Death brings out the best and worst in families. Working with patients and families at the end-of-life, we've seen behavior that runs all along the spectrum. And though we love to celebrate positive, warm-fuzzy, supportive, interactions, today we're going to spend a little time talking about family fighting after a death.
When otherwise amicable friend groups and families fight after a death, it can feel like a secondary loss. You're trying to cope with the death of your loved one, and suddenly your support system is not only unsupportive but a source of additional stress.
If this has been your experience, please know that 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? You guessed it, fighting over material possessions.
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 over estates and belongings.
Common Material Conflicts:
When to begin sorting through belongings. Some people are ready right away, some people want more time before sorting through items.
Who gets what. Especially when there is not a will, but even when there is a will, there are often many household items or sentimental objects that are not accounted for.
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 members 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.
Additional sources of conflict:
There are many other sources of strain and conflict that can arise for families. There is no way I could cover them all here, but some other common conflicts are:
Disagreements about treatment at the end of life. Conflict can begin even before a loved one dies 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 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.
Different grieving styles. 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.
How to cope with family fighting after a death:
I wish we had an easy solution to solve all conflict. If we did, we'd probably be busy making the rounds on Oprah and Dr. Phil. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. All we can provide a little insight into why these conflicts may arise and a few suggestions to cope.
Did you know that when people experience stress, their brains actually work differently? It's true! I don't want to get bogged down in neuroscience, but 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 someone is in a heightened state due to a stressful or traumatic event, it is harder to think with the rational part of the brain so they default to using the emotional parts of their brain. These are the parts that struggle with reasoning, memory, and long-term thinking.
Ultimately, when multiple people, under stress, acting from a place of emotion interact, conflicts can arise.
Experiences related to death and grief often make people feel a loss of control. 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 may seek to regain a sense of control any way they can. They may try to plan the funeral without getting anyone else’s input. They may decide they immediately want to sort through belongings. They may try to exert control over other family members grief and coping.
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 proactive planning, focus on giving feedback and getting 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” trick. 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.”.
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
Try not to generalize or globalize negative behaviors to condemn the person on a whole. 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 seems selfishly fixated on getting ownership of 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 a sudden everything else John does 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.
One final tip - Mediation
If there is truly no managing the conflict on your own, 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.
Here are a few additional posts related to this topic that you may find helpful:
- Family Misunderstanding After a Death
- Grief or Greed? When Families Fight Over Material Possessions
- Grief Support Gone Wrong: When You're Beyond Second Chances
- Sorting Through a Loved One's Belongings After a Death [Webinar and Resources]
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