Navigating the aftermath of a death – and by extension, a funeral – is one of the most emotional times in anyone’s life. Grief, uncertainty, and even anger may be just part of the complex whirlwind of emotions that accompany these difficult moments. No one is at their best after someone they love dies.
What’s more, the situation can be exacerbated by already existing tensions among people in your life. Death can often bring us together as a family, strengthening bonds and providing comfort in the darkest of times. Unfortunately, it can also bring out the worst aspects of family conflicts and the old wounds that come with them.
There are always people in our lives that we struggle to engage in any sort of positive or productive manner. These tense relationships can be a greater cause for anxiety and stress as the aftermath of death forces us into closer proximity and being around these individuals more often than is good for our mental health (or our blood pressure).
Handling a volatile personal situation on top of your grief and the more difficult aspects of planning a funeral is easily overwhelming. These already difficult circumstances can quickly grow out of hand or, at best, become unbearable for you and others involved. You and your family are already hurting enough; don’t engage in the situation without the right plan.
How do you handle difficult or even estranged relationships with people who may be involved in the funeral process? How do you keep those personal feelings from bringing the conflict to what is possibly one of the worst days of your life? We’re here to help you navigate not only the funeral itself but the process leading up to it. With compassion, patience, and the right planning, you can make it through this.
Despite how much we might wish it could be otherwise, sometimes family is hard. The people we should care about the most sometimes give us a reason not to be involved with them or their lives. This can happen for any number of reasons and occur between anyone. Family rifts are uncomfortable and, at worst, can lead to total estrangement from siblings, parents, or entire branches of familial relations. The same can be said of an ex-partner.
Everyone has at least one bad break-up. Usually, we would rather not see the source of heartbreak and stress return to our lives. Unfortunately, death tends to bring people together for better or worse. There may be many reasons you would see your ex or a family member at a funeral, especially if you are both close to the deceased. It can also get tricky when there are children involved who also may wish to see family or be at the funeral or memorial.
If you are involved in the funeral arrangements, you may find yourself in a situation where estranged family members or former partners may also wish to attend or be involved in the process themselves. The best thing you can do is prepared for that possibility and the emotions that these potential conflicts bring with them.
If you know you are likely to encounter an estranged relative or former partner during this time, the next thing to consider is when and where you might interact with them. More specifically, you will need to be aware of the potential sources of conflict in the aftermath of a death.
These can range from the material to the philosophical, though both can be equally devastating in your already emotionally fraught state. While these arguments may be more common than you think, it's crucial to know when and where you might encounter conflict.
Deciding who gets what and when they receive it is probably the most common source of immediate conflict. Some potential issues may be mitigated by the presence of a will if there is one.
However, potential conflict can come with the deceased choice of executor. The executor is the legal representative of a person's estate. They are responsible for carrying out the terms of the deceased's will. These duties include distributing assets, maintaining them, and often planning the funeral process.
The deceased individual chooses their executor, often making it someone close to them like a child or spouse.
If there is no will, or no one is named executor, the probate court will choose an administrator, also typically a close living family member. The decision can easily cause conflict if not everyone agrees on the choice or, in the worst case, your estranged relation decides to contest parts of it.
Sometimes you may find yourself in the middle of strife before your loved one has even passed. Resentment, anger, and tension can linger even after the person has died. These feelings can then trickle into the funeral process. End of life care can be a very touchy subject for some people.
Even if the person in question has specific plans for what they would like to happen, that doesn't mean everyone will agree. Some family members may not be willing to consider that this is the end-of-life care and be convinced that their loved one will recover. When this happens, it can be hard to navigate those situations at all. When your parents need assisted living
If the individual has a will, there are likely directions for how they want their remains handled after death. If not, this can become a source of potential strife within a family.
Everyone may have different views on how and what should happen. Many times, these conflicting views can lead to intense emotions and poor handling of the situation. The situation can become more personal when some parties feel that others should not have a say in the arrangements.
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There are few things more personal – and more important – to people than their religion and culture. For many, these facets matter more than money or the deceased person's wishes (or their immediate family).
Culture clash is a common source of conflict. It should come as no surprise that this can come to a head while planning funeral services or the burial.
The will doesn't always cover everything. Property, and the distribution thereof, is sometimes one of those things. Homes have immense emotional value to many people. This property may be the place you were raised and grew up. It may be where you raised your children.
It may even be a place where you most felt safe and loved. It isn't always just the sentimental value that causes conflicts, either. Houses also have a monetary value that can lead to conflict when some want to sell immediately, while others do not.
The same can be said for other property, whether it's a vehicle, jewelry, or even sentimental family keepsakes. People often react emotionally to the idea of property passing into someone's hands if they don't feel as if the other person deserves it. Be mindful of this as you interact with potentially difficult people in the days after a loved one has passed.
