family fighting after a death

When Death Brings Out the Worst: family fighting after a death

“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:

  1. When to begin sorting through belongings.  Some people are ready right away, some people want more time before sorting through items.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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 family fighting after a death textother common conflict that arise are:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

The Brain
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.

Control
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
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.

Mediation
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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COMMENTS

griever

Posted on May 14, 2014 at 8:16 am

Aagghh! So true! The vultures circled and swooped in, cackling as they picked through the spoils of his (and to a lesser extent, my) belongings in our home. See my comments in the National Widows Day post.

As a preventive measure to alleviate some of the confusion before illness or death occurs, please do some legal paperwork immediately. This includes powers of attorney (can be general to cover everything or specific to one category such as vehicle or finance), medical power of attorney, HIPPA privacy restrictions, directive to physicians, out-of-hospital do not resuscitate. Had my sweetie done his homework, he (and we) would not have suffered as much trying to make serious decisions when he was delirious from IV drugs and almost gone. T

Each state has different requirements. Some hospitals or clinics provide forms for free, as part of the admission process. But if you don’t do anything at all, you are at the mercy of the government, the law or the insurance company. And discussions of treatment among family members will not be fun.

I thank God for the doctors we had who truly put his needs first in the most compassionate way possible.

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griever

Posted on May 14, 2014 at 4:43 pm

P.S. The will! Don’t forget the will. And update it yearly or if there is any change of status in beneficiaries. A 45-year-old will does not address current situations.

Even a handwritten document can be valid. Some need a notary to validate it. It’s very easy but please check what is acceptable in your state.

Bless you all.

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tracy stone

Posted on October 4, 2014 at 8:09 am

This helped some, but this isnt what made us fall apart, ours was not respecting each others different grief. A sort of in their eyes, trying to prove who loved him the most. I sat and cryed trying to figure out why and I think I found the real answer, we all loved this little boy deep, I think for me, I am grieving more, not because I loved him more, but because I had more time and memories with him. Enough to fill my heart so that the pain is crazy. They think I should grieve just like them and I cant, therefore,,,, a torn family. I struggle with not there sympathy, but the lack of their understanding and compassion of what my grandson was to me.

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Nancy

Posted on December 7, 2014 at 6:41 pm

The article helped a little but after 9 yrs our family is still torn. While Mom was trying to deal with her cancer my Dad was falling apart and in his grief making absurd accusations about my sister and especially about me. He passed these lies onto my brother and his wife, who continued the negativity to my other brother. These were then passed to my mom who had to suffer enough with cancer and now had to realize the poison going on in her family. Luckily she called me and we talked and cried for hours finally getting the truth exposed. Sadly, that wasn’t the end of it. I am closer to my sister which made my Mom laugh because we were never really close before. Today my brothers and their families are not in my circle. Dad is “gone” with Alzheimers. When there is a problem with our father I eventually am contacted by my brother. For years I felt guilty but after seeing a psychic was told I could let it all go; it was meant to be. To my Mom, her family was everything and to see it split apart continues to be sad. To lose my Mom and my family at the same time was so confusing. The lies told about me were so confusing because all I wanted was to help my Mom through this last phase of her life. I worked with hospice and helped my Dad with her medicines. He seemed to appreciate my help to my face, then trashed me behind his back. Anyway….that was 9 yrs ago and long past time to get on with my life. Still, thanks for the article. It’s nice to know torn families exist. As Mom would say, that’s life!!!

