9 Tips for Dealing With Family Dysfunction After a Death

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When someone in your family dies, family dysfunction after death can become a real thing. Death can feel like a sudden disruption and can cause shockwaves amongst a family unprepared or unwilling to accept the loss of a treasured loved one.

Everyone grieves in their own way and it's sometimes difficult for a family to come together to talk about what they're feeling and experiencing. Ignoring these important discussions with your family now may leave you facing unresolved issues later. 

Even though we know that we all must die at some point, it's still difficult to accept death — especially when it's sudden and unexpected. Most of us don't really think about when we're going to die or how it will happen. When it happens to someone you love, you're left wondering how this could've happened.

Talking with your family about the lack of community after the death of a family member may be one of the last things you want to do, but it is important for everyone’s emotional health — including yours.

1. Discuss the Death

It can be shocking to get the news that one of our loved ones has died. Even when they've been sick for a long time, and you've been expecting it, it can still leave you feeling numb at hearing the news. You may not know how to process any of it and overall left at a loss as to what to do next.

One of the first things you can do is alert the rest of the family of the death. You may want to carefully consider who gets the first phone call so you avoid hurt feelings later. In many families, it's usually the oldest who makes these phone calls and takes charge of all the planning and decision-making that follows.

Conversely, if your loved one had a will drawn up, the executor of this will can make the announcement and delegate accordingly. If this is not you, consider taking a step back from these duties until your family has had time to discuss how they want to handle all the details.

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2. Make Funeral Arrangements

Deciding who'll pay for the funeral might cause a lot of confusion, anger, and resentment. If it's a parent who has died leaving behind adult children, it may make sense to have all of the children pitch in to cover the costs. This is especially true where there was no pre-paid funeral planning in place.

You should expect that there will be some bickering about who'll be responsible for funeral expenses. How to pay for final expenses is not an easy conversation to have with anyone, especially with family members who are trying to cope with their loss.

The funeral arranging might go from a beautiful way to remember a family member, to an all-out battle on who is going to pay for it all. Taking the time to discuss what to do next, and how to pay for it, will save the family some unnecessary arguments later on. Your local funeral director may have some financing options in place that will help the family in making the final arrangements.

3. Talk About Final Disbursements

It's never a good time to talk about inheritances, finances, and personal belongings when you have a feuding family to contend with. If no will is in place naming the estate beneficiaries, you may have a legal battle on your hands. You may consider consulting with all family members, the spouse of your loved one, and with the family attorney to see if there was a last will drawn up and safely filed away. 

If no will was left behind, now might be the time to discuss with an attorney whether there is an estate that can be dealt with via probate, or if distributions of assets can be made without court involvement. If there is a “probatable” estate, a court order will need to be obtained before making any distributions of assets to the heirs. This might be a good time to sit with the attorney to get your affairs in order.

4. Decide Who Will Take Care of 'Mom'

This is a metaphorical way of saying who will take care of those left behind by the deceased. Whether it was one of your parents who have died, a sibling, or a child, you need to make sure someone has been appointed with making sure that the survivor has an emotional support system in place.

This may be easy to overlook when all the attention is focused on making funeral arrangements and figuring out what to do with the assets left behind. 

If there is nothing spelled out in a will or via a trust, it may fall on your shoulders to take care of the survivor. Reach out to extended family members to ask for their help, if possible. If there is no one to offer additional support, check with your local community resources to see if there is a free or reduced-cost counseling service nearby.

5. Avoid Family Feuds 

It's almost impossible to avoid family in-fighting when a member of the family has died. Everyone has an opinion of how things should be done, or how they should've been handled. And, of course, someone always has a better way of doing things until you ask for their help in getting things done.

This is typical of almost any occasion requiring the family to come together to make decisions. Try not to take things personally when others voice their opinions or disappointments.

When someone is grieving, they may act out in ways that are outside their normal behavior. They may even say things that are outright rude and mean. When you take a step back from situations like these, it helps to diffuse things long enough for others to sort through their emotions. Coming back into the conversation when they have regained their calm will save you from a lot of extra heartaches. 

6. Help With Alcoholism and Drug Abuse

At times, dealing with the death of a loved one leads to more serious issues. Your family may be experiencing difficulties accepting death, or processing their grief.

Families usually fall apart when one of its beloved members has died. As families grow apart and they communicate less and less with one another, some may turn to drugs or alcohol to help them cope with their grieving. This is not unusual but may lead to serious effects if left untreated.

One of the first steps in coming to grips with drug or alcohol abuse is figuring out what is causing the underlying issues leading to the abuse.

It may be that grief has taken a strong grip on your loved one, and this is the only way they can deal with what they are feeling. Or, it may be that there was already a problem, and the news of death made it worse for them to keep it under control. Either way, there is help out there for those who seek it.

7. Offer Financial Assistance

If you're able to afford to help out with the funeral and other end-of-life expenses, consider offering financial support to your family. You can outline this help as a personal loan to the family, or a loan against the estate.

There are ways to guarantee that you will be first in line to receive payment, but there is no guarantee that there'll be sufficient assets in the estate to reimburse you. Generally, the attorney gets paid first at the time of distribution followed by funeral expenses. You and the family can agree to get you reimbursed before anyone else's claim against the estate unless your local laws prohibit it.

8. Have Open Communication

Maintain strong levels of communication throughout the end-of-life and funeral planning with everyone involved so that you avoid issues later. There is no way of guaranteeing that this will all go smoothly without a hitch or disagreement. But, having open communication throughout will lessen the possibilities of hurt feelings and resentment later on.

Consider keeping everyone in the loop with every conversation by including everyone in any emails, phone calls and texts that have anything to do with this particular event.

9. Seek Counseling

When trying to cope with the death of a loved one, things may seem to get quickly out of control. It's okay for you to feel lost and overwhelmed, and it's normal to feel this way. Before letting things get too out of control though, consider going in for some grief therapy or family counseling.

You can do it together with other members of your family, or you can go at it alone. It's all about what makes you comfortable and willing to go get the help that you need. Your therapist can help outline a treatment plan so that you are familiar with the process, and can gauge your end date. You might consider attending an online grief support group, too. 

Family Dysfunction Following Death

Unfortunately, this can happen all in the blink of an eye when a member of the family dies. You can do your part in helping your family heal by following some or all of the above tips.

Not everyone will be receptive to this advice, and regardless, the death will create hardship for you and your family. Hang in there, and know that most families suffer from one type of dysfunction or another. You’ll all make it through somehow.

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