Tell Me About It

My family is fighting over my mother’s will

I can’t bear to think of Christmas and all the events that I thought I would celebrate with my siblings

PROBLEM: My mother died recently. I am devastated by her loss, but she had a wonderful, long life. Since she passed our lives have been turned upside down in a way I never would have anticipated. There has been mayhem in our family over her will and how she left things to each one of us.

My dad died many years ago and I know it has been difficult for her handling things by herself. We all helped out as best we could while rearing our own families, and always supported one another. Our children are very close to their cousins, but now that several of my siblings aren’t even speaking to one another, it looks like our families are not going to be able to get on. I have no idea where this is going to lead.

I can’t bear to think of Christmas and all the events that I thought I would celebrate with my siblings. It feels like a big hole has developed in my life. My own children are adults and living away from home with their partners. If it wasn’t for my very supportive husband I think I would want out and away from all this. I am the one in the family who people would usually look to for help in a crisis but this one feels so enormous and way beyond me.

ADVICE: This is one of the most tragic and often hidden stories of families: the disintegration of relationships following the death or serious illness of a parent. Often the will has been spoken about for years only to discover that it has been changed close to the end, and this may result in a sense of betrayal.

There may also be a sense that the parent has been manipulated, and a resulting need to challenge or fight what may be considered to be a wrongdoing.

Because our families are the ones we usually go to for support in our lives, we are denied this, and the sense of hurt and loss are even deeper and more cutting than any other split.

But something can be done, if people are willing. There is no doubt that everyone has experienced grief and loss, and we know that myriad responses are normal; everything from anger to crying and withdrawal can be expected for a long time after such a loss.

Also, it is possible that the original family all resort to their early sibling behaviour, including rivalry and position in parental favour. Add money, property or land to this frayed structure and it can crumble.

Firstly, parents are entitled to do what they want with their own possessions. However, if it seems that there is gross unfairness, it is possible for the family to address this as a group. This would be very difficult without outside help, as there can be suspicions of hidden agendas and manipulations. A mediator or family therapist would be well equipped to deal with this situation. It may take a number of meetings for everyone to feel understood.

Secondly, the next generation could be a source of help. Your children are adults, and it is possible that they are less entangled than the original family. If this second tier were to meet and agree ways of getting their parents to step back from positions, the possibility for connection might open up again. This could use existing events, such as baptisms, birthdays or weddings to get the family together. There is a danger that alcohol can open up old wounds so perhaps the earlier get-togethers could be daytime events. If this generation were determined to stay connected, it would be difficult for their parents to remain adrift.

Thirdly, you say your family usually look to you in a crisis. This is a privileged position and one that probably holds the most respect in the family. You value family very highly. All this leads to the notion that you can take any and all opportunities of getting the family to act up to its higher values and principles.

Could you take charge? Meet individually with the most open people first and then organise a core group to meet to come up with suggestions for change.

It will take time but the outcome is of incredible value to everyone and taking action will begin to shift the hopelessness for you.