still your mom/brother/grandpa/etc” is a common refrain—and one that I reject.

If you are someone’s family member, that doesn’t give you the right to treat them as you please. Instead, it gives you the responsibility to show that person love and respect based on the nature of your relationship. Fail to live up to that responsibility, and you should expect to face consequences. 

Don’t get me wrong: forgiveness is a vital habit to practice. Even heavily damaged relationships can be salvaged when people become willing to forgive one another, and it is always worthwhile to do so. However, forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation, and in some cases it is healthy for a victim to forgive an offender without pursuing close relations with them. That applies to family as well. 

Denis admits that she wished to have a relationship with her late father, but he wasn’t interested. His boorish arrogance left her with trauma and frustration,
not cherished memories and daddy-daughter dances. Why, then, should she pretend that he meant something positive to his family?

Why should we respect the dead when the dead weren’t respectful during their lives?