Losing a family member is difficult for everyone in the surviving family. Whether you’re dealing with the loss of a parent, grandparent, or sibling, a period of grief is to be expected. There are many emotions associated with grief beyond sadness and every person grieves differently. A very common yet not always expected reaction to the death of a family member is family conflict.
Keep reading to understand why a death in the family can cause conflict amongst surviving family and how to deal with it.
What Can Cause Family Conflict During Bereavement?
Family conflict during or after a death is common. According to US studies, about 57% of families report family turmoil after a loved one died and 35% of families report family disagreements as their loved one’s death approaches. The reasons behind family spats can be for numerous reasons.
GRIEF AFFECTS EVERYONE DIFFERENTLY
Grief is a complicated emotion that everyone experiences in a different way. Family bereavement is a high stress time in every family member's life. There may be many different emotions associated with grief including sadness, anxiety, anger, resentment, and guilt.
When every family member grieves differently, their grieving method may clash with other family members. This can lead to disputes or arguments amongst certain family members.
LEGAL MATTERS/FUNERAL PLANNING
If a recently deceased family member did not have their affairs in order before they passed, this leaves the surviving family members to pick up the pieces. There are many legal matters to contend with after the death of someone such as managing the deceased’s estate, determining if they had a Will, overseeing funeral preparations, paying for funeral costs, and figuring out what to do with the deceased’s belongings or dependents left behind (like children and pets).
Often most of these responsibilities tend to fall on one person. The stress of these responsibilities can negatively impact your mental health. You may also feel resentment towards other family members who can’t or won’t offer to help. These are common reasons for family disputes during bereavement.
THE LOSS OF A PROMINENT FAMILY MEMBER
When a prominent family member dies, it can leave a void in the family dynamic. Sometimes it’s only one family member (often a parent or grandparent) who holds the family together. They are the backbone of the family dynamic and when they’re gone, the surviving family isn’t sure how to cope.
Their death may lead to family dysfunction and frequent spats about anything and everything. Losing a prominent family member is like losing the glue that held everyone together.
One of the most common reasons for fighting after the death of a family member is estate disputes. There may be disagreements over when and if the deceased’s home and belongings should be sold. Some family members may want to hold on to these belongings longer while others want to clear them out right away.
Families may also fight over who gets to keep what. There may be items that belonged to the deceased that several family members value. Deciding who gets what can be tricky and may lead to heated arguments.
INHERITANCE MONEY DISTRIBUTION
Inheritance money is by far the number one reason why families fight after a death in the family. People often change when it comes to money. There may be one or more toxic siblings or family members who become greedy or think they deserve more than they are owed.
It’s also not uncommon for toxic family members to try and stiff other family members out of their inheritance. Money disputes amongst family members quickly become volatile and show every person’s ugly side.
END OF LIFE CARE
Deciding how a loved one should be cared for when they are near the end of their life is often a cause for disagreements in the family. There are many scenarios that can take place during the end of someone's life.
Family members may disagree about where the dying loved one should be cared for, how they should be cared for, or whether it’s time to take them off life support. These disagreements may be even more common in scenarios where the deceased is unable to voice their opinion (such as when they are afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease or are brain dead).
Who Does This Type Of Conflict Impact?
Family conflict can affect anyone who was close to the deceased. Usually, this will be close family members, but it could also affect close friends of the deceased. Typically, the person affected the most is the family member or friend chosen to be the executor of the estate.
The executor of the estate is responsible for all after death matters of the deceased. This includes managing funeral arrangements, dealing with probate lawyers, and handling financial affairs. These responsibilities weigh heavy on the executor and can be very stressful for them to deal with alone.
Young children are most affected when the deceased is a parent or family member who cared for them. Children under 18 will be forced to move in with another family member or foster parent.
The change is difficult on children because their entire lives may be uprooted. Not only do they miss their parent or parents, but they may be forced to move to a different state and placed in the care of people they don’t know.
If the deceased family member leaves behind a pet, there may be a struggle for custody of who gets to keep the pet. In worse case scenarios, the pet is not adopted by anyone and must be taken to an animal shelter. Pets care deeply for their human owners and will feel the impact of their human’s disappearance from their lives.
How to Deal With Family Conflict During Bereavement
RESPECT EACH OTHER'S SPACE
Every person has their own way of dealing with death. Many family spats arise from one person not handling their emotions in a way another family member thinks they should. It’s important to recognize that everyone grieves differently, and everyone has a different relationship to the deceased.
