Grief & Family Conflict – When death brings out the worst in us

Since losing my parents, I have talked a lot about how their death has brought out the best in so many situations, despite being the worst thing to ever happen to me. I have received support that I never expected, experienced acts of kindness beyond my comprehension, and grown as a person, hopefully for the better. However I have never really touched on how death can also bring out the worst in people and I think it’s an important subject to highlight, to show that it’s not uncommon, and does not have to reflect badly on us.

Death and grieving affect us all differently. For some people, death can be a painful experience which sends us into self protection mode and forces us to close off our hearts and emotions. For others, it is that pain which allows us to open our hearts to try and soak up as much that life has to offer, while we can.

It’s easy to believe that the death of a loved one would bring you closer to your remaining family, but unfortunately it doesn’t always work like that. Family feuds are very real and very common after a death. I consider myself lucky because my relationship with my sisters is possibly in a better place now than ever before but there was definitely a time when I wondered how we would get through it as a family once our anchor was gone.

Throughout the week that we knew Mum was dying, we were all crammed into her house, we were being told every day that she could go at any time so none of us were sleeping and tensions were high. I think at one point we were all arguing with each other simultaneously.

It’s strange how at a time when we needed each other the most, we all turned into the worst versions of ourselves. I look back and think how cross Mum must have been, laying there listening to us all bicker over nothing.

I remember when we were finally assigned a Marie Curie nurse. She came in and suddenly took over. She told us that we had to stop talking to Mum so much, that we had to give her space and let her go quietly and peacefully. She said that mum could hear everything that was going on, and it wasn’t fair. I was furious, who was this woman, coming into my house, telling us how to act around our mother. My mind was so clouded, that I couldn’t see that she was trying to help all of us. The atmosphere in that house must have been horrendous and she was just trying to calm us all down.

I stormed off to sob in my room. She followed me and lay down in the bed next to me and told me that she was also an adult orphan and that she knew how it felt to feel like you had completely lost control of a situation. She told me that she does the job she does, because she had once been in my shoes. We talked about family relationships, about the pressure that would follow after Mum had died, we talked about the role I would have to play as the eldest sibling in the country. She told me it wouldn’t  be easy, and that I would need to find support wherever I could. I felt like she was reading my mind, and there was a peace that came over me in knowing that she had survived what I was going through.

Her “pep talk” spurred me into organisational mode, I suddenly wanted to plan. I needed to know what was going to happen after Mum was gone. Of course, this sudden switch in behaviour essentially stepped on other people toes, and arguments about not planning before she was gone, and not discussing options until we had to, ensued.

And then Mum died. With no Will or Testament in place, Mum had no executor, so it was a free for all of ideas for what she would have wanted. None of us really knew, but having spent every day and every chemo session by her side for the last year, I felt justified in having my say. What I realise now is that as her daughters, we all had a say, and we should have been working as a team. If I could go back and rehash those conversations, I would do it all very differently.

I’m opening up about this because I want you to know that you are not a dreadful person if you said or reacted badly to a situation whilst you were grieving or about to lose a loved one. I also want people to know that there is light, if you’re in the midst of a feud, or if you’ve just lost your loved one and you’re arguing over funeral arrangements, expenses or belongings.

There are very real explanations for why we react in these ways and the one which resonates most with me is the biological impact of my loss. During times of emotional stress or trauma, our brain goes into recovery, or protection mode and the the area responsible for finding meaning, logic and self control can become overwhelmed in the midst of trying to make sense of the circumstances. Scientific studies of brain scans show that grief has a significant impact on both our emotional and physical processes and in situations where we may ordinarily react logically, instead our brain relies on impulse. With that said, is it any wonder that situations get out of hand and conflict occurs. Knowing this has allowed me to let go of a lot of guilt I’ve felt in the aftermath of my parents death.

As I said before, I am one of the lucky ones. The drama and stress died down relatively quickly in the months following and my tiny family circle is stronger than ever. I have also acquired family who aren’t related to me but have been by my side through it all. I know this isn’t the case for everyone, and unfortunately when it comes to grief, one shoe will never fit all.

My only advice is the same advice I give in most scenarios whilst grieving. Give yourself a break. Your brain is dealing with things in whatever way it can. Your body is doing the same. Take things slow, but also try to remember to communicate. Opening up and speaking about your feelings allows you to process them much more easily.

And while you’re being gentle with yourself, try to remember to be gentle with your family too. Grief and trauma make us do crazy things, so if your kind selfless brother has suddenly turned into a power-hungry maniac, try to remember that this is abnormal behaviour for him, and shouldn’t override the feelings you’ve held towards the brother you’ve known all your life.

Be patient, seek comfort and support wherever you can and know that you aren’t in this alone.


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