Family conflict after someone dies

Arguments and rifts between family members before and after someone dies can be very difficult to manage. It can often make the grief even more painful to bear.

When someone dies there is often a hope or even an assumption that everyone in the family will be able to support each other. Sometimes the shared loss can bring people together, make them forget any differences, and even heal relationships which were struggling.

However we hear many stories where things do not work out so well. Instead of pulling together to deal with all the difficult tasks and administration after someone dies, families can find themselves in the midst of emotional arguments and disputes.

Why do things go wrong?

Grief is painful. In the early days after someone dies everyone is coping with emotions which may be extremely raw. But grief is also unique to everyone, and each person will be feeling different things at different times.

It’s very common for grieving people to move between grieving and coping – between feeling the full pain of grief, or focussing on managing practical tasks. Some people can feel numb for days, weeks or even months, which may make it seem to others that they don’t care as much. Others could be unable to cope with even simple tasks of daily life, and it might seem to others that they are avoiding things or not helping.

When people are ‘out of synch’ in this way, it can be difficult to support each other.
When someone dies it also happens against the background of their existing family relationships. It’s very normal for families to have tensions and disputes. In some cases these go back for many years. It would be unrealistic to expect these to always go away after a bereavment. They’re more likely to be heightened by the feelings of loss, and the practical issues that may have to be faced.

Sometimes disputes and hurt feelings can have effects which go on for many years. It can be very painful especially if you have fallen out with someone that you or others expect to be able to support each other.

Common disputes

  • Funerals

People can disagree on what kind of funeral to hold, whether to have a cremation or burial, how much to spend and who pays – which is why having a funeral plan in place is so important.

  • How to deal with someone’s possessions

Some people feel that they need to move on and clear things out quickly. Others can’t bear the idea of making changes or letting go of someone’s clothes and possessions.

  • Wills and inheritance

If the person who died had money or property to leave, people can have different ideas about what is fair, especially if they did not know the person’s plans were before they died.

Disputes over possessions and property may involve money which some family members may rightly or wrongly have been counting on. There are also secondary losses involved in loss of a home or shared possessions which can be very painful. Even items with no finacial value can sometimes have great emotional significance.

  • Disputes between families

Sometimes the person who died was part of more than one family, or had children with different partners. Families can have very different ideas about any number of issues. There can be a spoken or unspoken idea that one set of people have more to say than others, or there can be disagreements about who gets to make big decisions.

Some tips for coping with disputes

If disputes do arise then there are few things which sometimes help.

  • Try where possible to remember that people show grief in different ways, and that everyone is almost certainly hurting and experiencing difficult emotions.
  • When a disagreement happens, you may need to take some time apart and come back together when things feel less raw.
  • If possible do try to keep talking – a lot of disputes arise because people don’t know what’s happening, feel left out of the arrangments, or feel too much is put on them. Communicating how you feel and being open to listen could go a long way.
  • When talking about difficult topics try to focus on how you feel rather than what the other person has done. Use ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ statements when trying to explain why you are upset. For example ‘I’m finding it very difficult and emotional that I can’t keep some of mum’s clothes’ rather than ‘How could you be so cruel and thoughtless to get rid of everything without me?’.

While these all these things can sometimes help, some family rifts do end up with one or both parties looking for legal advice. It is best to do this openly, in the hope it might help everyone understand the issues and open up discussion, rather than making the conflict worse. You may be able to find someone to help you resolve your problems together (sometimes called ‘mediation’).

Where to go for help

If you are struggling with difficult feelings and problems with relationships you can talk to Cruse – call our helpline.

If you need practical advice you can contact The National Bereavement Service. They have a helpline and can help you decide if you need legal advice.

Before someone dies

If you are reading this before you’ve been bereaved, the best way to avoid very painful disputes is to deal with as many issues as possible before someone dies. Preparing a will and making your wishes known can help head off the guesswork needed if someone dies without telling anyone what they want.

It’s good to talk to your close relatives about what they want before they become very old or ill. And of course people can also die before it is expected through accidents or sudden illness. It can be difficult to start these conversations but you can find some advice in our articles on important conversations before death and planning your own funeral.

If you didn’t talk beforehand, in the first hours and days after someone dies there is still a chance to sit down with the key people involved. You can work out together who’s going to tell people, what (if anything) you’re going to share on social media (and when) and make a plan for the upcoming days and months. If some issue is very important to you, make sure you tell people as soon as possible.