You may have had a wonderful relationship to the deceased but your sister, for example, did not. In that case, she may not be as affected as you are by the death of your loved one. It’s important for both of you to take each other’s feelings into consideration and respect each other's space during this time.
KEEP COMMUNICATION LINES OPEN
Family fighting tends to occur after a death in the family because of a lack of communication. It’s not uncommon for certain family members to band together and unconsciously leave other family members feeling left out. Remember that everyone is hurting in their own way, but their hurt may look different than yours.
For example, you may feel grateful that your mother passed because she is now no longer in any pain. However, a comment like this could come off as cruel to another family member who does not see their loved one’s death in the same way. It’s important for every family member to speak up and voice their feelings and opinions so everyone can better understand one another.
Start a Group Chat. Start a group chat via text with close members of your family. A group chat will give a chance for the whole family to connect, no matter where they live. Texting is an easy way for families to stay in touch and feel closer to one another in their time of grief. Group chats are also a good way to discuss funeral planning or any other arrangements that need to be made after a death in the family.
Have a Group Discussion. An in-person group discussion will be a helpful way for family members to air out their feelings, concerns, or disagreements about their loved one’s death and how the family is handling it. Like a group text chat, an in-person meeting with all close family members gives people a chance to express themselves in person. Each family member should be encouraged to be open and honest about how they are feeling and get grievances out of the way before they cause further turmoil.
Though one person is often left with the role of the estate executor, it’s not fair to leave all the work up to one person. Reduce possible conflict by coming together as a family and deciding on a plan.
Every person should be willing to contribute what they can to the after-death arrangements whether that’s chipping money in for a funeral, handling legal matters, or making funeral reception arrangements.
Have a family discussion about what needs to be done then delegate a task to each family member. Dividing the work amongst the family will ensure one person is not left with the full burden of being executor.
BRING IN A MEDIATOR
It may be beneficial for some families to bring in a mediator to handle certain family affairs. A mediator can be a lawyer who helps you fairly and legally execute your loved one’s Will. It could also be a clergyman or family counselor who helps resolve familial disagreements and keep emotions in check.
Family disagreements can get heated and are often fueled by emotion rather than logic or facts. Having someone mediate who is outside of the family dynamics can help make the after-death proceedings run more smoothly.
BE WILLING TO COMPROMISE
A family is a group of people with sometimes very different views and opinions. Just because you are related does not necessarily mean you will agree on everything. But to make your loved one’s death a less stressful situation, everyone must be willing to compromise on some things.
Remember that you cannot always make every single person happy, especially if you have a large family. Family members must be willing to compromise on some things for the good of the family as a whole.
Majority Rules. Decisions should be made for what is best for the family as a whole, not individually.
For example, you may prefer for your parents to be buried but your siblings think it best to go with cremation. If it’s of dire importance to you that your parents be buried rather than cremated, express your feelings to your siblings. They may agree with your decision if they know how important it is to you that your parents be buried.
However, your siblings may feel just as strongly about their choice to have your parents cremated. In that case, you should be willing to compromise on your end. Everyone’s feelings should be taken into consideration but it’s not fair for one person to make decisions for the entire family.
TRY TO BE UNDERSTANDING
Family rivalries are often ignited when it comes time to execute a family member’s Will. We have no say or control over how the deceased decided to split up their estate between their surviving family. Unequal disbursement can be the cause of much tension and turmoil within the family. During a situation such as this, it’s important to stay levelheaded.
Don’t Get Caught Up on Money. Maybe you find it unfair that one of your siblings was left more money or property than you. You may feel anger or resentment towards the deceased and your sibling.
But if you take a step back, maybe your deceased family member had a reason for this decision. Maybe you make a significant amount more money than your sibling and the deceased thought your sibling needed more financial help than you did.
If you look back even further, maybe you’ll remember how the deceased gave you a generous donation for your wedding, whereas they gave nothing to your sibling. You may never know why the deceased made the decisions they did regarding their Will and it’s not any of your business. Whether you think it’s fair or not has nothing to do with your sibling. Don’t start family drama by taking out your frustration on them.
