Family conflicts after a death

Posted on July 22, 2021 by Rev. Pam Reidy under funerals, grief, loss, mourning
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Exasperated and frustrated, a family member recently asked me, “Why do people have to act out and be so nasty when going through a family funeral?” “I just need to know why!”

While I have never heard it said so bluntly, I have witnessed much dissention in families while navigating the funeral of a loved one, my own family included. While it is quite distasteful, it is not uncommon. Reflecting on this woman’s need to understand why, I came up with several possible reasons.

  • Death is blind to discord. Family dynamics and disputes do not abate just because there is a death.
  • Stress is the perfect ingredient to exacerbate and fuel family conflicts.
  • When there is a death in contentious families, unfortunately this is one more opportunity to disagree. Unless people can rally some lovingkindness and objectivity, it is nearly impossible for them to rise above their typical behaviors.
  • Some people are uncomfortable or fearful of feeling deep sadness. Anger masks their sadness. Because it feels like a stronger emotion to them,  they unwittingly allow anger to supplant their sorrow. Unfortunately,  anger is more readily turned outward and against others.
  • Some families of origin have left over competitiveness. If family members have not found a way to be generous with competing ideas, they can very easily revert back to childhood roles and behaviors. I once witnessed a family planning their mother’s funeral, attack each other using decades-old disputes.
  • More than anything else in life, death reminds us that we do not always have control. For people with control issues, a significant death can result in feeling powerless, causing them to be on their worst behavior.
If you find yourself in a tumultuous family situation while grieving the loss of someone you love, these strategies might help:
  • Hard as it is, try not to take words or actions personally. Most offensive behaviors are not reflective of the recipient, but rather of the offending individual.
  • Limit your exposure to people who upset you. Keeping peace in your heart is your prime responsibility.
  • Avoid old behaviors that don’t work, as Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”
  • Be gentle with yourself and others. Because each had a distinct relationship with the deceased, each of you is experiencing a unique loss. Attend to your  own mental, physical, spiritual and emotional well-being with strategies that work for you.
If you would like to read more about how to handle conflict during grief, I recommend the following article: When Death Brings Out the Worst: Family Fighting After a Death by Litsa Williams
“All conflict can be traced back to someone’s feelings getting hurt, don’t you think?”
― Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies




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