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Elaine

Posted on July 7, 2015 at 4:25 pm

Wow, this article is true. I am beneficiary on a good friend’s insurance policies. Although I was surprised by this fact, I took on the role of handling her final affairs since her family (from whom she was estranged) didn’t. At the viewing before the service, the family members started trying to find out how much money was spent on the funeral. At the repast (reception) after the service, they tried again. one of them approached me and demanded a meeting with me to discuss what I had, what I had spent and what I knew about her finances and belongings. No mind you, these individuals were not involved in her life. Her friends, me included, have known her for 30-40 years and never heard of these people — all of which are cousins because she doesn’t have any immediate family like parents, spouse, siblings, children or aunts and uncles. Now the real crazy part… They are after her house which is valued about about 500K. I’ve never seen anything like this. They didn’t speak at the funeral. They didn’t ask me if I needed any assistance. The didn’t offer to help write the program. They didn’t even write the acknowledgements…I did. And now they want to meet with me? For what? Is that grief or is that greed. I’m trying to be understanding, but my friend was ill and hospitalized for a long time and they never showed up even though I called a couple of them. People can be really interesting.

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MSparks

Posted on July 13, 2015 at 1:07 pm

I am dealing with “rogue” family members now. My mother is ill, there are end-of-life issues. It is just a matter of time before she is put on hospice care. In the beginning (she broke her hip and was also just recently diagnosed with cancer for which she would not tolerate aggressive treatment) we were sharing some responsibilities, but they all slowly stopped returning mine or her calls, don’t come to see her. I work full time and 3 of the others don’t work at all and even live closest to her. The other 2 are in complete self-centered denial. It is the purposeful non-communication that really has me at a loss. My resentment is becoming so severe that when she passes, I don’t care if I ever speak to or see any of them ever again. When it come to money — there is none — but if I am even approached in regards to any, some big beads are going to be read before I exit the family altogether.

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PMD

Posted on July 13, 2015 at 6:36 pm

When you bring a stepmother and stepchildren into the mix it is even worse. My stepmother (actually I refer to her as my Dad’s wife…….she was never a stepmother to me.. She ordered the medication that killed my dad. When my brother was killed in a car/train accident the Dr. gave that medication to me dad to settle him…. This was the medication that was ordered for my dad. My sister is a nurse and she informed me of the records that are kept. I would never had guessed that things like that can happen. Because I was one of the executors (until I was removed) of my dad’s will I was able to get copies of dad’s medical records from the hospital. (This was shared to me by my sister. ) This is when we found out for certain (in black and white) that she had ordered the medication that killed our father. 15 years later we are still feeling angry that this could have been done. Please read all of your loved one’s records in the hospital. Do not assume!!!

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Mel

Posted on July 14, 2015 at 6:51 pm

I just lost my 14 year old daughter a month ago. Her father and I are divorced. It was nice to see both sides get along until the “gift box”. All I have to say is this article hit me. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one going through this. I wish you could do more articles so I could understand the grandparents side and understand people. I’m sad and angry. Never thought this would happen in our family.

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Denise

Posted on August 24, 2015 at 8:49 pm

I am going through the most right now, my grandmother is very sick and my uncle is made because me and my brother are beneficiaries right along with him and wants to know why his kids aren’t, my grandmother adopted me and my brother when my mother passed while we were kids. He’s thinks we’re keeping insurance papers from him. I have power of attorney and a joint account and have been helping her with everything. Now he’s trying to get her pension and make funeral arrangements already. Though he was go be my support but boy was I wrong, his mother isn’t even dead and he’s acting like this.

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Ann

Posted on October 8, 2015 at 6:13 am

I recently lost my mother and went through what I believe to be the worst experience with disagreements and fighting. I was at a loss as to what caused the disagreements but after reading the article, realized it was about control. Though I felt there was communication among us and joint decisions made, accusations were thrown about me doing things “my way”. That for me was very hurtful as I consulted and communicated information each step of the way and got input before finalizing. I now realize that family members needed to try to regain that control that was taken from them through the death of my mother.