Grief is a very complex and personal experience. It affects everyone differently in ways we cannot predict or process without enough time to heal. Sometimes, we don't even understand our behavior or emotions during the grieving process. Grief can turn anyone into someone we don't recognize, even ourselves.
While some people may not outwardly seem as if they are grieving sincerely – whether they appear unaffected or behaving in a way that appears false – it is unfair to judge their emotional state when you are on the outside looking in.
Feeling resentment about this can be exacerbated when you are already on bad terms with someone or have had a conflict with them in the past. It's easy to judge someone else's behavior as much as to find yourself judged by people you've already cut out of your life.
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Things are always more complex when there are children or other dependents involved. If there is any issue regarding who will care for any dependents – or custody concerns, conflict is likely to arise.
This can be the case even in close-knit families. It could easily become a problem when there are already tensions among those involved in the situation.
While we touched on this earlier while discussing inheritance issues, we'll address this one once again. Money is the most common source of conflict in any relationship: romantic, familial, and professional.
When there is any amount of money involved at all, there is potential for conflict. Plenty of opportunity for conflict over money arises after a death: paying any lingering medical bills, funeral expenses, and then how assets and inheritance are distributed.
With this many potential sources of conflict that could arise, you might be hoping to circumvent any confrontations or conflicts before they have the opportunity to begin. The easiest way of doing so is, of course, not having your estranged relative or any problematic individual attend the funeral at all.
But can you do that? And, perhaps more importantly, should you do it? Let's talk about some of these options and which might be feasible for you and your family.
Private funerals are a perfectly acceptable option for any number of reasons. You can restrict attendance to the immediate family and most would respect that decision. If you decide to do this, you'll need to make this distinction from the beginning. Start with the announcement or obituary including a note that the funeral is private. How to make a memorial service a celebration of life
Another option is having a public funeral service or viewing but make the after-event private. This might allow them to attend the public service but not make an appearance at the more intimate, private event.
If you have concerns about an estranged family member or other person arriving at a funeral to cause an issue, you can postpone the memorial to a later date of your choice. Postponement can be anywhere from a few weeks to even months after they pass. It would give you more time and emotional distance from the event itself. The postponement may also work best when cremation is already planned.
If it's likely they wouldn't hear of the death (or the arrangement details) unless they were made public, another option is simply to postpone publishing the obituary until after the body has been interred or cremated and the services have been held. You are under no obligation to explain your choices in that regard.
Not holding a funeral is also an option. If you feel that no compromise can be reached, that the other party may be unreasonable to your requests not to attend, or if you simply do not have the emotional capacity to handle the potential conflict, it might be best.
If you choose not to hold a funeral, that does not mean you cannot have a memorial. You can keep the details of that memorial private, making people contact you to find out details. With this, you are in complete control of who attends, and you can make that decision on a case-by-case basis.
Sometimes honesty is the most effective approach to the situation. If you do not want someone to attend a funeral, you are within your rights to tell them that. Remain polite when doing so and try not to allow yourself to be dragged into conflict during the process. Do not bring up old conflicts or existing issues. Simply explain that having them in attendance would cause tension or stress at the service.
We acknowledge that this doesn't always work. Many people are simply too unreasonable to listen to your perspective. If this is the case, you may need to take a stricter approach to restrict their attendance, including any of the above options.
Ultimately, you may not be able to prevent someone from attending the funeral. If that is the case, the best option may be compromising in some way. This could mean staggering your attendance at the funeral so that you will not run into the person. You can also require them to come with an escort to ensure no conflicts arise.
It's important to remember that the service is ultimately about the person who has passed. Focus on their memory and their wishes above all else.
Before you take steps to uninclude an individual from attending the funeral, you should ask yourself a series of questions that might help you make the final determination. Funerals are complicated and require much emotional fortitude to plan. It's important to consider all factors and possibilities with a clear mind.
As you consider these questions, you may find it in your best interests – and that of your family – to lean into a compromise. However, this isn't to say that there aren't extenuating circumstances at hand.
You should not be forced to allow something to happen that will damage the emotional or mental wellbeing of yourself or a larger group of people to accommodate one person. Your situation is highly personal and unique. Your choice will reflect the nuances and difficulties of it.
It may be inevitable that you will be forced into proximity with an estranged relative during the funeral process despite your efforts otherwise. Sometimes, we must put aside our misgivings and personal grievances for the greater good of those around us.
We must do our best to make this experience as painless for everyone as possible, whether it's our children, siblings, or parents. That does mean we'll have to do some of the work to make that happen.
