Managing Family Dysfunction After a Death

Published January 25, 2021
Family arguing

Losing a loved one can trigger a cascade of stressful and painful after-effects for their surviving family members. If you feel like your loved ones are experiencing family dysfunction after a death, know there are healthy ways to cope.

Family Dysfunction After a Death

Family dysfunction after a loss is a common occurrence that can make the grieving process feel even more painful as it tacks on even more stress to an already intense and highly emotionally charged situation. To better understand why family dysfunction seems heightened after a loss, it's important to more fully grasp your own family's baseline level of dysfunction. Keep in mind that all families have some level of dysfunction and dysfunction will range on a spectrum.

What Triggers Family Dysfunction?

Within a family system, the unit is always striving to maintain homeostasis, or balance. This means that regardless of where the family operates on a range from healthy to unhealthy, there is a baseline homeostasis that the family system aims to achieve. This homeostasis, even if it contains dysfunctional family roles, keeps the family unit feeling "safe" on an unconscious level and enforces the notion that there is no need for change, and therefore minimizes the level of work that needs to be done. This is why family patterns can feel so difficult to shift. Once patterns are in place, it takes a lot of individual work that must be coordinated with the rest of the unit, who must also be willing to put in the work. When a death occurs:

  • A family role is vacated and therefore the homeostasis is thrown off, thus triggering an unconscious level of anxiety within the family unit.
  • Individuals within the unit process the loss in their own way and may not know how to cope in healthy ways. This can lead to picking fights with others, lashing out, and creating chaos.
  • Mental health symptoms and diagnoses (for example: depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol use disorder) may be intensified during the grieving process and can therefore impact how the family relates to one another.
  • Pre-existing poor communication and connection can intensify during this time, especially when there is usually a need for a lot of coordinating (funeral arrangements, will, end-of-life care, etc.).

How Long Does It Take to Get Over a Death in the Family?

The loss of a loved one will impact everyone differently. There is no timeframe when it comes to grieving, so each person will vary in the amount of time it takes for them to process this experience. If you are taking a longer time than others within the family to process the loss, or if someone else isn't ready to process the loss, it can trigger family conflict. If you or a loved one is having difficulty processing the loss, so much so, that it impacts your ability to complete acts of daily living, it's a good idea to connect with a therapist who can provide support.

Why Do Siblings Grow Apart After Parents Die?

After the loss of a parent or parents, siblings may struggle to connect and not understand how to reconcile their new relationship to one another. This may occur because:

Siblings arguing
  • The parent(s) typically arranged when the family would see each other.
  • Siblings may not have seen each other much or at all outside of family get togethers with their parent(s).
  • Siblings may find it too painful and triggering to see each other after the loss of their parent(s).
  • Siblings may grow apart if they were tightly bonded through mutual trauma and aren't ready or don't want to process their experiences.
  • Siblings may have different preferences or wants out of life and find that they have a hard time connecting, even when their parent(s) were alive.

Common Conflicts That Trigger Familial Issues

Common conflicts that may arise within a family system after a death:

  • Managing the will
  • Not having a will and dividing up the assets
  • When it is appropriate to begin dividing up the assets
  • Type of care for the surviving spouse (if applicable)
  • Family members that behave in a way that is greedy or unreasonable
  • End of life care related arguments
  • Funeral arrangements
  • Custody arrangements if no caregivers have been legally determined prior to the death
  • Not understanding each other's needs in terms of grieving and communication styles

Keep in mind that many, if not all, of the family conflicts that arise after a death usually carry some meaning beneath the surface. Be sure, before jumping to conclusions or making assumptions, that everyone understands the emotional aspects associated with each argument or misunderstanding.

Tips for Dealing With Family Dysfunction

To deal with family dysfunction, one of the best actions you can take is to proactively check in with yourself and take care of yourself. If you are able to process your grief in healthy ways, you have a better chance of being able to communicate your needs to your family, and avoid projecting unprocessed grief related material onto them which can ultimately trigger arguments. You can also:

Family having argument
  • Stay organized and keep everyone in the loop to minimize communication related tiffs
  • Agree to discuss plans for upcoming tasks that need to be completed, document the plan, and send out a copy to everyone
  • Use a mediator to resolve issues that feel too overwhelming to manage on your own
  • If possible, begin seeing a therapist to help you process your loss, as well as the family-related issues that may be triggering additional stress
  • Try to be a model for appropriate behavior (use active listening, use I statements, apologize if you've made a mistake)
  • Set appropriate boundaries and know that it is okay to not get along and/or minimize communication with a certain family member
  • Bring in an expert if there is an ongoing conflict without a resolution (lawyer, end-of-life care specialist, therapist, doctor, etc.)
  • Once the arrangements have been completed, if you are close with your family and feel comfortable doing so, you can see if other family members would like to spend time together processing the loss together- this can help you reconnect
  • Know when to take a break and don't be afraid to suggest reconvening at another time if the argument gets especially heated or if multiple family members seem frustrated
  • Try family therapy if your family is interested in working on the family unit's overall health
  • Pick your battles- remember everyone deals with grief differently and one family member's outburst may not necessarily have anything to do with you
  • Breath and be as thoughtful as possible when responding to a family member
  • Keep in mind that heightened emotional situations tend to impact the brain's ability to think logically, so give yourself and your family members some grace during this time

How Do You Cope With the Death of a Family Member?

Coping with the loss of a family member is a highly personal process that each individual will have a different experience with. The best way to cope is to find healthy ways to process your thoughts and emotions. This can take some time and experimentation to figure out what you need during this time.

How Does Grief Affect the Family Unit?

Grief can both bring together a family unit, or it can spark a lot of familial issues that can intensify this painful experience even more. Understanding your family unit's history of communication and connection can help you find appropriate resources so you can minimize conflicts, issues, and misunderstandings.

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Managing Family Dysfunction After a Death