Open Communication: Sibling fights when a parent dies

Open Communication: Sibling fights when a parent dies

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Stephen in Oregon writes that when his parents died, “Maturity, reasonableness and rationality” flew out the window. “I am learning of many childhood animosities of which I had no clue. There are emotional hungers which go very deep and now the demons are demanding to be fed.”

As one who has midwifed the death of both parents, I know that wading through grief can feel like moving through molasses. And work life goes on, family still needs you at home, maybe older brother is being less than helpful, funeral arrangements must be made and a house or apartment needs to be emptied. No wonder Julie Hall, the “Estate Lady,” who helps families distribute parental property, reports that fights break out in 80 percent of the families she works with.

While a death can draw a family together in shared grief, family fighting can erupt at a time when emotional wounds are on the surface. T.A. Rando reminds us, in “How to go on Living When Someone You Love Dies,” that perhaps this parent smoothed over sibling squabbles or kept the family together through holiday celebrations and family events. Now that important link is gone and the remaining relatives reshuffle their roles in the family.

Common issues include:

  • Childhood conflicts resurface with resentments over past unfairness or unmet needs.
  • With so many decisions to be made in the throes of grief, there is plenty of room for disagreement about funeral arrangements and dividing property.
  • Siblings will grieve differently. One may emote freely, another drinks more and others get depressed. One may be disabled by grief at a time when a funeral must be arranged. Another might create drama or behave selfishly. Those who had a difficult relationship with Mom or Dad will grieve differently than people who had a more positive experience.
  • Whether rich or poor, arguments over possessions can tear a family apart.

Even when a death is long expected, nothing can prepare you for the loss of a parent. Nothing. The first step is to take care of yourself. Recognize and take responsibility for your own anger, sadness, resentment and grief. What do you need to get through the days? If family members aren’t supportive ask friends. Apologize and forgive yourself if you have behaved badly.

The next step is to think about your brothers and sisters. How are they responding to grief? Why might they be reacting in a particular way? Can you have empathy, even if you don’t share their particular response? Is there anything specific you can ask of them that would be helpful to you? Perhaps remaining childhood issues can be resolved. It might be helpful to set ground rules together to help all of you through this difficult time. If you can’t do this together then, set your own boundaries about how you will be spoken to or how much contact you will have. You may want to ask for help having the conversation.

Third, decide how you will divide up Mom and Dad’s stuff. You may be able to have an easy, cooperative division. If arguments break out, then decide on a system. Other families have tried these:

  • Give everyone an equal amount of play money and have an auction.
  • Auction items with everyone’s own money then divide the money equally.
  • Make a list of everything and take turns picking items. Draw straws, go by birth order or draw random numbers.
  • Have a backup system if two or more want the same item. Agree to share it, take turns picking first or sell it and split the proceeds.

Another method is to make sealed bids. The winner pays half the amount to the second person, or one third to each, if three are vying for the same object.

The best plan is to be prepared in advance. Make sure Mom and Dad have a will and ask them to decide how they want to divide their property and possessions.

Make a pact with the sibs ahead of time to honor your parents’ memory by respecting each other in the time of grief.

Linda Gryczan is a Helena mediator who encourages you to submit your conflict questions to be answered in this column to


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