How to approach a difficult funeral when a family is in conflict, crisis, and estrangement.
As a holistic funeral director and celebrant, as well as a relationship and grief therapist, our Picaluna team member Sarah Tolmie is in a unique position to witness and care for our funeral families in distress. In this article, Sarah provides insights, tips and tools for all involved on how to approach with care, compassion and professionalism.
Not all loved ones are likeable. Not all families harmonious.
Sometimes families can be a source of pain, estrangement, trauma and conflict.
We don’t choose our families. These are relationships and ties that are established by fate. Whilst we can limit and manage contact when people are alive with varying degrees of success and quiet distance, death can come to disrupt that façade, ignoring time and space, to plonk us straight back into our families, like an unavoidable weather system that has brewed a perfect storm.
Death will demand your attention, action and engagement. There is no way out but through. Unfortunately, sometimes in the most stressful and highly emotional ordeal of our lives – a death – we may not get the support, care and comfort from within our family systems. Arranging a funeral can become a minefield of additional stress and freshly activated fault lines.
How can families best approach these situations?
What can you expect and ask of your professional care team and suppliers to do to help you through?
What are some tools and strategies for both families and the professionals who serve to keep wellbeing intact?
My first advice for families is to find a skilful funeral director and team. You will need an experienced and calm hand at the helm because it will be your funeral director and celebrant who will find themselves in the middle of a highly charged, high stakes, multi-party negotiation.
Secondly, it is best to be upfront about your family situation from the get-go, so you can get the best of their care, professional skill and experienced guidance.
How a funeral director supports a family when there is disagreement, relationship strain and even hostility, can serve as an important element in determining a family’s capacity to not only safely get through the funeral phase but also their ongoing wellbeing.
If done well, it can set the family up for better resilience and healing as they move into their grief and help continue lines of communication between essential family members for the next, and possibly complex round, administrative tasks ahead.
I am always thankful for my additional training as a marriage and relationship therapist – another environment of high conflict and adversarial posturing – to be able to navigate the many competing personalities, needs and decisions carefully and compassionately.
Family situations are as unique and as difficult as you can imagine. Some situations faced by the families I have served have included:
- Farewelling a family member who was also your abuser / abusive.
- Death at the hands of a family member
- Families amid legal and financial conflicts
- Long-time estrangements and disputes
- Discovery of betrayal(s), extra-marital relationships and separate families – ex’s, lovers, children and hidden lives.
- Families with AVOs and violent histories
- Disruptions by drug affected and mentally ill family members.
- Non-recognition of relationships, sexuality and gender and exclusion of disenfranchised partners and communities
- Families with deeply divergent faith vs nonfaith belief systems
My advice for funeral directors and specialists supporting families through these situations is to have strong boundaries.
Whilst there is a deep temporary immersion that can often take place when a good caring funeral professional is invited into the intimacy of a family when a death occurs – (and there are so many great big hearted people who work in the field of end-of-life and death care) – when I find myself inside a complex family funeral arrangement, the first thing I know I must do is lovingly ‘step outside’.
As funeral specialist, I can be both a heart-based professional, AND, be clear on my boundaries. I need to remember this is not my family, it is not personal, don’t take sides, and remember everyone involved is equal as a human who is also suffering and in pain. Everyone receives honesty, respect, compassion and my highest level of professional care.
To serve these families best – is to ultimately to serve the person who has died and keep them front and centre of my care. I need to keep a strong focus on the task at hand – which is to deliver a funeral, honour a life, and caretake a family and community as safely as I can through their first essential death rites. I can’t fight their fight and not get swept into other agendas.
At the heart of things – be it the success of interactions or maintaining personal and/or relational wellbeing – the best path forward will depend on our willingness to focus on needs, values, and our shared humanity with compassion. And to be tender with our nervous systems which are under great stress.
When a death occurs, even an expected death, we are yanked into deep shock and activated into our stress response, and our relationship survival behaviours will pathway us into either fight, flight, freeze or fix. And this plays out exactly as it sounds – even in the heathiest of families, people can fight, they may go ‘AWOL’, they might even block and stall, or become paralysed by the task or they may go into fix mode…which often look like fixing someone else’s feelings or problems. None of these relationship survival behaviours help greatly. In the hardest of family environments, these unhealthy family patterns become even more super-charged.
