Table of Contents:
- Coping with Grief: What to Expect
- Agreeing on Final Arrangements: Compromise is Key
- Funeral Planning for a Parent
- Understanding a Parent’s Will and Assets as a Family
- Handling Family Property When a Parent Has Passed
There are many factors to consider following a parent’s passing — emotionally, legally, and logistically. This guide aims to help adult children handle the planning of final arrangements and their own emotions with limited to no conflict amongst each other.
Losing a parent is often overwhelming. In addition to coping with their grief, the children are often left in charge of planning the funeral as well as handling the various legal details. This can make an already devastating situation more stressful, and often, siblings end up butting heads throughout the process. However, with the right levels of compassion, compromise, and consideration, families can limit the additional pain sometimes brought on by carrying out final arrangements.
If you’ve recently lost a parent and have run into conflict with your siblings, or if you simply fear that conflict is on the horizon, this guide is for you. It will discuss the many emotions and reactions you and your siblings may be experiencing, and how those emotions may come into play when it comes to planning services and managing the legalities. Never forget that in addition to being sensitive to the feelings of others, you should also take special care of yourself during this trying time. Make sure you have someone close by for support, and don’t be afraid to consider grief counseling to help you sort out your own emotions.
Coping with Grief: What to Expect
People react to death in all kinds of ways, and the death of a parent can be especially volatile. It isn’t uncommon for a person to feel a range of emotions in a single day while another remains in shock and disbelief. Everyone is going to feel how they feel, and that’s OK. What’s important is for everyone to respect and accept that there will be differences.
Common reactions to a loss include:
- Feeling “numb”
There is no “right way” to grieve. These feelings might pop up in any order at any time, and someone may quickly transition from one intense emotion to another. Some people might experience each and every reaction, and others only one or two. Or none.
Try not to focus on how anyone “should” feel. You might think you can speak to your siblings’ situations because you’ve known them your entire life and are experiencing the same loss — but just as you had your own special relationship with your parents, so did they, and it leaves endless variables to how they might be feeling. Focus instead on supporting them no matter how they feel, and be honest about your own emotions. Even if you aren’t close enough to confide the details, simply letting them know where you stand can prevent a lot of miscommunication later on.
The loss of a parent can cause physical reactions, as well, including:
- Upset stomach
- Loss of appetite
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty breathing
- Anxiety attacks
- Aches and pains (including back, chest, and head)
For some, the grief alone is enough to make them sick. For others, it may be a combination of grief and the anxiety over executing the will, dividing up assets, and/or selling the family home.
Physical Reactions That Can Be Caused By The Loss Of A Parent
No matter the exact source, stress can sneak up on a person, so be the one to make sure everyone stays hydrated and nourished. Set the example by drinking plenty of water and taking the time to eat a meal — even if you aren’t particularly hungry. Your refrigerator is likely well-stocked by loved ones, so gently remind your siblings there’s plenty to eat.
If everyone is together at the house, set out plates and some of the food. No one has to eat, but seeing food can wake up an empty stomach. It’s common for people to get so caught up in a major event that they overlook their own needs, so make sure you’re giving people easy opportunities to take care of themselves.
Communication will be an important part of your interactions with your siblings, so keep the lines open and be honest. Be sensitive to how others feel but give them the opportunity to respect how you feel, too. For example, your brother may not have realized you’d be hurt when he said he was relieved your mother had finally ended her battle with cancer. Let him know you’re not ready to see it that way yet, and ask that he be mindful of how he talks about it around you.
A knee-jerk reaction is understandable, but try to pause before responding to a situation that upsets you. You’re absolutely allowed to feel whatever you feel, but it’s likely that no harm was intended, so try to hold your tongue until you’ve had some time to process.
If you do speak out in the heat of the moment, forgive yourself. Find an opportunity later on to apologize to your sibling, and let them know you’re feeling overwhelmed. They’ll likely understand, and you can both move past the incident.
Agreeing on Final Arrangements: Compromise is Key
One of the first questions you’ll have to deal with is the kind of burial your parent requested. He or she may have stated their wishes in their will, or you may have discussed the topic prior to their passing. Even if they were prepared for it, your brothers or sisters may be uncomfortable about whichever burial process your parent requested. Perhaps even you have your reservations. Remember, though, that your parent put a great deal of thought into how they’d leave the world, so it’s crucial that you respect their wishes.
If your parent left no clear direction on how they want their remains to be handled — nor a spouse to give you insight — discuss the topic with your siblings privately. Avoid bringing in spouses or non-immediate family. What do each of you think your parent would have wanted?
Had any of you ever spoken — even hypothetically — about the topic with him or her? If no one is sure, consider what route the family has traditionally taken. If the family has always done cremations in the past and each sibling is comfortable with it, for example, you might be able to work with someone familiar and sensitive to your family’s situation.
Before finalizing any details, be sure that all concerns from each sibling have been addressed and respected. Don’t hammer the issue, but let everyone know that you want to be certain that no one will be upset moving forward. It’s an extremely personal decision, and not everyone will be eager to share their emotions on the topic.
If any additional issues do arise, hear out your sibling and do your best to understand. If possible, take the night to sleep on it and see where everybody stands in the morning. Do your best to make sure everyone has input, and that no one will face trauma over the burial as well as the loss itself.
Funeral Planning for a Parent
First, embrace the fact that memorial services can be any way you want — and there doesn’t have to be only one. If one sibling wants a traditional viewing service but another would rather have a celebration of life at the parent’s favorite restaurant, do both. Plan around each other so nobody has to choose between services and invite loved ones to say goodbye in whichever way they like, or both.
