“Death brings out the best and the worst in families.”
This is a phrase you have probably heard or used time and again if you work in the world of end-of-life/grief and loss. If you have been through a personal loss you’ve probably experienced it first hand. Working with patients and families at the end of life you do see the good – reconciliation of relationships that were on the outs, friends and extended family supporting each other in unimaginably selfless ways, and sharing memories at the darkest hours. Though I could write a really inspiring post about the incredible ways I have seen “the best” play out, it is far more likely you found your way here because you are a member of one of those families in which “the worst” has emerged. You are probably wondering if this is normal and what you can do about it.
So today we’re talking about the worst. When sweet little Aunt Suzie suddenly becomes a crazy person and your brother, who was your bestie, is suddenly fighting you about everything, it can feel like your world is crumbling. Suddenly you’re trying to cope with the death and your support system is no longer support, but a source of additional stress. You are grieving the death, while feeling like you are losing your family as well.
First let me be clear about one thing—you are not alone. Not even close! So many people can relate to family fighting after a death. What’s the number one source of conflict? Anyone want to take a guess? Belongings and money. As hard as it is for many of us to admit, countless families who never imagine there would be conflict over material things are suddenly overwhelmed by disagreement and power struggles. Though this can take countless forms, some of the common material conflicts are:
- When to begin sorting through belongings. Some people are ready right away, some people want more time before sorting through items.
- Who gets what. Even with a will, there are often many household items or sentimental object that are not accounted for. Not to mention the many people who die without a will. In these cases there can be much conflict around which relative will get which belongings.
- What to keep and what to give away. Attachment to objects can vary greatly from person to person. While one person may want to save every Tupperware container and tube of chapstick that mom ever owned, other family may be quick to toss those items in the trash.
- Whether to keep or sell a house. Houses can have tremendous sentimental value, making them something many family members don’t want to part with. Houses can also hold tremendous value, making them something many family members may want to sell right away.
- Money money money. Whether it is scraping together money to pay for a funeral, or dividing up bank accounts and investments without a will for clear guidance, money can quickly become a sore spot.
- Treatment at the end of life. Conflict can begin even before a death, when families disagree about goals of care, withdrawing support at the hospital, and caregiving responsibilities.
- Arrangements. Questions like whether someone will be buried or cremated, where will the service be held, where will they be buried, etc. can bring surprising strife between family members.
- Relocating. After a death it is not uncommon that people may move, either by choice or out of necessity. This can split a family geographically and be devastating for those who feel left behind.
- Custody. When a death results in children who must be cared for, conflict can arise around who will get custody of the children if this was not predetermined.
- Grieving differently. We all grieve in different ways and on different timelines. When people are grieving differently this can be a major source of conflict within families. This is especially common if one family member thinks another is not as impacted by the death or they are ‘moving on’ too quickly.
I am sure some of you are screaming, “Yes! Exactly! Now what do I do to fix it?!?”. I wish we had an easy answer for that, but if we did we would probably be busy making the rounds on Oprah and Dr. Phil. There is no magic pill. What we can do is provide a little insight into why these conflicts may arise and a few suggestions to cope.
There are many reasons that death can bring out the worst in people. But one important thing to know is that when we are under the stress and crisis of a death, our brains actually work differently. For real. I am not going to get us bogged down in the neuroscience. All you really need to know is this: there are parts of our brain that think rationally and there are parts of our brain that think more on impulse and emotion. When we are in a heightened state due to a death it is harder to think with that rational part of the brain. We default to using the emotional parts of our brains – parts of our brain that struggle with reasoning, memory, and long-term thinking. When we have multiple people all acting from a place of emotion, it is no surprise that conflict can arise.
One thing that is important to remember about death and grief is that it typically means a total loss of control. We all want so desperately to be able to control and change what has happened, but with death control is lost. As CS Lewis said, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear”. This change, loss of control, and loss of stability can be terrifying. During this time certain family members will be seeking any way they can to regain a sense of control. This may take shape in immediately trying to plan the funeral without getting anyone else’s input. It may mean immediately sorting through belongings or trying to take charge of finances. Understanding if desire for control is a factor in behavior can be important in how others in the family respond. Helping another family member to have a sense of control, while communicating how their actions are making others feel, can be helpful. If control seems to be a driving factor, other family members may be able to help guide this person’s energy into things that would be useful and that may cause less family strife.
Communication (or lack thereof) can be a key issue that leads to conflict. If a plan isn’t made for who, when, and how certain things will be handled, it is not uncommon for one person to go rogue. Communicating isn’t always easy, but it is crucial to reducing conflict. If at all possible, make a plan right away for how and when things will be handled. Agree on a time frame to all sit down together to go over the will, discuss next steps, and ensure everyone is on the same page. Make a plan for regular updates and communication between family members.
If it is too late for that, focus on giving feedback to get back on track. Keep in mind that emotions are running high, so it is especially important to communicate effectively. Try to avoid accusatory statements. Instead, focus on expressing your own experience. This is the old “use I statements” instead of “you statements”. So, for example, instead of saying, “I can’t believe you threw away mom’s clothes without talking to me first. You are so self-centered and thoughtless”. Instead you could say, “I was really hurt when you threw away mom’s clothes without talking to me first. It made me feel like you didn’t care about my grief or my attachment to those things. There were some items in there I really wanted to keep that are now gone”. By focusing on the behavior, how it made you feel, and the impact you can hopefully open a dialogue without making the other person defensive. Also, be open to their feedback. You probably haven’t been perfect either, so try to openly listen to what they need from you.
Generalizing the Negative
This brings me to a final consideration – extending behaviors of a griever to represent who they are as a person. For example, you and cousin John have been close for 35 years and you think he is a great guy. After the death of your grandmother, he does some shady manipulating to try to get her car. You are outraged and appalled, so you think to yourself, “wow, I always thought John was a good person. Now I see him for what he really is. I can’t believe I never realized how greedy he is”. All of the sudden everything else John does around the death is clouded by your new-found realization that John is a shady, greedy troll.
Timeout. Let’s take a few steps back here. Grief makes us all do crazy, sometimes crappy, things that we often regret. It is important to cut people (and ourselves) some slack. People do all sorts of awful stuff when they grieve, so view these things as poor choices due to an impossible time in life. It doesn’t override the 10, 15, 35, or 50 years of wonderful things you know about the person. Try to remember that this may be the exception in their behavior, not the rule. Just like you need to be gentle and forgiving with yourself, you need to be gentle and forgiving with others.
If there is truly no managing the conflict on your own, keep in mind that there are professional mediators who can help. They can work with your family to get through the basic logistics. They are trained professionals and you may just find some time with them can help you better understand each other.
I have no doubt many of you have experienced these tough family conflicts. Please leave a comment to share your experience – the good, the bad, and they ugly.
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