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How To Keep the Peace When a Parent Dies

Written by Jane Brooks

Divvying up your parents' stuff tests sibling relationships. Here's what you need to know to avoid a family squabble.

Forty-five years ago, when Ellen and Tom's grandmother died, her children argued over every piece of china and silver. Minor squabbles escalated into a full-blown feud.

A decade passed before the siblings spoke to each other again. So when their mother died, Ellen and her brother resolved to divide her possessions amicably, no matter what.

"The important thing is that we didn't try to clean out the apartment too soon," remarks Ellen, a suburban Chicago teacher. "And we made up our minds not to fight about this stuff."

Therein lies the paradox:  loss brings an opportunity for gain. When parents die, we're given the chance to grow, to reach out and to build upon relationships with our siblings without the benefit or the intervention of Mom and Dad.

Let some time pass before you empty your parents' home, at least a month if possible.
Figure out how you'll divide your parents' possessions. Draw straws to see who goes first or use different colored stickers to mark items each wants.
Agree to disagree but not to fight.
Decide what's more important, a gold bracelet or your relationship with your sibling.

Not all sibling relationships weather the death of parents as smoothly as Ellen and Tom. Dividing up parents' property really tests the sibling relationship. In her book Original Kin, author Marian Sandmeier points out that if the sibling bond is harmonious, it is apt to be handled with minimal turmoil. "But," she writes, "for those with serious unresolved resentments, settling a parent's estate can be traumatically divisive."

When her father died, "all the old stuff got reconstituted," recalls Valerie, 49. "My father was Mr. Workaholic. My older sister and brothers felt that he wasn't there for them. By the time I came around, things had eased up. Dad spent more time with me. When he died, all this underlying resentment came flying out, especially because he made me executor of his estate."

The key to harmony, according to John DeBerry, grief counselor and former bereavement coordinator at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospice Program, lies in good communication and the willingness to put aside differences.

DeBerry explains, "These individual differences and resentments began at some point in history; they aren't something new. As we go into adulthood with some measure of maturity, we determine if we want to work on certain issues. Do we want to use the past as a guidepost or a hitching post?"

 

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