Come up with a plan that everyone contributes to. Compromise where you’re willing, but stand up for what matters to you. (If the flowers seem to mean a lot more to your sister and you’d rather focus on the scrapbook anyway, take the win.)
Divide up responsibilities evenly, but don’t take on more than you can handle. Trust in your siblings to get things done, but check in to see how everything is going and if they could use some help. If they become defensive, let them know you’re only hoping to lighten their load. And, of course, don’t forget to ask for help, too!
If one sibling seems to be taking a backseat to planning, keep in mind that he or she may still be struggling to grasp the situation and thus seem disinterested. Consistently ask for their input and don’t exclude them from any major decision. See if they’d be interested in one big project — like writing the obituary and reaching out to local newspapers — or if they’d prefer to work alongside someone else. Just because they’re quiet doesn’t mean they want to be alone, so give the option but don’t force them into solitude.
Just as there doesn’t have to be one service, there doesn’t have to be a single eulogy, either; each sibling should have the opportunity to speak if they wish. Try not to get too caught up in the idea of who goes first or speaks the longest. If one sibling has thoughts to express but doesn’t feel comfortable to stand up, offer to read on his or her behalf. And don’t be put off if anyone opts out of both options — they may simply lack the composure given the circumstances or even the words to express themselves. Regardless, it is up to them how to grieve.
Understanding a Parent’s Will and Assets as a Family
Whether or not you’re prepared for exactly what it says, the will is often a source of conflict following the death of a parent. Keep in mind that your mother or father likely didn’t make any decisions lightly, so try to consider what the reasoning could be before growing too upset. Perhaps it only looks like your sibling got a bigger share, but you’ve forgotten about the car down payment your parent helped you with several years ago. You might even get further down the will and realize you were left a valuable possession in lieu of a larger inheritance. Refrain from making judgments either way until you’ve heard all the details.
Inheritance is a sensitive issue, and it often aggravates underlying resentment among siblings. Disputes over who the “golden child” is (and “always has been”) can make the contents of a will seem skewed, even if the parent genuinely believed they were acting fairly. Further, it’s often not the high-value items that cause problems; instead, sibling fights usually revolve around sentimental possessions. Whether one child expected an item to be left to them instead of who it was passed down to, or no specific directions were left about the item and every sibling wants it, there are constant opportunities for debate.
Do your best to respect the contents of the will as-is. If you’re absolutely convinced that something is askew, take careful consideration before pursuing legal action. These kinds of disputes can stretch on for years and have detrimental consequences to the entire family. If you do take things to court, don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re dealing with family. Avoid major arguments that could lead to words you’ll forever regret, and stick to whatever the judge decides.
When it comes to dividing remaining personal assets, look for every opportunity to compromise. If you and your sister have both always loved your mother’s pearl brooch, for instance, consider sharing it. If you live close, you can simply trade it off as occasions arise.
Faraway siblings can use holidays and vacations to lend custody every few months. If you’re worried a brother or sister might sell an item without your consent, draft and sign a legal document specifying the terms of your agreement. Remind anyone who gets defensive that the document protects all of you, and is the only way to keep it fair and impartial.
If there are multiple large-scale possessions to divide up, consider consulting a lawyer who can give you unbiased, accurate input from the very start. It certainly helps keep things fair to have a neutral third party, but do be vocal when something is important to you. Hear out the concerns of your siblings, as well, and see if the lawyer can help negotiate a compromise as needed.
Handling Family Property When a Parent Has Passed
Selling the family home is a heartbreaking idea no matter your age, and it certainly isn’t made easier when brought on by the death of a parent. If there are no specific instructions, you and your siblings should consult with a lawyer about options. Much of the decision-making may depend on everyone’s proximity to the home — if one sibling lives close and will be dealing with most of the paperwork and arrangements, they may request a larger piece of the sale profits for their troubles, for example.
You may find that your brothers or sisters aren’t ready to sell the home right away, so don’t rush into it. You can start the cleaning and inspection process without actually having to put it on the market, so be strategic but sensitive. Don’t make any major changes — like re-painting or re-carpeting — without everyone’s consent and awareness.
At the other end, if you find that you are having trouble with the idea of selling the family home, speak up. Your siblings will likely respect that you need some time to adjust to so many major changes and, who knows, might even be relieved you said something first. If they aren’t so understanding, simply ask them to respect your feelings and hold off on trying to sell for at least a month or so. Explain what a major loss this is to you, and in the darkness of your parent’s passing, it’s too much to deal with all at once.
Compassion and honesty will be your most valuable assets throughout the process of laying your parent to rest, especially when it comes to your siblings. If things become especially emotional, consider going to family grief counseling for professional help in sorting things out. Remember that healing will take time for everyone, and that even if hurtful words were traded at the funeral, you can always repair and rebuild with your siblings.
The death of a parent will bring on a rollercoaster of emotions for everyone, so know what to expect and respect how each of your siblings are feeling. Look out for one another, and don’t forget to take care of yourself. When it comes to the legal and planning aspects, be respectful of your parent’s wishes.
Try not to let the physical and monetary issues escalate because of heightened emotions — show your siblings compassion and be honest about your own feelings. Take each step of the process day by day, and lean on each other for support. With time and grace, the sun will break through your clouds of despair, and together you’ll be able to move forward and honor your parent’s memory.