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Dealing With Family Conflict as a Loved One is Dying

Dealing With Family Conflict as a Loved One is Dying

Even though the steps through grief can be similar, the way each family member moves through the process is unique.  Such differences may produce antagonism between and among family members.

While some conflict in the family at this difficult and emotional time may be inevitable, working through these difficulties and emotions is healing. If we seek to understand and not to judge each other during this time, we will find a way to move through this experience as a family. Here are a few guideposts to help.

Know your family

When an aging parent is dying, family dynamics to consider include the birth order of the adult children, and recognizing who is the organizer, the passive one, the argumentative one, the caregiver. Liz says of her family, “The oldest child is usually the responsible one who makes decisions for everyone younger and for the aging parent. But not always. In our family, I, the youngest, was the responsible one, the one Mother relied on in her later years. This was problematic for the oldest child, who suddenly wanted to take charge. All the issues that existed in childhood surfaced at the crisis time when dealing with our aging parent.”

Be on the  lookout for stressful emotions

Mild stress can be helpful. It pro- vides the energy to deal with the realities that must be faced: hospitalization, home care, nursing facility, financial concerns, funeral plans. But stress that is not acknowledged nor dealt with piles high in our emotional storehouse, causing flashing tempers, physical exhaustion, unresolved sadness, and ineffective care for the loved one. Stress magnifies your family’s strengths and weaknesses in its relationships

Understand the dying person’s wishes

Russ’s family knew that he wanted a simple farewell when his life was over. Knowing that he did not want extraordinary means to be used to prolong life, and that he wished for a simple funeral, helped greatly with decision-making in the last days. If your dad never wore a suit, he might like to be buried in his favorite flannel shirt. If Grandma saved her lovely dress from the golden anniversary party for burial, dress her in it. Decisions about how treasured possessions are to be shared among family members are important to work out ahead of time whenever possible.

Don’t try to go it alone

Healthcare social workers, chaplains, pastors, and hospice workers are experienced in assisting families through these pain-filled times. They are accustomed to talking things through and helping struggling families reach consensus when emotions are raw. Their wisdom can also help families avoid “stuffing” feelings and therefore failing to live fully in the moment.

Allow healing after the loss

After the funeral and burial, when the last mourner has left, take time as a family to share what the experience of saying goodbye to your loved one means to each of you. Tears may flow. That’s okay. Talk about what was most difficult, what was inspiring, what brought joy, what was the most painful. Discuss what the future might look like without this special person in your lives. Perhaps the deceased has been a difficult individual to live with. That’s important to talk about, too. It’s not a time to judge how others feel. It’s simply a time to be who we are.

Through the process of saying goodbye to a family member, you may have become more aware of the needs of other members of your family.  Hopefully, your family has grown closer. But even if differences remain, healing can happen. If the death of your loved one has created new friction in your family, continue to seek ways to heal those divisions over time. You are still family—for better or for worse. It’s worth the effort to make it “for better.” 

Excerpt from Dealing With Family Conflict as a Loved One is Dying from CareNotes


  1. I really like this and notice no comments. I’m not surprised but it really wonderful post for people really everyone is going to deal with this at some point.

  2. Thank you for this, very informative.

  3. My family is dealing with the terminal illness of a sibling. Both parents are already gone. There were already family issues from our mother’s death 4 years ago. They have worsened even though apologies have been made. The ill patient is extremely bitter and though she says she is at peace…she has asked several family members to stay away and not attend her funeral. Two being her own siblings. We are a religious family but nothing seems to be helping. It is extremely sad and hard to deal with.

    • Family conflict is never an easy thing. When one person is willing to forgive yet another can’t seem to let go of the pain. I’d like to send you a CareNote that you can give to your sister that may help her find her way to true forgiveness. I will send a separate email to get your mailing information. Prayers to your family during this difficult time.

  4. My husbands sister just passed away and there had been some conflict a couple years ago between his sister and their parents. She didn’t want her parents to know she was ill and he was respectful and kept her wishes now that she is gone her boys don’t want the grandparents or other siblings told until after the service. My husband is torn and feels his parents should be told. Any suggestions

    • It is respectful that your husband honored his sister’s wishes during her illness while she was alive. Perhaps she would want him to continue honoring her wishes even now after her death. And it’s possible she would ask that he honor the wishes of her sons. It’s understandable that this puts your husband in an awkward situation with his parents. If the parents are told prior to the service, tensions and conflict could escalate instead of a peaceful celebration of her life.

  5. What about COVID deaths of elderly parent. Any advice or comments

    • Hi Muriel, thank you for reaching out. We would like to send you a “Grieving the Loss of Your Parent” CareNote that may be helpful for you. I will send you a separate email for your mailing address.

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