Coping With Family Bereavement
Grief brings out the best or worst of us depending on who you are. Losing a family member is one of the more difficult forms of grief you can experience. The loss of a blood relative whom you grew up with isn’t easy to cope with. Losing a family member may feel like you are losing a small part of yourself. Below is what you should expect after the death of a loved one.
INTENSE FEELINGS OF EMOTION
Grief brings on waves of different emotions ranging from sadness, anger, guilt, regret, and numbness.
Sadness - It’s normal to mourn the loss of someone you loved. When a loved one is no longer in your life, it can feel incredibly sad and lonely. You may feel as if a hole has been left in your heart. Sadness is a completely normal reaction to the death of someone you cared for deeply. The realization that you will never again get to see, talk, or touch a person you loved can be devastating.
Anger - Anger is often associated with grief. You may feel angry that your loved one was taken from you so soon or unexpected. Depending on the circumstances of their death, you may be angry with yourself or another family member for not helping prevent it. You may also feel angry at the deceased if you believe they could have done more to prevent their own death. Sometimes you feel angry at the world for anyone else who is allowed to live while your loved one is dead. Anger is a normal reaction to death.
Guilt - Many family members may feel guilty after the death of a loved one if they feel they could have prevented it. They may blame themselves in some way for their death possibly because they think they had something to do with it. Guilt is a common emotion associated with grief though it is often unwarranted. No one is able to predict the future and no one has control over when it’s time for a loved one to pass.
Regret - It’s nearly impossible to grieve without feeling regret. We all wish we could have had more time with the deceased. You may regret never getting a chance to tell them how much you cared for them or you may regret not seeing them often enough. But the truth is, there is never enough time with the people we love. We must trust that our loved ones are in a better place and can feel our love for them.
Numbness - Numbness is sometimes the most intense feeling of all after a loved one dies. Death can be traumatic and may leave you feeling in shock. Although you are aware of your loved one’s death, your brain may not be able to process their death right away. You may feel numb because you are subconsciously protecting yourself from feeling pain. Feeling no feeling at all is common after a death though will usually subside.
NOT HAVING A SENSE OF HOME
Home is where the heart is and we often associate our feeling of home with our loved ones. When the family we consider to be our home dies, it can feel like we no longer have a home. You may no longer feel a connection to the place of your birth or the city you live in. Now that your loved one is gone, it’s as if they took your sense of home with you. Not feeling like you have roots can feel lonely. During this time, you should reach out to other family members and friends to help you feel less alone.
HOLIDAYS WILL BE HARD
Holidays are about spending time with our friends and family. When a close family member dies, holidays won’t feel the same. You will be reminded of their absence during family holiday rituals and activities. You will miss their presence during these important times of the year. Holidays will be hard going forward but they will get better. Keep your friends and surviving family members close. Create new holiday memories and honor your deceased loved ones whenever you can.
YOUR FAMILY DYNAMIC MAY BE OFF
Sometimes families find comfort in healing together, but other times healing isn’t possible when family is together. Being together as a family may only remind you of the absence of the deceased. These memories may be so painful for you that being together as a family isn’t possible. You may choose instead to distance yourself from your family to find peace from your grief on your own. Unfortunately, this may mean spending time with your family will never be the same again.
How To Care for Yourself and To Heal From Family Conflict After a Death
Taking care of yourself is an important part of being able to deal with conflict during bereavement. Read below to get some tips and ideas on how you can make sure you are a priority to you.
TAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF TO GRIEVE & REMEMBER YOUR LOVED ONE
The grieving process is difficult for everyone. Mourning the loss of a family member you loved and were close to is one of the most difficult deaths to grieve. Be kind to yourself during this period and give yourself time and space to process your emotions. Use this grieving period as a time to remember your loved one.
Think about their impact on your life and the memories with them you treasure. Give yourself permission to express your emotions whether that’s through, crying, laughing, or screaming. How you express your grief is unique to you and shouldn’t be judged by others.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR HEALTH
A death in the family can put you under immense physical and emotional stress. It’s common for grieving people to let their needs go by the wayside. But not taking care of yourself can make you sick and may lead you into a deeper depression. It’s important to continue taking care of yourself, even when self-care is the last thing on your mind.
Make a point to follow your normal routine such as weekly exercise sessions, eating healthy, and getting plenty of sleep. Stay away from self-destructive behaviors like drinking or substance abuse. These coping mechanisms may help relieve your pain in the short term but long-term they can have serious negative side effects.