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malaga6

Posted on October 12, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Thank you so much for writing this piece. I found it very helpful. I am the oldest of six siblings who lost both parents within six months of each other in 2014-15. All of us are on the same page regarding our parents’ trust estate except one brother, who is abrasive, insensitive and outspoken about what “he” thinks our parents’ trust and will says, and what it actually says. His comments started before our remaining parent (father who is was never close to) died earlier this year. As I am the successor trustee, he complains and criticizes what I do regarding the estate despite the fact that the estate lawyer told him I was doing everything in order, and in a timely manner. He wants me to sell and liquidate all of the estate’s assets and divide it six ways, but that would effectively make two of our siblings homeless. So anyway, reading your essay helped be make some sense of out his behavior. Thank again.

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Eleanor

Posted on October 14, 2015 at 10:19 am

Ugh, I’m so sorry that this is your experience. I cannot tell you how often we hear stories like this. I hope your brother is able to find away to be a little more at peace with the decisions that were already made and which are being made. Good luck with everything.

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Amrita

Posted on November 19, 2015 at 2:13 pm

My grandma has died since September 2014 and my mum, dad and granddad has been fighting since and my grandma was the one who didn’t let them break apart!!!

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Jamie

Posted on December 12, 2015 at 3:15 pm

Im going to start off with a little bit of background to try and bring everyone up to date. My grandmother passed away less than a month ago. She was a strong amazing woman with a heart of gold and open arms. She left behind 5 living children all over the age of 50 along with over 20 grandchildren, over 30 great grandchildren and even a couple great great grand babies. My mom (the baby of the family according to grandma) has been a permanent fixture in my grandparents house as a caretaker, a companion and a best friend to her mom for the past 10 years. They did everything together and lived within their means while relying and leaning on eachother to make ends meet. They didnt have much, they shared a small trailer worth less than $5000 and everything they have in it thwy purchased together they were more than happy to have eachother and proud of what they have accomplished as a team. Now she has passed and my mom is all alone and to top it off her siblings are being very cruel. Grandma died suddenly and unexpectedly and did not leave a will. The only thing she left was words of her last wishes to my mom and i. We have been accused of stealing and hiding valuables that dont exsist and a living will that was never written. Mom is the only one of her siblings that has ever worked for her money (though it isnt much) and is also the only single sibling of the family. She drives to and from many clients homes on a daily basis in a car that barely runs and is now trying to make ends meet on her own small income. My aunts and uncles showed up a two weeks after her passing and tore through grandmas room like it was a rummage sale leaving nothing but a bed and night stand and now they are trying to take the trailer and car that has been signed over but never transferred to my mom so they can sell them for less than $6000 leaving my mom and the 2 dogs she inherited completely homeless and without a vehicle. As i said before they are all married with their own cars and houses. The funeral costs were taken care of with donations and there are no final bills. They just want the little bit of money. They have all had great relationships with eachother until the day she passed. I love my family and all that they are but im finding it hard to forgive their cruelty and selfishness. I cry for my moms heartache everyday and just keep thinking to myself grandma will be home soon to straighten all this out knowing its not true. I apologize if this is not the place to share this story but i feel as though it needs to be told and i appreciate the open ear.

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John

Posted on December 18, 2015 at 9:43 am

Our brother Patrick died suddenly of stomach cancer in June of 2014, after we lost our sister Mary in January of the same year, also of cancer. Perhaps is was the shock, but our older sister Donna, who had promised to help me and our remaining brother with the funereal expenses, has not contributed one cent as of December 2015. She is retired and on a fixed income, but so are my other siblings. Her adult children support her, so money is not the issue… To top it off, she is an extremely fervent catholic, and doesn’t hesitate for a second to criticize loudly any one who doesn’t follow the catholic doctrines. Her hypocrisy boggles the mind! You put a dollar sign in front of my sister, and those strong Catholic “values” go out the window..The part of the article “Generalizing the Negative” is true, but as I look back on our adult relationship( I am the youngest of 7 kids and my sister Donna is 19 years older than I), she has never reciprocated any act of sibling affection. We all have treated her to lunches, dinners, movies, even vacations, and barely a “Thank You” is offered. I know you don’t give in order to receive, but all I ever asked was to have a sibling relationship where you don’t go months without hearing from a person, or that your calls and e-mails are ignored.. As I write this , I have officially given up on her…I don’t reach out to her any longer, because the deafening silence is too hurtful.. I n 2014, I lost 3 of my adult siblings..2 of them, Mary and Patrick, from cancer, and my sister Donna from selfishness..