You're likely already prepared to do this, but it bears repeating. Funerals are already difficult times for everyone involved. No one will be at their best, even those who are usually the most even-tempered or kindest among us.
There's no fault in letting yourself feel discomfort or unhappiness if confronted with a sudden unwelcome guest at the funeral. You may not always agree with something your relatives say or do.
You may have some serious disagreements with how they feel or express their opinions concerning religion or cultural beliefs. But if you want them to listen to you, you need to listen to them without interrupting, with the obvious caveat that they are not hurting anyone.
However, you must stay calm and be polite despite the circumstances. Even if someone is disrespectful towards you or your family, it will only escalate a situation if you respond in kind. While it doesn't always seem fair (and it isn't), you may find that when you act like the bigger (and better person, others will do so too.
Remember that you are not the only one affected by someone else's behavior, but you can affect someone else by yours just the same. Others are likely counting on you.
You decide your boundaries. You also decide how to enforce those boundaries when someone threatens to push beyond them. There are always those who do not respect your personal space. You cannot expect other people to enforce your boundaries for you. That is your responsibility, even when you are struggling with your emotional needs.
Have a clear idea of what you need and want before the day of the funeral. You make the rules; they can be whatever you need to help you through the day. Be mindful that you should be respectful of others in this process and set your boundaries without violating others.
It is your responsibility to communicate your boundaries to the person (or people) in question. They cannot know if you do not tell them, though you don't always owe them a complete explanation of why. It is their responsibility to respect those boundaries to the best of their abilities.
There is a difference between being polite and allowing someone to violate the boundaries you have set for a situation. If someone chooses to push beyond those communicated boundaries, then you are well within your rights to respond appropriately.
Many potential conflicts can be avoided in the planning process. That means that you need to consider many factors when you are making those arrangements. Bringing other people into the planning process can help you with that, especially those close to you who understand the situation.
This should be standard for anyone planning a funeral or internment for a loved one. It's even more important when you have individuals involved who may not have your best interests at heart.
In this case, it helps make sure you aren't intentionally (or accidentally) slighting anyone in your plans. Be considerate of others from the beginning and they may be more considerate of you in return. Even if they do not, others will see the care you've taken to make this less painful for everyone.
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This is directly tied to the previous tip. Refusing to work with someone outright can cause more problems than it solves in most situations. We all have to work with people we don't necessarily want to be around at some point.
You've likely run into this in a professional capacity at least once. When confronted with the possibility of working with a disagreeable family member, the best thing you can do is stay committed to cooperation (unless they choose otherwise).
You won't agree with them on everything (or anything) but focus on compromise and try to make choices that are in line with the deceased wishes more than anyone else's.
There are times when cooperation, compromise, and respect aren't going to cut it. Some people refuse to listen and remain stubbornly convinced that their way is the only way, even when confronted with evidence on the contrary. What can you do if that's the case here?
Mediation is a private process where a neutral third-party is brought in to help disagreeing parties come to a satisfactory resolution to a dispute. Sometimes there are legal processes and others are private, voluntary arrangements.
In a situation where you find yourself at odds with a family member or former partner in the aftermath of an already traumatic event like a death in the family, mediation may be key in helping you - and the other party – move forward without future conflict. It doesn't need to be a paid professional to help, either.
You can find someone else in the family that you both trust or even a close friend to step in and help everyone come to a compromise on what needs to be done and how to do it. Mediation requires the full cooperation of everyone involved or it won't work. You must be willing to put aside your old grievances to make it successful.
Even families that typically get along can find themselves dealing with increasingly more tension and turmoil after a family death. Relationships that were once easy become more difficult and the difficult ones can seem unbearable at times.
There's no shame in admitting you need a break from these moments and the people who facilitate them. Before you find yourself at your breaking point, you want to have a plan and a way to combat these stressful situations even before they reach a head.
Finding an outlet for your stress can be the difference in making it through this experience without being consumed by it. Everyone needs an escape from things when they become too much, whether it's a simple moment to regroup after a difficult day at work or something as life-changing as someone's passing.
When you feel overwhelmed or stressed by something else's behavior at this time, you should turn to something you enjoy. This could be as simple as a hobby you love to bring you peace or taking up a physical activity to wear yourself out when you're struggling with complicated emotions (and complicated people).
Another way to find your outlet is to write it down. Write down your feelings and fears as they come to you. Journaling is a great way to let your feelings out without fear of anyone judging you for it. It gives you a chance to be completely honest about how you feel and what's going on in your mind.
For many, it's easier to write these things down rather than say them out loud. Even if you don't think of yourself as a writer, you may discover putting emotions on paper lets you organize those feelings and make better sense of them.
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For many, finding the right outlet can help you "quiet" the louder thoughts in your brain and bring you a moment of contemplation or peace.
