Family Discord As Death Approaches

Dear Barbara, Please talk about family conflicts when someone is dying. My Dad is dying right now. He remarried and our families do not get along at all. I am having a very difficult time with my Dad's wife, her daughter, her comments, etc. How do you deal with this?

Families are a unique grouping of people and personalities. They present us with great opportunities for learning how to get along with others. This seems to go smoothly with some, others not so much.

What I have discovered is that a family member dying can bring a family together. It can be their finest moment of closeness and comfort. But for other families it brings out the worst in relationships and will affect family dynamics for years. Under stress, emotions seem to bring us together or push us further apart.

There is no perfect family, no perfect relationship, no never have a disagreement, argument, or misunderstanding family. It is natural to have moments of tension and disagreements but we generally work through those moments. This is how normal family relationships work. Blended/step families take the challenges of getting along to a new level. Habits and a growing up history are missing.. There is no foundation to draw from and in many cases integration just doesn’t happen.

I think relationships and interaction with others are hard work on a good day. Under stress it is like holding a magnifying glass to the sun. A family member dying is one of the ultimate stressors.

During the illness and dying process if the family dynamic has been one of support and comfort then there will be more comfort and more support. The magnifying glass effect will increase the family bond. If the relationship history has been one of discord then that discord will likely increase, UNLESS members make a concentrated effort to have a truce.

Here are my thoughts on how you can navigate this challenging relationship you have with your step family: bring up the subject of the uncomfortableness in your relationship directly. Say "I know in the past we have not seen eye to eye. We haven't really gotten along. For dad’s sake let’s have a truce and all do the best we can to get along and make this a special time".

Sometimes even going this far is not going to work. If talking is out, or you do talk and get a negative response, then all you can do is be the best possible person you can be. Let all the negativity roll off, don't engage, be a presence for your dad, agree even when you don't agree. BE THERE FOR YOUR DAD, love him, be courteous with those around him, ignore the attitude of the others. You want this to be a good memory when your dad is gone. You want to look back on this and say “I did everything in my power to make his dying a good life experience.”

You may have to work very hard to make it happen. You can't change others but you can work with yourself to do everything possible to get along with them ---until this is over. Then you never have to see them again if you don't want to and you will have the knowledge that you tried your best to create a peaceful, conflict free space for your father.

Something more about... Family Discord As Death Approaches

It's scary when a loved one is facing end of life. Families need education. Families need support. When we are educated, when we understand the dying process, the knowledge reduces the fear. Aren't we our better selves when we're more calm?  I have a bundle for families that covers diagnosis to grief. You will find it here~ The Family Support Bundle.

Related products


Christine A. Smith, GEROpreneur & #AgingEnthusiast!

“Oh, it is already forgiven. These moments, for each of you, are being held as precious. This is a time UNlike any other. It is my privilege to be here.”

My supervisor would, occasionally, schedule me as an additional hired in-home caregiver when a long-time client family would hear the word ‘hospice.’

Loved ones would feel the need for more of a ‘presence’ from the agency that had brought consistent peace of mind, needed respite, or trained expertise during previous months. However, I was new on the scene.

Blended families, estranged siblings, storied in-laws, and re-opened emotional/relational wounds were strewn across the living room like a black and white photo of a civil war battlefield.

Some explosions also impacted home health workers, neighbors, hospice workers, professional visitors, Meals on Wheels—you name it.

I really was a new invader—too close and in the way—having to ask trite questions. I was not ‘doing it’ quite like the other caregivers and not quite right for every grieving person present.

But, when I responded correctly, postures relaxed and people confided memories or present needs for assurance.

I’m sorry that I/we… “Oh, it’s already forgiven.”
It’s just so hard… “This is a time UNlike any other.”
I’m/We’re not at my/our best… “These moments, for each of you, are being held as precious.”
I wish you didn’t have to see/hear… “It is my privilege to be here.”
BK Books replied:
Thank you Christine for your beautiful words. Poetic! Barbara

Darthula Young

Barbara, I am an end of life doula certified by the Conscious Dying Institute. I have been asked to speak with a group on how can a doula be engaged when there is a sudden or tragic death. I have done quite a bit of research but I have found nothing specific in this area. Do you have any suggestions. Thanks!!!
BK Books replied:
Darthula, do you mean as support at sudden death? If that is a yes then your presence is more important than your words. attend to every day tasks, food, logistics, answering the phones, being a buffer. Grief will come later. Shock is what the survivors are experiencing first. An EOL doula can be the conductor. Blessings to you in the work you are doing. Barbara


Hi Thom, family dynamics are certainly complicated. I admire your striving for a more positive, affirmative approach to your life. Here are my thoughts: as you have learned you aren’t able to affect your siblings and how they manage their lives so nothing is likely to change there. Your mother’s dementia basically determines how she responds to outside sources although I would think a quiet, calm environment will influence her energy, or maybe not, dementia is so unpredictable and unmanageable. That leaves us with you. You are the key person here and you must take care of yourself so you can juggle all of these dynamics. Some ideas for self care: find a sounding board. Find someone you can download with. Someone who will listen to you rant and complain without judgement or suggestions. This person can be a counselor or a good friend but it needs to be consistent. Getting through this challenging time means taking care of yourself. Make sure you play, enjoy living, interact with others so you keep balanced. Use your counselor or the good friend you have chosen to download with separate from fun time. A thought with your family: don’t make waves, don’t confront or counter, don’t engage, get through this time with peace in mind (that may mean you not expressing your thoughts or ideas). As my husband says “This too shall pass” and then you can live your life as separate from your family as you choose. My blessings are with you all. Barbara

Thom Cammer

Barbara , I have recently discovered your work and it is exactly what I have been searching for. I have a question for you . My family of origin has been dysfunctional forever. My mother was an abuser. She also triangulated between her children, causing conflicts and disrespect between her 2 children and one grandchild. I have done years of therapy and work to find a healthier and safer way to live my life, but they never have and continue the tradition of dysfunction, even going so far as to bring violence into my family home. Now that my mother it’s reaching the end of her life as a result of old age, complicated by dementia, I dread what lies ahead in terms of emotional outbursts and potential violence. I have been my mother’s primary caregiver for 7 years now and I trying very hard to make it a gentle and healing transition for her, free from negativity and toxicity and violence. Do you have any suggestions about what might help keep things peaceful and honorable? Usually, boundaries are not respected. So I’m curious to know if there is another approach that you’ve seen work successfully for others in similar situations.

Lupe Iglesias

Soo true. My passed 2 1/2 yrs ago of brain cancer. But towards the end my two brothers were fighting and fighting. To point at the hospital one had to be kicked out. I tried as much as possible for my dad not to hear and sometimes would lie to keep him comfortable. He was sedated but I was told he could still hear. I think it was the stress of everything that was going on. One brother was financially keeping my dad’s house together and the other was an emotional wreck and relapsing into drugs not understanding how to deal with the pain. I just wanted my father to be comfortable .

1 2 3

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published