Personally, when working as a celebrant and/or funeral director, I try to be very careful to ensure the family or people in these situations don’t feel any shame or embarrassment for how things may unfold during the funeral arrangement. Things can become messy, and people can feel exposed, and it is natural to witness a big oscillation between the best and worst of behaviours.
Instead, I am there as compassionate witness and oriented to help. I have a job to do, and I will serve to the very best of my abilities. I am in no position to give judgement. I cannot know the full story. Everyone has their own experience and truth – all that I can really trust is that whatever people are feeling, I know the feelings are real – and those feelings need our care and honouring.
Sometimes the best to hope for – whether you are in the family or a professional giving care and guidance – is simply to get through as straightforwardly as possible, and hopefully without activating any fresh new wounds. It is not fair to ask any more of our families at that time and expect miracles but when they occur, even small moments of grace and surprising turnarounds….well, that is a rare and beautiful sweetness.
Death can always present an opportunity to create and open what I call a ‘healing portal’ – a magic alchemical potential for to break pattern, come together, forgive and focus on the love – and I love it when this magic happens – and yet, it is best not to assume or expect this will occur or be remotely possible.
Some important information to understand and establish when you are arranging a ‘difficult’ funeral within your family:
Who is the key person who with the ultimate ‘legal’ decision making power?
To activate a funeral and get things happening, a funeral director needs a key point person with decision making responsibilities and powers. This person is often called the ‘informant’. This is usually the ‘senior next of kin’ – which may be spouse/partner/de-facto, parent, legal guardian, sibling or eldest child. And they will need to know who is paying for the funeral. Sometimes this can be the same person, and sometimes they are different.
Sometimes, even at this first stage, problems can be encountered, and families can contest the validity of who this person should be, especially if there is a contested/strained de-facto relationship. Sometimes this can only be sorted out by a Court ruling. Sometimes, if a family cannot agree, and there is an Executor, the ultimate decision-making role for the funeral arrangement, legally falls to the Executor.
To overcome and prevent this problem:
- Discuss your wishes with your family. Prepare your family for what you want, what plans you are putting in place and try to cultivate engagement.
- Prepare a will with clear written instructions for your funeral plans/wishes and assign an Executor (maybe the Executor needs to outside of the family, like a solicitor)
- Have a pre-paid funeral or funeral insurance or monies set aside with your Executor.
- Make sure this will is known to exist and people know where it is. Maybe place a note in your MY Health Record along with your Advance Care Directive and Enduring Guardian and Power of Attorney paperwork too!
If your family members aren’t getting along – how do you go about organising a funeral and ceremony if you can’t be together, speak or compromise?
- Decide NOT to use the event of the death and its related activities to be the time to address past events or manoeuvre into a position in anticipation of future events. Stay focussed to the immediate task.
- Identify what is important to you – to maintain wellbeing and authenticity – and then, as best you can – stay focussed on the agreed essential tasks related specifically to the funeral
- Find a supportive, calm and grounded person to be your ‘person’ to walk with you and be witness with you during the preparation and delivery of the service.
- Enter meetings and conversations with your needs and key points clear and written down. Practice how you can say and deliver what is important to you in neutral, calm language. Ask for what you need in positively languaged requests.
- Do you need a mediator? This may be your funeral care team or a professionally appointed independent party.
- Ask to conduct the planning meetings at the funeral director’s office / celebrant’s office – not on anyone in the family’s home environment – keep it neutral. Sometimes this may even occur at the solicitor’s office.
- If you can’t attend, send a proxy to advocate for your personal needs and requests or make contact and communicate directly via the celebrant/funeral director so they can know your voice/position is included.
- Ask each party to identify what is MOST important regarding needs, wants and choices. Is there room for compromise? What can you recognise as shared/common ground? Identify if there is anything that is ‘absolutely not negotiable’.
- If there is NO common ground – try bringing it back to the person who has died and be guided by what is most in line with who they are, what they wanted, what is realistic, affordable, and achievable?
