Coping with family conflicts following bereavement

I wrote recently about the loneliness of grief and how our friends may react. This article looks in more depth about family conflicts following bereavement.

Our individuality is expressed in our relationships

We are all so many people, aren’t we? Simultaneously perhaps a brother/sister, son/daughter, spouse, cousin, nephew/niece, aunt/uncle, grandparent/grandchild, friend/colleague, etc., etc. We have our professional side and we have our relaxed side that our friends see. There’s the spiritual or religious side that may be seen when we attend our place of worship. And of course we have our private, inner space.

Thinking about how each person presents themselves to others, I wonder how much this is reflected in how we grieve for a person who has died. If we knew them as a bossy, over-bearing uncle, for instance, we might not be as keen on elaborate annual memorial events as his grieving widow or ever-admiring sister.

The hurts that accumulate over decades can fester unspoken but still cast a long shadow over our relationships and can influence our reactions, even after death.

The individuality of our responses can cause misunderstandings. The woman who spent 35 years married to a perfectionist husband may tentatively start to enjoy the freedom of an independent life after his death, whereas the grown children of this marriage might think that their father had never done any wrong, and consequently resent their mother’s apparent lack of deep grief.

On the other hand, it might not be that there was anything wrong in our relationship, but in comparison to others within our close circle, we simply had a different relationship than they did. Imagine a group of friends, all retired; two of them meet up to walk their dogs together each morning. The others meet at the pub or for meals every week or two. One of the dog-walkers dies. Of course the friend who saw this person every day is likely to feel the loss more than the others.

And so it is no surprise then that when a person dies, the grief we feel is not equal amongst us.

Families don’t always cope well with grief

How we express that grief also differs; some tend to verbalise it and show their grief, putting great efforts into keeping the person’s memory alive. Others deal with it more internally; they could be grieving just as much, but are not showing it in the same way. This can lead to misunderstandings. Sometimes a couple will grieve in such different ways that it breaks their relationship. Not every marriage survives the death of a child. (For more on this, see this useful leaflet by The Compassionate Friends on ‘Grieving Couples’.)

It’s not only couples whose relationships get fractured following a death in the family. You might expect following the sadness of a bereavement that there would be greater kindness among family members, and although that is often true and many families do pull together in the face of tragedy, it is not always the case. Instead there may be recriminations, blame, arguments, taking of offence, or simply silence. “XXX isn’t speaking to YYY…” Troubles that had bubbled below now reach the surface.

On occasion, family relationships dissolve in acrimony, as individuals take sides in a dispute about how the funeral or gravestone was arranged, or who was or wasn’t invited to have a role in certain events, or some comment, or perhaps as a result of the will and the dispersal of the loved one’s possessions and money.

There can be occasions of blame – “why didn’t you notice he was so pale? Why didn’t you get him to the hospital sooner?” “You caused her so much stress, no wonder…”

Sometimes the one who died was the lynch pin of the greater family, the one who organised family gatherings or kept the disparate members in touch with each other. Now they are gone, who is going to take that role?

Losing contact with each other may simply happen, or there could be a definite decision to ignore some family members.

In my work, I’ve heard too many accounts of these stressful and sad family conflicts to consider them an anomaly. It just seems to be a sad reality that family relationships can really struggle as a consequence of loss – the emotional turmoil of grief – and all of the practical issues that can follow along.


Ideas for handling family stresses following bereavement

Whether it’s within a couple, a family unit, greater family relationships or amongst friends, perhaps we could all do with remembering:

No zero sums…

  • Everyone’s grief if valid. Grief is not a zero-sum game. How we feel is how we feel. There should be no judgement or comparing.
  • Everyone should feel comfortable expressing their grief in the way that feels right to them. Again there should be no judgement or comparing.

We’re not the only ones who experience this…

  • If a couple find themselves becoming resentful towards each other because of how they do/do not express their grief, it can be helpful to seek out some support. Many bereavement charities – such as The Compassionate Friends (TCF) – do offer advice about this aspect of grief. Counselling can also help.
  • Attending a support group or participating in a moderated bereavement forum (or a retreat) can help broaden our understanding of the different ways people behave when they are grieving, and how their families respond to them. We’re not the only one with family members who do or don’t talk about it, etc.

Words that are said and actions taken during grief might be odd…

  • The intensity of our experience, especially during the immediate time of our first grief, can produce a maelstrom of emotions. We might be in a state of shock. As a result, we may say or do things that are out of character or illogical. This is true of ourselves, but it is also true of others. Perhaps this thought can help us be a bit more forgiving and accommodating.

While we – and “they” – are living is the best time to make peace…

  • As time passes, we may want to consider reaching out and making peace with those whom we might have offended and/or have offended us. If a relationship matters to us, and there are painful silences, unhealed hurts or other grievances following a family bereavement, this will only sadden us more in the long run. If death has taught us anything, it is that life is fragile and it is better to make peace while both of the injured parties are still living, as it is much harder to do this once one of us has died. A phone call or a letter may be the first step we need to take.
  • For those who identify as Christians, it’s worth recalling that forgiveness is an important part of the Christian life, as we ask God to “forgive us as we forgive those who have sinned against us”. This can be a challenge when there are deep hurts, but worthwhile praying about.

Whether or not we can reconcile with family members…

  • If we have been hurt or ignored following our bereavement, and it is not within our power to reconcile with this person – for instance, if our efforts are rebuffed – let’s invest our energies elsewhere. Seeking our own equilibrium in our grief and honouring our loved one’s memories are good goals to keep working towards. (More on this here)

Bear in mind the changing family dynamics…

  • The dynamics of our family will often change when a member has died. Sometimes we need to assess and reassess our place and responsibilities.
  • Let’s not be hasty in our dealings. If, for instance, our elderly father has died, what does this mean for our mother? Can she manage her current living arrangements? We won’t really know unless we ask her (assuming she does not suffer from dementia or something similar). It is definitely better to initiate conversations and find out what she wants and needs, rather than making assumptions. Sometimes in this type of situation, the widow or widower can find their adult children suddenly becoming quite bossy and trying to take over their lives, undoubtedly out of loving concern, but not appropriate just the same. Making the time to really listen can make such a positive difference to our ongoing relationships.

Respecting ourselves and respecting each other will help as we navigate through this difficult time of loss. When we live with kindness, it can make the journey through grief just that bit more bearable for all of us.

Further reading – external links

Puffin families huddling close to each other. Unfortunately families don’t always stay close when someone has died. (Picture taken on the Farne Islands)

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