TALK TO A THERAPIST OR FRIEND
If you’re having trouble dealing with your grief or if it is affecting your mental health, consider talking to someone. A therapist or grief counselor can be a good person to talk to about how you’re feeling.
They may be able to help you see your problems from a different perspective. Trained counselors and therapists can recommend resources or exercises for you to help cope with your grief struggles.
Friends can also be important during your time of bereavement. Sometimes all you need is a shoulder to cry on or for someone to lend an ear. Talking to a trusted friend about your feelings can help you unload some of your sadness. When you internalize your pain and sadness, it can make the grieving process harder. Talking to someone about your feelings helps you process them better and can help you see them from a different perspective.
JOIN A SUPPORT GROUP
Grief support groups bring together people who are dealing with similar circumstances. You may find it helpful to join a support group for grieving families. Speaking with other people who understand your feelings and the struggles you may be going through can be therapeutic.
It’s nice to know that we are not alone in our pain and that other people understand how we feel. Joining a support group will give you a sense of community and belonging. Support groups can help you feel less lonely during your time of sadness.
MEDITATE OR DO YOGA
Meditation and yoga are two ancient practices used for promoting health and relaxation. Meditation is a method of training your mind to focus on the present. Using different breathing and mind discipline techniques, meditation can help calm your mind and push away intrusive thoughts.
Meditation is linked to positive benefits such as reduced feelings of stress, improved sleep, reduced anxiety, and reduced negative thinking.
Yoga is a meditative form of exercise that incorporates breathwork into performing various stretches and poses. Yoga helps to build a stronger body, improve flexibility, and improve mood. It’s an exercise form based in spiritualism and participated in to bring greater self-awareness and unity with nature. Taking part in regular yoga sessions may help distract you from your grief and help you keep a healthy mind and body.
WRITE IN A JOURNAL
Keeping a journal is a good way to express your feelings in a physical form. Writing down your thoughts is a physical way to unload your thoughts and feelings. You can write in your journal daily or whenever you are feeling stressed or sad.
A journal is a private place where you can feel free to express yourself in any way you choose without judgment. You can write about how you’re feeling or even write as if you are writing directly to the deceased. It can be a useful tool for helping you cope with intrusive thoughts.
KEEP SOMETHING OF SENTIMENTAL VALUE CLOSE BY
Sentimental objects are objects that hold value for us for non-monetary reasons. They can be reminders of the deceased or memories we have of the deceased. Sometimes these objects may be something the deceased owned in life. Having a small part of the deceased, or something that reminds you of the deceased, can help you feel closer to them.
A remembrance keepsake is something you can keep close by to help you cope during your bereavement. Below are examples of remembrance or keepsake gifts that can be used to bring you comfort.
Cremation jewelry is keepsake jewelry made to hold a small portion of your loved one’s ashes. Cremation jewelry comes in various styles including jewelry pendants, rings, and bracelets.
You can have a piece of cremation jewelry made to honor your loved one and keep them with you wherever you go. Each cremation jewelry piece can be personalized with text engraving of your choice.
Photo Engraved Jewelry
Photo engraved jewelry is jewelry that can be laser engraved with a photo of the deceased. You can choose between a black and white or color photo engraving on your necklace pendant or keychain.
Photo engraved jewelry captures the likeness of your loved one so that you will never forget their face. When you are missing them, you can look down at your remembrance keepsake as if they were with you in person.
Thumbprint jewelry incorporates your deceased loved one’s thumbprint into the design of the jewelry piece. You can choose from a thumbprint pendant, thumbprint necklace, thumbprint ring, or a thumbprint keychain. Thumbprint jewelry uses laser engraving technology to engrave your loved one’s unique and special thumbprint onto a jewelry piece or your choice.
When you’re feeling lonely, you can reach down and feel your loved one’s thumbprint, ridges and all. Thumbprint jewelry is one of the most unique ways to feel close to your loved one when they are no longer with you.
Jewelry Made From Ashes
Jewelry made from ashes is jewelry that uses a small portion of your loved one’s ashes into its jewelry design. Typically, your loved one’s ashes will be mixed in with the resin pendant filling. Jewelry made from ashes lets you carry a part of your loved one with you throughout your daily routine.
Family Conflict Frequently Asked Questions
How do you deal with family conflict after death?
Family conflict after a death in the family is common. You can navigate through family conflict after death by implementing the following strategies.
