Sibling Rivalry, the death of a Parent and being a Parent - TODAY


“Mom always liked you best ...”

This line from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Show made people laugh. And there is a good reason why — most of us think that our parent(s) love one of our siblings more than they love us.

This sense of one sibling being favored over another often comes to the fore in its ugliest form when a parent is dying, there are adult children, and there have been no written legal documents prepared to communicate a parent’s wishes – verbal statements, while a step in the right direction, simply aren’t enough.

Because of these sibling issues, it is all the more important for parents to have a real plan that establishes a written roadmap for things like memorial instructions, cremation or burial, distribution of assets including residences, collections, artwork, vehicles and of course, money. In New Mexico, without a clear statement in a will or legal document witnessed by two people of a person’s desire to be cremated any adult child question and delay the family decision. This means that sister Ann or maybe even her husband influencing her, who may not have seen Mom for 10 years, or who is a religious Catholic, or who is just having difficulty grieving may delay the cremation or even force the family to pay for a burial – at four times the monetary and untold emotional cost on the family. Avoiding this problem is simple. Make your wishes known in a legal document signed by you and two witnesses and a notary.

Many therapists also encourage discussions with all of the adult children prior to death to tell them what your wishes are, unfortunately, people tend to hear what they want. The idea of a final disposition of a parent’s remains tends to be ignored. Being the parent, means taking care that your family will not have to make these difficult decisions. Talk it out and write it down. At the very time that family should be together, children should not be arguing about what might be “best” for mom or dad. (Best, of course in that child’s eyes, while the other child(ren) feel differently.)

It is particularly difficult for the sibling whose life has revolved around taking care

of mom and/or dad. What is to become of them once their identity as a caregiver is taken away? How will they live? Where will they live? These are important questions that should be addressed while parents are healthy, and other siblings need to be sensitive to these issues that may arise for their sister or brother. While making decisions for a loved one is never easy, it will be easier when everyone is on the same page or has at least heard from their parent what their wishes are. Decisions can then, hopefully, be made in a calm and rational way and not in a reactionary way, when all of the possible implications might be missed.

Though sibling conflict after the death of a parent can take countless forms, some of the common material conflicts are:

When to begin sorting through belongings. Some people are ready right away, some people need some emotional time to grieve before sorting through items and may feel that disposing of or distributing items too soon may be disrespectful or hurtful.

Who gets what. Even with a will, there are often many household items or sentimental object that are not accounted for. Not to mention the many people who die without a will. In these cases, there can be much conflict around which relative will get which belongings.

What to keep and what to give away. Attachment to objects can vary greatly from person to person. While one person may want to save every Tupperware container and tube of chapstick that mom ever owned, other family may be quick to toss those items in the trash.

Whether to keep or sell a house. Houses can have tremendous sentimental value, making them something many family members don’t want to part with. Houses can also hold tremendous value, making them something many family members may want to sell right away.

Money money money. Whether it is scraping together money to pay for a funeral, or dividing up bank accounts and investments without a will for clear guidance, money can quickly become a sore spot.

Treatment at the end of life. Conflict can begin even before a death, when families disagree about goals of care, withdrawing support at the hospital, and caregiving responsibilities.

Burial or Cremation: Questions involving final disposition, where will the service be held, where will they be buried, etc. can bring surprising strife between family members.

Caring for minors: When a death results in children who must be cared for, conflict can arise around who will get custody of the children if this was not predetermined.

Grieving differently. We all grieve in different ways and on different timelines. When people are grieving differently this can be a major source of conflict within families. This is especially common if one family member thinks another is not as impacted by the death or they are ‘moving on’ too quickly.

Through establishing a very clear estate plan and having conversations before you become ill, or incapacitated or even before you die, you can manage any sibling rivalry that may occur. As a parent, you would hope that your children are emotional when you pass, that’s normal but why give them something to fight about?


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