A reader recently e-mailed me: “My family’s gone ballistic since my elderly father passed away earlier this year. My siblings and I are barely speaking. We’ve become each others’ worst enemies.”
Unfortunately, familial acrimony following the loss of a parent is an all too common occurrence. The stress inherent in a parent’s aging, illness and death is blended with the complex issues of settling an estate and cleaning out a home, thus creating a potential tinderbox of emotions that is poised and ready to ignite.
It’s easy to see how this happens. Layers of sibling dynamics that have settled on the clan’s psychic ocean floor are suddenly stirred up and placed back in circulation.
One brother may assume the role of leader and begin bossing the others around. A low functioning sister may once again feel unloved and undervalued, and behave in a needy way. A son who has been distant for decades may expect to be welcomed back with open arms. Each of their underlying belief systems will determine how they approach the task at hand and how they will respond to their siblings’ wishes and demands.
Family members are far from equal. One child may be a high-powered executive. Another has been unemployed for six months. A brother may be a loving father of four, while his sibling is going through his third divorce. Their needs are disparate as well. A sister with a disabled husband might feel she deserves a larger inheritance than a brother with a six-figure income.
Spouses of the siblings add even more fuel to the flame.
A daughter-in-law who never felt accepted in the family may urge her husband to get all that he can. An alcoholic son-in-law may show up drunk at the funeral and cause his wife’s siblings to ostracize him from the clan.
Siblings have also contributed to their parents’ well-being in varying ways. A sister who moved in with her mother rightfully resents the criticism she receives from her siblings who have never lifted a finger to help.
The goal is to successfully sort through this attic full of pain and drama in order to arrive at an equitable settlement and to dispose of and disperse the deceased parent’s belongings. Of course, that’s easier said than done when the decedent’s offspring are too agitated to even speak.
Making peace after a family loss
Need help dealing with sibling conflict after your parent has died? Start with these suggestions:
Rise above the fray. Free yourself of any personal vendettas against your siblings. They’re no doubt woefully outdated and they keep you embroiled in pointless childish squabbles. Act like the grown up you are now. Your approach will encourage others to do the same.
Express your willingness to be fair. Let brothers and sisters know you want what’s best for the group. You have no intention of pushing their needs aside. Repeat this message as often as necessary to calm hurt feelings and anger.
Appreciate everyone’s contributions. Yes, some folks have done more than others. But each of you has played a unique role in the clan. Sincerely thank everyone for their efforts and repeat your expressions of gratitude as often as you can.
Set family harmony as your first priority. You may be thinking about Mom’s funeral or selling your father’s home. But even more important is your relationship with your siblings. Make it clear from the start you want to approach your duties as a functioning family. That’s the best way to honor Mom or Dad.
Set a good example. You can’t control how your siblings behave. You have complete control over yourself. Let go of hostility and the need for retribution. Speak calmly and respectfully at all times. When you act like a respectful adult, the others are likely to follow suit.
Refuse to get involved in family politics. Your siblings or their spouses may have acted poorly. Try hard not to pick sides. Instead, stay neutral and tell everyone involved, “We’ve all done things we regret. Let’s start with a clean slate today.” You’ll get increased cooperation and less emotional interference.
Make this an opportunity to heal. Every family has its garbage. Every clan also has the ability to improve. Use this time together to make changes and lay the groundwork for a better future.
Be willing to back away if needed. Sometimes there’s no way to improve sibling drama. Brothers and sisters simply can’t see eye to eye. In those instances, disengage from the fracas. Nothing is worth hating family.
Salvage whatever relationship you can. Know you’ve done your best.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit lindalewisgriffith.com