- For the ceremony, find a good celebrant you can trust to be able to integrate a complex life story with compassionate authenticity and care, and who can find the right words to hold everyone safely. Consider allowing your celebrant to acknowledge the multiplicity of relationships and give authentic representation?
- Make sure you get a draft of the ceremony – check that the language lands safely (read it out aloud). Is it soothing, clear? Make sure there is no chance for mixed-meanings, hidden digs or contested truths and that it strikes a safe authoring and curating to allow the many different relationships to be safely contained.
- Remember – as important as the funeral is – your wellbeing is priority. There is a wide spectrum of death rites and activities that we can do. The funeral is NOT the only opportunity to attend to the many rituals, ceremonial, physical, spiritual, and relational activities at death. Your personal needs, activities and death rites may be an ongoing endeavour of meaning making and attending to that takes place over an entire lifetime.
Some common approaches funeral directors may suggest when guiding a challenged family:
- Suggest holding the service at a neutral / safe / venue.
- Advise to NOT have the ceremony and wake at the same place to allow parties to disperse and travel between the two events as a way help create a time of buffer. Sometimes families might need to conduct separate wakes at multiple venues.
- Provide a recording of the service and offer livestreaming options to provide a way to keep different/irreconcilable parties in a family, separated.
- Limit alcohol and even engage security
- If negotiations prove impossible, offer separate viewings, death rites, ceremonies or services.
- Ultimately – a funeral director needs decisions made. The ultimate decision maker is executor or the person organising/paying for the funeral (informant) and this is who the funeral director is legally and contractually obliged to serve.
What to expect and want from a skilful funeral director, funeral team and celebrant to deliver for you?
- A high level of communication and listening and a strong holistic ‘holding’ across all the key stakeholders to discover the essential needs and lead decision making.
- Establishment of a firm but loving environment of respect, professionalism and safety.
- Clear and frequent written communication/updates/summaries – on decisions and all the elements of the funeral process – to all stakeholders.
- A focussed duty-of-care to honour the person who has died and give care with dignity.
- Guidance to the parties towards choices that deliver the best compromise and/or, provide multiple pathways for different factions of families to do what they need to do, separately.
- Be creative and go the extra-mile.
- Empathic service and a neutral and non-judgemental presence.
- Give real and direct input and an ability to recognise risk and develop safety strategies and contingencies.
- Have a back-up, a fall-back and a Plan B, C and D up their sleeve.
- Outsource as many of the key jobs/task to professional suppliers – eg. flowers, order of service design/print, photo/video production. This is not the time to get family and friends involved in the delivery of things. It is best to keep the different family ‘streams’ separated to ensure it gets done and no-family member gets harassed/blamed/attacked if someone doesn’t like the result.
- Provide a strong, visible, confident team of caring professionals who place importance on precision and expert delivery of service. Your funeral director will place the best and most experienced people on the job for a ‘no-mistakes’ delivery. Mistakes can increase the volatility on already strained families.
- Require additional staff for meetings and for the funeral itself are required to maintain staff and guest safely.
- Unfortunately, given all that is listed above, sometimes caring for highly complex families ends up increasing the funeral costs as it requires a level of extra care, time, contingencies, planning, risk management, multiple and simultaneous streams of activity, and safety extras.
For families and the professionals who serve – what tools are available to maintain wellbeing and stay emotionally safe, calm and protected?
- Try to place the person that has died at the centre of the centre of all decisions, choices and care.
- Adopt the skills of non-violent communication – oriented around focussing on common humanity, needs/values and compassion.
- Practice mindfulness, emotional first aid, spiritual support activities and heart-based soothing techniques like HeartMath Breath Coherence, Tapping, Prayer, Loving-Kindness Meditations and Ho’oponopono before and after calls, meetings and gatherings.
- Prioritise self-care and soothing. Do extra special care on your basic 5 – eating, sleeping, exercising, pleasure and connection.
- To learn more about emotional care and practices – check out online Sarah’s course “How Do You Feel? Using the intelligence of our emotions to heal and be whole in life & love”