Thursday, May 8, 2008

Resolving Family Tension After Parents Die

Question: Do all families have tension and disagreements after their parents die? My sisters and brother and I have always gotten along; however, since my parents’ death, we have grown apart and two of them are no longer speaking. There are 4 of us and we are all in our late 50’s and early 60’s. Seems like some of them are acting like children again. What can I do to help?

Response: It is not unusual for families to develop tension after parents die. Often the tension develops as plans are made for funerals and memorial services or the parents’ household is distributed. Old feelings of jealousy and hurt can emerge as some take charge and others respond or react. Many people are not good at resolving conflict, asking for what they want or need or even disagreeing. Other people, often the oldest child, take charge and that can cause resentment. One recent study found that dividing the parents property caused the most tension because so much holds sentimental value and desires for and losses of “special” things from wedding rings to family photos to Dad’s favorite chair can cause tension, hurt and angry feelings.

When the tension emerges after the death, try to talk as a group about a safe and fair way to divide the property. There are lots of different and creative ways to help this to happen from selling everything and dividing the profits to drawing numbers and going through the house one room at a time, choosing an article based on each person’s number. The main thing is to have a group decision about the process. If everyone is involved in that decision, things will go much more smoothly.

If there has been some time since your parents’ death and the lingering tension remains because of how things were handled after the death … or before with care for the parents and/or end of life decisions, it can be harder. As a family member who is interested in seeing change, look for one or more of your sisters or your brother who might share your feelings. Begin conversations with each other and then with those who are still hurting, about their struggle and listen with empathy and concern, even if you do not agree with them. Don’t try to “talk sense” but see if they can feel as if their ideas were appreciated. Begin to talk about some process of contact, even if it is limited. That may not happen; however, if you are patient and go slowly, sometimes this can change. Losing parents, even when you have been an adult for a long time, can be very difficult. Grieving and resolving the loss takes time. When this is complicated by feelings of old childhood hurts or wounds, it can take even longer.

Find ways to keep yourself out of the middle in this. You are not a mediator or a therapist. Do what you can to keep a relationship with all of your siblings and model love, respect and healthy communication.

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