In books and movies, death is often portrayed in a “Norman Rockwell” setting with family members gathered in harmony around their dying loved one’s bedside lovingly expressing goodbyes. This might work in a fictional setting, but the reality is that death can often be divisive for families.
There is the obvious issue of dividing up the deceased’s personal belongings. We have all heard unpleasant stories about family rifts created over the distribution of the deceased’s property. Arguments occur not just over items with financial value but also those with sentimental value. I have five siblings and my parents continually stress they do not want any hard feelings or alienation created over the disposal of their property upon death. It is highly recommended to have a system in place prior to death to distribute property the deceased’s property in a fair and agreeable manner.
Another issue that often divides families concerns the end-of-life medical treatment. Family members, who are united prior to their family member’s illness, might find themselves at odds when forced to make end-of life decisions for their loved one. Many relatives want to do any and every medical procedure possible to keep their loved one alive, while others desire an approach that emphasizes quality of life over quantity. End-of-life choices are often made when emotions and stress levels are extremely high. Family members are at their most vulnerable state and feelings are easily hurt. It is helpful to have the doctor, chaplain or social worker act as a mediator and guide you and your family through this tough decision-making process. As a hospice doctor shared, “at this point there are no good decisions left”, and that’s what makes the end-of-life process so delicate and difficult.
The funeral itself is often a source of consternation for families. As a bereavement minister, I have worked with many families to help plan a funeral service for their deceased loved one. I can affirm that relatives have different ideas of what should take place at the funeral including who should participate and even who should attend. Finances, family dynamics and differing religious beliefs often contribute to conflicts when making funeral arrangements. Police have been warned to be on alert for possible disturbance from an estranged family member who might show up at the funeral and cause trouble. I have witnessed family members yell at each other demanding to know why one would bother to show up now at the time of death when they never were available when the deceased was alive. A priest shared that he was asked to be the celebrant at a funeral service where the family requested he not mention God because they didn’t want to offend anyone.
In addition, there are many immediate decisions to be made at the time of death such as cremation versus burial, service at the church or funeral home, choice of music, wording in the obituary, clothes for the deceased, etc. The list of decisions to make goes on and on and becomes extremely difficult in this emotional and vulnerable time. Family members might find it difficult to agree on all of the choices made. If possible, try to assign each person a task they are responsible for and have authority over; the other relatives are obligated to accept their decision.
The purpose of the funeral service is to provide an opportunity for loved ones of the deceased to gather and support one another by sharing stories and memories. A time that is meant for ritual and remembering often becomes highly stressful and tense. It is difficult to grieve and begin the healing process under these anxious circumstances. It is important to be gentle and patient with each other.
Certain family dynamics can be the source of unintended division. In situations where the deceased was the “rock” on which the family was built or the “glue” that held the family together, the family may have a tendency to divide or fall apart upon the death of this “central” figure. Unless another person steps in to fill this role, the family tends to drift apart; communication lapses and family traditions are no longer practiced. All the relationships, values and customs the deceased worked hard to keep intact fail or disappear when he or she is no longer there to foster and nurture them. We all have roles in our families and it is important to realize how the absence of one person can have a dramatic effect on the future of the entire family unit.
Losing a family member to death is difficult enough; but to “lose” another family member due to hard feelings or family dynamics or events surrounding the death is tragic. Work hard to respect each other’s relationship to the deceased and honor each other’s unique grief journey. Patience, kindness and forgiveness are necessary at this emotional and vulnerable time.