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Deb

Posted on December 27, 2015 at 5:41 am

My husband’s mother died unexpectedly in January 2015 after a short illness. We were traveling. The widow and his daughter (my husbands sister) tried to make the funeral arrangements (2 days) so quickly that we were not able to get home to attend. A phone call was made to the father and he said that is the way it is. The funeral home, however, was not able to make the arrangements that fast and we could attend the funeral.

After that, the sister convinced the father to give her his house. She then mortgaged it to the hilt and took out large sums of money. The sister then gave away the mothers belongings without asking if the brother or his children would like anything.

The father has given the sister free range over his life and decisions. Of course, that means he has only her influence. That is purely his choice.

There have been told many lies and untruths told by the siblings to the father and all other relatives to blacken my husband, the brother. It appears to be to character assinate the brother and his family. Maybe even to assuage guilty consciences.

In December 2015, My husband put a small decorated tree by his mother’s grave. He has decorated the graves at Christmas for many years. Other relatives decided to desicrate the decorated tree.

Guess there is no choice but to cut them all out of our lives to avoid constant hurt. We just can’t, and chose, not to deal with the family’s chosen path of meanness. We will have nothing more to do with them. This may be the sisters plan, but the dad made it very clear that this is his choice.

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rachel

Posted on January 18, 2016 at 10:42 pm

I never knew what people could be like after a death of a family member. I am the common law wife of a beautiful man who died suddenly and much too young. The two brothers…one who hadn’t seen him in 30 years, except for a few times (the latest times at my urging him to re-connect with his brother- now I understand his resistance) had started planning to steal his woodworking tools and anything else he thought he wanted two days after he was found. I learned this when I offered to have my husbands cousin over to use the tools, since the guy doesn’t have much. My husbands mother said “— has voiced an interest in the woodworking tools..” when you’re ready”… Well, — called dibs on my husbands truck on the second day too…in the guise of giving it to his son .. (They all think I have no rights, apparently). My husbands other brother literally found out the beneficiary info on the FIRST day he was found, through an old friend of his who had access to the computers at my husbands place of work…not legal. They all know what I’m getting- but no one has told *me*. To boot, now I’m single with no income and rent to pay… and they expected me to offer up a % of the services- payment. (After they froze his bank account with two months rent in it. Gone! & Even though the two brothers live extremely well)… The ex who has always used his beloved son to manipulate my husband into getting everything *she* wanted… literally wanted me to give her his favorite clothes so that she can have her friend CUT THEM UP and make a quilt for her 17 year old son (who was given a 1,200 guitar and everything he wanted by me and who expressed NO interest in the quilt) .. ON THE SECOND or THIRD DAY my husband was found. The ex still pushed for another guitar too…again, his son had no interest.
These people are truly sick in my opinion… and I have threatened them all with arrests if they come to my house. Good luck to anyone who’s going through this Bulls–t! You’d think losing the love of your life would be bad enough to deal with.

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Marie

Posted on February 7, 2016 at 10:12 pm

My family is doing this right now,and my aunt is still alive.The family members that are acting like vultures,did this when my grandmother passed away,they took everything from her home,when we were told to come up and take what we wanted,everything was gone,even personal items that were given to her, when asked where they were they did not no.My aunt now in the hospital, suffering from possible cancer was told by these family member that stuff is missing from her apt.,why even upset her when she is ill.I was told by her to take her items back to my home for safe keeping,as she knows what they did to my grandmothers belongings.Terrible thing to have to lose family members,becasue they want stuff from her place.shame on them.

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