October 10, 2018 Brigitte Ganger

Estranged Relatives and Exes: Do People from the Past Belong in an Obituary?

How to include complicated relationships in a death notice

Estranged Relatives and Exes: Do People from the Past Belong in an Obituary?
There are many ways to handle sticky family relationships within the obituary story. (Shutterstock)

A death in the family is often accompanied by a fair amount of family drama. From the circumstances leading up to the death, to the handling of funeral arrangements, to the memorial guest list, everyone has an opinion on how things should be done. One of the most awkward and drama-inducing aspects of planning a loved one's final tribute is the writing of the obituary.

Families are more varied than ever before

A traditional obituary includes a list of predeceased family members, and survivors. In the past, the names to include on these lists may have been obvious. But more and more the nuclear family is being replaced by the blended family, which brings obituary writers into somewhat uncharted territory. How do you mention an estranged relative, ex or other awkward relationship in an obituary without creating discomfort within the family?

Even if the obituary writer doesn't get along with everybody in the family, it's important to be kind and consistent in how they are mentioned in the published life story. (Shutterstock)

Strategies for handling a tricky obituary

If the person whose inclusion in the obituary you are questioning isn't relevant to the life story, it's okay to omit them. But sometimes the person, however problematic they were in the deceased's life, is an unignorable part of the life story. 

For example, if the deceased person is survived by a daughter, and her mother is his ex-wife, it might seem awkward to include his ex-wife in the obituary—particularly if the deceased person went on to remarry. Yet, for some families, excluding the mother of the deceased's surviving daughter would seem unfair and disrespectful.

Briefly mention

One solution is to mention the person by name in a neutral way. Mentioning a person by name and relationship to the deceased is the simplest way to ensure they are included with minimal issues.


"He is survived by his daughter, Amanda, and her mother Sarah." 

"Sharon is survived by sisters Natasha, Jan and Susan."

Most families have at least one relative that is avoided or estranged. There is often a tendency to exclude these relatives, but this is a decision that causes many families pain once the obituary is published. If you're writing an obituary that mentions survivors, try to list them all so no one feels left out. 

Be honest

If mentioning the survivors leaves an obituary reader with more questions than answers, another solution is to add more information. People hoping to be more explicit about the nature of uncertain relationships can add more context. 


"Though Joe and Sarah's love for each other did not last, together they raised an incredible daughter of whom they were both proud." 

Go minimal 

Some find a more explicit, honest obituary style to be too revealing. If this is the case, consider only listing the closest family members, or vaguely referring to the family at large. Obituary writers solve this problem by mentioning the survivors, but not listing them by name. 


"Joe is survived by a host of family and friends who miss him dearly." 

"Sharon's family is left to mourn this tragedy. Those with special memories of Sharon are asked to share them in the obituary guestbook."

This way, no one is included or excluded, and the awkward question of who to include is resolved with minimal drama. 

Find the right balance

It's difficult to navigate complicated family relationships during a time of fresh bereavement. Emotions are running high, and you might be at your breaking point if family issues have been taking over the planning of the memorial service. Try to take the high road in the writing of the obituary process, and throughout all memorial events. 

An obituary, after all, is a tribute to a life well lived. Life isn't always perfect, and most of our histories include relationships that weren't permanent. It doesn't mean they aren't an important part of the story. Your instincts will tell you who to include in the obituary, and hopefully the techniques covered in this article will help you to do so with tact.  

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