As if coping with the serious illness or death of a loved one weren’t hard enough in itself, conflicts often arise among family members facing such difficult times. While various factors contribute to the heightened tensions, many of them boil down to the simple fact that families are made up of individuals, each with his or her own problems, perspective, and personality.
Family members may disagree on everything from the division of responsibilities among caregivers and the type of care the patient should receive to funeral arrangements and settlement of the estate. One family member, for example, may want doctors to do everything they can to prolong the life of a terminally ill loved one, while another may want to forego aggressive treatment and concentrate only on making the patient comfortable.
Conflicts like these are bound to happen. We’re all human, after all, and stress affects us in different ways. But conflicts not only cause problems for family members – they also divert the family’s attention from where it belongs – the care and comfort of the patient.
If your family is facing the serious illness or death of a loved one, you can help the family weather the storm by stepping back and taking some to think about potential sources of conflict and how they might be resolved.
Potential Sources of Conflict
Conflict under stress can happen in any family, but certain factors in the family’s history may indicate a greater likelihood of problems. Understanding some of these factors can help you determine how to resolve the issues. For example:
- A history of substance abuse or mental health problems in the family. Active mental health and alcohol or drug abuse issues can throw a family into turmoil, especially when tension is high. Easy availability of pain medications may be an overwhelming temptation for a family member who is addicted to drugs.
- Long-standing rivalries and unresolved differences between family members. Old hurts between family members may come roaring back with surprising vengeance during anxious times. Hard feelings can resurface quickly as tensions rise.
- Dysfunctional family communication patterns. We’d like to think that we all rise to our best behavior in times of crisis, but unfortunately, well-established dysfunctional communication patterns don’t automatically self-correct. If communication was a problem before your loved one fell ill, it will probably continue to be a problem.
Suggestions for Alleviating Tensions and Resolving Conflicts
Following are some of the tools family members can use to relieve tensions and resolve conflicts.
- Strive for open and honest communication. Communication is the key to healthy relationships. Incorporating healthy communication into family discussions may not be easy, particularly if the family has longstanding patterns of dysfunctional communication, but it’s never to late to start. (Remember: Communication begins with listening, not talking.)
- Find common ground. Shared religious rituals, family traditions, and a common purpose – to give love and compassion to the one who is sick – can help family members overcome individual differences and remain focused on the most important challenges at hand.
- Avoid judgment, work toward acceptance. Keep in mind that every individual must find his or her own path through grief. Try not to judge another’s grief process. If your brother doesn’t cry, it’s not a sign he doesn’t care, and if your mother cries a lot, it doesn’t mean she’s falling apart. Allow each family member the space and freedom to grieve in his or her own way
- Give others the benefit of the doubt. Rather than bristling at every slight, real or imagined, overlook as much as possible, and then let it go. Don’t hold on to resentments. Think about how raw and painful your emotions are; although they may show it differently, everyone in your family is experiencing the same thing. Rely on empathy and compassion to see you through.