- Respect each other’s space: Everyone grieves differently and needs time to process their feelings.
- Keep a communication line open: Keep communication between you and your family open and honest. Don’t be afraid to talk about how you’re truly feeling. Now more than ever you and your family need each other.
- Keep everyone involved: All family members should be involved with making arrangements after the death of your loved one. Including them in this process will help everyone feel needed and will reduce the burden of responsibility on the executor of the estate.
- Be willing to compromise: Everyone will have their own ideas and opinions about how to handle the estate of the deceased. Understand that you won’t all agree but must all be willing to compromise to make peace.
Why do families fight after death?
There are many reasons why families fight after death but some of the most common arguments arise because of the following:
- Splitting inheritance
- Making funeral arrangements
- Legal disputes
- When to sell property
- When to get rid of the deceased’s belongings
- End of life treatment for the dying family member
- Custody issues (if the deceased leaves behind children or pets)
How do you avoid family conflict after death?
The best way to avoid family conflict after a death is to have an open and honest conversation with your family. Ask them to try and handle the situation with a level head. Emotions can get the best of us and cause us to react in ways we may regret later. Remind yourself and your family that now is the time to come together, not fight.
Keep your cool by understanding that everyone grieves differently. No one is in their right state of mind after the death of someone they loved dearly. Be understanding and forgiving of what might be said or done during this sad time in your family.
How does grief affect the family dynamic?
Grief can affect the family dynamic in different ways. If the deceased was a prominent person in the household, it can be more difficult for a family to cope. Someone who is the backbone of a family keeps the family together. When they are no longer around, the glue that held everyone together dissipates. This can lead to family arguments or a family that no longer makes time to see each other. If you want to keep your family together after a death, effort must be made to foster familial relationships.
How long does it take to get over a death in the family?
How long it takes to get over a death in the family depends on the family members' coping mechanisms. Some people grieve for longer than others while others move on easily. However, getting over the loss of a prominent (like parent or grandparent younger generations looked up to) family member may take longer.
Prominent family members leave a lasting impression in the minds of their surviving family. When they are no longer there, the surviving family must learn to get used to their absence. Family bereavement can take anywhere from a month to a few years or more. There is no set amount of time to properly grieve a loved one.
Why do siblings fight after a parent dies?
Siblings may fight after a parent dies because they disagree over how funeral arrangements should be handled or how their parents' Will is executed. Most commonly siblings will fight over inheritance and who should get what now that their parents are no longer around.
They may be upset that their parents did not disburse funds evenly between the siblings and feel entitled to their fair share. They may also feel as if other siblings are not pulling their weight when it comes to after death responsibilities. There are many reasons siblings may fight after the death of their parents including the reasons mentioned above.
How do you deal with family conflict at a funeral?
There are many reasons that family conflict may arise at a funeral. Often these reasons have to do with the funeral arrangements, religious or spiritual views, what kind of burial service is chosen (cremation vs. burial), what’s written in the obituary, and who is invited. There may also be animosity towards family members over familial jealousy, resentment, or inheritance disputes.
Funerals are never a right time to argue or rehash old grudges. To prevent family conflict at the funeral of your loved one, follow these steps:
- Make compromise a priority: Conversations over making funeral arrangements may get heated. Remind yourself and others that the funeral is not about getting what you want. At the end of the day, the funeral is about honoring your loved one. Remind yourself and others that compromise is necessary to arrange a funeral in a proper and timely manner. The funeral is about your deceased loved one, not you or anyone else.
- Don’t start drama: The best way to minimize drama is to not start it in the first place. Steer away from conversations you know may be sensitive. Don’t discuss old grudges, arguments, or money. These issues can be dealt with in another time and place, not your loved one’s funeral.
- Respect everyone equally: You may not be a fan of certain attendees of the funeral but now is the time to play nice. Stay cordial and respectful towards funeral guests regardless of your history with them. They are there because they also cared for the deceased and therefore have every right to be there. Keep your cool and play nice for the sake of the deceased.
Keeping Conflict At A Minimum
Grief affects every family differently and there is no telling how you will or won’t react when a death occurs in your family. Family spats and arguments are common after a death in the family but can be overcome.
Understand that every family member is grieving the loss of someone they loved and may not be in their right mind. Be understanding of each other’s feelings and do your best to draw your family closer together not farther apart.
November 30, 2022 by Jeri K. Augustus