How families are sometimes changed by a death.

Dr. Kenneth Doka

Editor’s Note: You can check The Hospice Chaplaincy Show’s interview with Dr. Kenneth Doka on iTunes here!

When Eva’s mom died, she not only lost her last surviving parent but her sense of family as well. After the mom’s death, there was constant conflict between siblings over the distribution of property—even over the price of the house. There were arguments about the will. When it was all over, the siblings barely spoke to one another. To Eva, it was more than her mom who had died—she felt she had lost her whole family.

While Eva’s situation may be on the more extreme end of family discord, it is not unusual that things will change when parents die. We may lose the family home—and all the memories that go with it. Family rituals like holiday dinners may change. Our family life inevitably changes.

After my mom’s death, we lost our center. As our separate families grew, each of us siblings began to make our own plans for the holidays. We lost our time together as an extended family. In response, we decided to hold an annual family reunion. Years later, it still offers the opportunity for our growing family to connect across generations.

These are natural changes that follow death. Eva’s situation, though, is more complex. While some changes are inevitable, the type of conflict Eva is not. In my own research and clinical practice, I often find that discord after death is preceded by conflict before death. For example, my study on the role of inheritance on grief showed that the sole predictor of family conflict over the will was prior conflict. It did not matter whether there was a written will or even how much was at stake. The only thing that did matter was a prior history of conflict and discord.

The first thing, Eva needed to do was to explore her family relationships prior to death. At first, Eva said there was no major conflict but as she also acknowledged that a major reason for that was that her mom used to stifle any argument. Now without mom, conflicts raged.

Sometimes families can sit down and find ways to resolve such conflict themselves but often it may help to engage in family counseling.

If that is not possible, it may help to receive individual counseling. Eva ultimately did that. It may not resolve the conflict but it can be useful in other ways.

First, it can assist you in understanding the toll that the conflict is causing. Eva, for example, realized that the conflict was creating anxiety and stress —even disturbing her sleep. Recognizing the effects of the constant bickering made Eva aware that she needed to either attempt to resolve some issues with her siblings or to employ other ways to avoid being exposed to the constant tensions her siblings generated.

Second, it can help you in exploring the roots and family dynamics that create and underlie the conflict. For Eva, it helped her realize that these tensions had always been present. And it helped to understand the different ways that each of her siblings—and Eva herself—had a role in the perpetual war of the siblings.

Third, it can offer skills and strategies to cope with the conflict. Eva realized, for example, that even simple things like waiting to respond to hostile emails were a better strategy than responding in anger.  She learned to focus on the problem and avoid personal attacks.

But most importantly, she learned that the tensions in her family, the changing relationships, was yet another loss that needed to be both acknowledged and grieved.


Doka, K. (1992). “The Monkey’s Paw: The Role of Inheritance and the Resolution of Grief.” Death Studies, 16:45-58 (1992).”The Monkey’s Paw: The Role of Inheritance and the Resolution of Grief” Death Studies, 16, 45-58.

About the Author

Dr. Kenneth Doka. Dr. Doka is a Professor Emeritus at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle and Senior Consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America. He is the author of Grief is a Journey: Finding Your Path through Loss, as well as 33 other books, and over 100 articles and book chapters. 


 Dr. Kenneth J. Doka

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