Remember that you are doing this for your loved ones, living and deceased. You are doing it for yourself too. However, thinking of others sometimes helps us calm ourselves when we feel like things are spiraling out of control or are overwhelmed.
It may help you find an important memory or physical object that you can keep with you when you begin to feel stressed. These can be anything from a small family heirloom, a letter or card, or an article of clothing.
You could even have a piece of personalized cremation jewelry – like a Calming Hearts Memorial Pendant – commissioned in their memory. Many of these even hold cremains inside them, allowing you to keep a small part of your loved one with you always.
No one likes hearing this suggestion, especially when they feel they've been wronged or treated poorly. It does have merit, however, when dealing with difficult people. Treating others with respect can be difficult for some people. It's often difficult to face someone's spite or bad behavior with kindness and respect but it can keep things from escalating into something larger.
That doesn't mean you should allow someone to treat you poorly or walk over your boundaries. You can – and should – walk away when things get difficult or someone is being unreasonable.
You don't owe anyone your time or attention, especially when they haven't earned it nor shown you respect in return. But our suggestion is to walk away before you allow yourself to be drawn into further drama or strife.
You don't have to do any of this alone nor should you. The people in your life are important to you for a reason; they want to help you when they can. Turn to them when you need assistance handling these moments. You can vent to them if you need to and, more importantly, you can turn to them to help you when things get tense.
When facing the possibility of conflict, always have an escape plan. You may need help to devise one for the day of the funeral or the days leading up to it. If your friends and family know what kind of triggers to look for when you begin to feel stressed or out of control in the situation, they can help you take control of it.
With the right plan, you can tackle the 'what-ifs' and prepare for anything that comes up. A good friend knows when to remove you – or the other party – from a conversation before it turns into a confrontation. When everyone is aware of the issues and work together, you can be confident the funeral services or memorial will be exactly as your loved one deserves.
Sometimes, you need to talk to someone for advice beyond what friends or family can offer. You may need outside perspective that, being close to you, lack. There's no shame in seeking therapy or looking after your mental health.
Even without the added distress of an estranged relative coming back into your life, the death of a loved one can be traumatic and difficult to process on its own. A counselor can also help you formulate a plan of action when handling difficult situations and people during the funeral planning process.
They can offer an outside, professional perspective that lets you break down the emotions and confront the underlying causes for them in a productive manner.
Dealing with difficult relationships and estranged family is not easy. You may have additional questions that we haven't covered in this article or ones that we haven't answered fully. Here are some frequently asked questions on the topic.
The first thing to do is to take a moment to breathe and think it through. You want to approach the situation with care and respect, which means you need to have a plan before you take steps in any direction. The important most important thing in the aftermath of a death is remaining respectful to the memory of the deceased. That means taking into account what they would want as well as taking the entire family's grief into perspective (including your own.)
You will need to do what is best for everyone involved, whether that is making arrangements that include those estranged family members or not inviting them to the memorial.
Deciding whether to attend a funeral when you haven't been invited is tricky, especially when family relationships are fraught. You know the circumstances for your lack of invitation and we invite you to use good judgment on whether or not it would be well-received. Funerals are usually public events so if that is the case, you should be able to attend. However, if the event is specifically private, we recommend not going.
If you do decide to attend the funeral, there are a few recommendations you should keep in mind for the event. If you reach out in advance, then it's likely everyone will have prepared for your presence. If that is the case, they may have opinions on how you behave at the funeral. If not? Then consider this as a basic guideline:
If you choose not to attend, that does not mean you cannot be involved in some way. You can always send a gift – flowers or a donation to the funeral expenses if you know they are taking those. You can offer your condolences as well, whether through a phone call or an email. If you choose to do that, make sure you keep your words in the present. Do not allow yourself to be dragged into past events or behavior.
The best thing you can do is be upfront about this. You are not obligated to see anyone at a funeral and, if you do not want someone to attend, you should tell them. However, before you do that you should consider the relationship – if any – that your ex had with your parent.
If you had been together for a long time before you split, they may have formed a bond. Is your ex grieving this loss too? What about any children you may have had together? It is not fair to punish them for someone else's conflict. You may want to consider that before you make that decision.
Funerals are an emotional time for everyone, more so for those involved in the process after a loved one has passed away. Sometimes, we find ourselves facing further emotional turmoil when familiar – and unwelcome – faces appear in the form of estranged family or former romantic partners in already dark times.
Navigating death is already stressful enough without the additional stress and uncertainty that any estranged family brings. Planning for a loved one's interment and memorial becomes further complicated. However, with the right plan and good friends and family behind you, you can avoid conflict and help yourself heal from your loss.
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January 27, 2021 by Frances Kay