Why Does Death Seem to Bring Out the Worst in Families?


Losing a loved one is one of the most difficult things to deal with in life. There are elevated emotions, time constraints, and emotional strain associated with death and dying. On top of that, there's financial and end-of-life planning needing to take place. Having to make all the final arrangements at a time when everyone‘s coping with their grief is why sometimes death brings out the worst in a family. 

Jump ahead to these sections:

Families don't often plan ahead and have the necessary medical, financial, and funeral arrangements in place. Even though we're all certain to die one day, most people can leave the planning to the last minute, or not at all. This failure to plan is one of the most common reasons some families fall apart when a loved one dies.

A combination of heightened emotions, financial strain, and grief causes estrangement in families. The following guide may help your family come together at your time of loss.

Reasons Families May Struggle Right Before and After a Death

Dealing with family dysfunction after death is more difficult than dealing with it during ordinary circumstances because of elevated emotions. When a family is estranged, and a member of the family dies, things become a bit more complicated. This is especially true when the person who dies is one of the parents or heads of the household. 

The survivors may not be interested in figuring out the best ways possible to bring the family closer together. Even small decisions can become big issues. This isn't because people can't agree on the best decisions to make.

It's usually because they want to continue to fight about things. They aren't interested in compromising or giving way to their sibling's wants or needs.

» MORE: Explore the modern way to prepare for tomorrow. Get started in minutes.


Favoritism contributes to the reasons why families may struggle right before and after a death. There are many reasons that cause a family to fall apart. It can be anything from past childhood traumas, family dramas, infighting, lack of self-confidence, to a lack of love. If there’s been a book written about it, then you can add that to the list as well. No family alive lives a perfect life without any issues. 

When a family loses the patriarch or the matriarch of the family, everyone is ready to point fingers and lay blame onto the next person. Rarely does one look within to see how they may have contributed to the family’s issues or problems. When mom or dad, or both, have died, the siblings have no one to mediate the underlying issues that remain unresolved. 

How do you deal then with the issue of favoritism when it’s been a nagging pebble in your shoe for decades? 

You can do so by creating a safe environment to have this conversation with the party or parties involved. If it’s been your older brother who’s garnered all the attention your entire life, talk it out with him directly.

Find out what his motivations and contributions were along the way. Whatever the answers might be, be prepared for old wounds to resurface. Try and understand things from their perspective as you work towards healing those wounds and relationships wherever possible.

Blended families

This is one of those things that are common, but rarely something that anyone wants to talk about. Blended families consist of adopted children, naturally born children, stepchildren, and everything in between.

When a family member feels as if they belong more so than another member of the same family, this is usually due to birth order or to the natural birth order in relation to other siblings. 

For example, a sibling who was adopted when the parents thought they couldn’t conceive may feel that they’re superior to any of the other children who came after. This is because of the mindset of having been selected, or wanted by the parents.

As opposed to an accidental pregnancy years later when the parents didn’t even know they could have biological children. The adopted child might feel more entitled than the others to make decisions on behalf of the entire family.

Unprocessed grief

There are different types of grief that individuals will suffer from throughout their lifetime. Some grief is ordinary and can be expected to follow a predetermined trajectory. Other times, grief can get a bit more complicated and deviate from the normal or expected path to healing.

Sadly, some people don’t know when they’re experiencing grief outside the norm, so they don’t know when to seek help. This can happen for many reasons. They include:

  • The type of loss experienced
  • The person’s state of mind when the loss occurred
  • Their ability to process that grief on their own or through the help of a professional
» MORE: Everyone's wishes are different. Here's how to honor your unique loved one.

Failure to plan ahead 

Planning ahead means more than planning for your family’s financial wellbeing. While that’s an important part of your financial planning, it’s not the only type of planning that’s needed to ensure that everything is taken care of as you near the end of your life. 

When a family experiences disagreements or tension after a death, it’s usually because they’re forced to make sensitive financial and end-of-life decisions that they may not feel ready or willing to make.

Some of the documents to consider having in place before you die may include some or all of the following:  

Tips for Reducing Family Disagreements or Tension After a Death

Even the best laid out plans will not guarantee that they’ll be no family disagreements or tensions following a death. You can do your best to ensure that every aspect of your life, estate, and even your death, are planned out, but this won’t keep others from interpreting your final decisions in ways that they think are best for you.

You don’t have to be wealthy to have end-of-life planning documents drawn up. You can execute a last will and testament even if you have only a modest estate or inheritance to leave to your heirs. There’s no monetary minimum or maximum threshold that you have to meet in order to qualify to have these documents drawn up for you.

Things to consider when deciding whether an estate or end-of-life plan is right for you is the size of your estate and family, your interest in leaving it behind to your heirs, any charitable causes that you’d like to benefit from your estate, and any re-marriages during your later years. 

Leave everything in writing

The most surefire way of ensuring that things go according to plan even after your death is to leave everything in writing. There’s a legal form or document for just about anything you can think of. 

If you want to be dressed in a clown suit and be buried with the Ringling Brother’s Circus theme song playing by a quartet of bag-pipe players, put your funeral wishes in writing. If you will it, then it will be so. Just make sure that you appoint an estate representative who can be trusted to honor your every last wish. 

Although your documents are a strong indicator of what you’d like to happen after you die, anyone can contest any portion of it at any time. Even when you’re alive. So, the best remedy for this is to plan ahead. Carefully select a representative of your estate who’ll do their best to ensure that your every last wish is met.

» MORE: You need more than a will. Start here.

Leave no surprises

This goes without saying for most people. But, just in case you’re wondering if you should leave no surprises of any kind, then this might be the section for you to read over a time or two. Leaving no surprises means leaving nothing to be discovered later by any of your immediate family members who might be affected by it.

Family secrets are one thing, but personal secrets are another. If you’re planning on taking your every last secret to the grave, then more power to you. But, if any of your secrets involve legally or financially significant or damaging issues, it’s best to discuss these matters with your attorney or accountant so that you can plan ahead for how they’ll impact your estate after your death. 

Plan your own funeral 

Some people take great pleasure in planning every last detail of their funeral. If this is you, then you’ll know to include everything from what you’ll be wearing on your last day here on earth, to the music you want playing at your memorial service. If you’re the type to cringe at the mere mention of your mortality, then perhaps you’ll want to leave all the final details to your loved ones. 

If you don’t care much about what goes on at your own funeral, then you probably won’t care much about funeral etiquette for estranged families. Either way, make sure those closest to you have some idea of your preferences so they aren’t having to fight over what they think you might’ve wanted when you die. 

Avoiding Death Drama

The best laid out plans are no guarantee that your loved ones will avoid family tensions and disagreements. You can only do so much to guide them as to what your last wishes are. Everything else will be dealt with after you’re gone.

By then, it probably won’t matter too much to you what color socks you wear to your own funeral, if any. 


Icons sourced from FlatIcon.