“Death brings out the best and worst in families.”

We’ve all heard it before. If you’ve been through a personal loss, you’ve probably experienced it first hand.

Sometimes we see the good. The reconciliation of a relationship that was long estranged. Family supporting each other in unimaginably selfless ways. Friends sharing memories during the darkest of hours.

But sometimes we also see the worst. That sweet aunt who suddenly starts acting like a crazy person. A brother who wants to argue about every small thing. The constant fighting at a time when you should all be coming together.

It can feel like your world is crumbling. Suddenly, you’re trying to cope with the death and your support system is far from supportive. Instead, they’re a source of additional stress.

It can feel like you’re grieving the death of a loved one and losing your family at the same time.

Let’s be clear. You’re not alone. Not even close. It’s a situation that many people can relate to. As hard as it is to admit, countless families who never imagine there will be conflict at such a time, suddenly find themselves overwhelmed by disagreement and power struggles.

 

Common areas of conflict

Most of us hope that we can somehow avoid conflict with our family after a death, but the unfortunate reality is that it happens. Some of the most common areas for conflict are:

  • Who gets what. Even when there’s a will, there are still lots of sentimental keepsakes and household items that need to be dealt with. Deciding how to allocate these possessions can be the source of much conflict.
  • 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 perfume bottle that mum ever owned, others may be quick to toss them in the trash.
  • When to start sorting. Some people want to begin the process of sifting through their loved ones belongings right away, but others need more time to prepare for what can be an extremely emotional process.
  • What to do with the house. Homes can have tremendous sentimental value. This makes it hard for some family members to part with them. Equally the family home may be of significant value, making it something others want to sell as soon as possible.
  • Money. Whether it’s scraping together the cash to pay for the funeral or dividing up bank accounts and other investments, money can quickly become a sore spot.

And that’s to say nothing of the arguments that may happen when it comes to making the funeral arrangements.

Unfortunately, these sort of conflicts are all too relatable for many of us.

 

Why conflict happens and what to do

So what can you do to reduce potential conflict? There’s no magic pill, but understanding why these conflicts arise can help you manage the potential fallout.

  • Understanding emotions. There are many reasons why death can bring out the worst in people – but one important thing to know is that when we’re under the stress and crisis of a death, our brains actually work differently. There are parts of our brain that think rationally and there are those that think more on impulse and emotion. When we’re in a heightened state due to a death, it’s harder to think with the rational part of our brain. We default to using the emotional part, which struggles with reasoning and long-term thinking. When there are multiple people all acting from a place of emotion, it’s no surprise that conflict can arise.
  • Losing control. When a family member dies, so too does our sense of control. We suddenly realise that nothing is really within our control and that feeling can be terrifying. It’s a mental struggle – and during this struggle we can lash out in an attempt to regain that feeling of control. This may take the form of planning the funeral without anyone else’s input, trying to take charge of finances or immediately sorting through belongings without considering the feelings of others. It’s important to understand that if a family member is suddenly trying to take the lead, it’s likely because they’re scared of their loss of control and are trying to regain it through their actions. Recognising this behaviour is key. If you’re aware of it, you can step in and and help them to refocus and guide their energies toward something that may cause less family strife.
  • Communicating openly. 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’s not uncommon for one person to go rogue. Communicating isn’t always easy, but it is crucial to reducing conflict. If possible, make a plan right away. Agree on a timeframe to sit down together and go over the will, discuss next steps and ensure everyone is on the same page. If it’s too late for that, focus on giving feedback to get things back on track. Keep in mind that emotions are running high, so it’s especially important to communicate effectively. Avoid accusatory statements. Instead, focus on expressing your own experience. By focusing on the behaviour and how it made you feel, 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.
  • Generalising the negative. Grief can make us do crazy, sometimes crappy, things that we later regret. It’s important to cut people (and yourself) some slack. View these things as poor choices due to a difficult time in life. It doesn’t override the 10, 20, 30 or more years of wonderful things you know about the person. Try to remember that this may be the exception in their behaviour, not the rule. Just like you need to be gentle and forgiving with yourself, you need to be gentle and forgiving with others.
  • Seeking mediation. If there’s truly no managing the conflict on your own, keep in mind that there are mediators who can help. They can work with your family to get through the basic logistics. You may just find that some time with them can help you better understand each other.

 

Take care of each other

The death of a family member will bring on a rollercoaster of emotions for everyone, so it’s important to know what to expect and respect how everyone is feeling. Look out for your family and don’t forget to take care of yourself.

Knowing when to step in and knowing when to step back is a key component in dealing with family drama. And remember, no matter how painful it might be at time, it will pass and life will go on.

 

Want to know more?

For more information about working through grief following the loss of a loved one, please contact the Walter Carter Funerals team by emailing community@waltercarter.com.au.