Interfaith families may disagree on funeral arrangements and faith traditions. Feuding relatives may find a focus for long-simmering resentments. What can we learn from other families who have gone through this before us? Here are five things to keep in mind to help you and your loved ones get through a very difficult time:
1. Stressful events sometimes bring out the worst in people.
Most men and women who can keep it together during calm moments find their resentments, judgments, and clashing values are impossible to hide or control when something as intense as a funeral or a long-term caregiving situation presents itself. This happens not only because of your differing beliefs and values, but also because a situation like this brings up strong feelings of shock, grief, and loss. To be fair, you might need to forgive yourself and your loved ones ahead of time for saying and doing insensitive or volatile things that they might not do under less upsetting circumstances. Or you might want to take a step back for a moment and say to yourself and your loved ones with a bit of spiritual wisdom, "This is going to be an intense ride for each of us. Let's not get bent out of shape if there are some extremely bumpy moments along the way to making some very complicated and imperfect decisions."
For example, if there are substantial religious differences in your family and one relative feels the caregiving or burial must conform to a particular tradition, while other relatives feel the caregiving or burial should be closer to what the ailing or deceased relative would prefer, a legitimate disagreement or discussion is to be expected. Don't hate or condemn your relative for wanting things to conform with his or her cherished beliefs, and at the same time don't ignore or deny your own strong feelings on the issue. It's quite normal to disagree about which clergy to choose, which type of words to say at the funeral, where to bury (or whether to cremate) your loved one, and other highly divisive issues. It's very common to have one faction of the family that wants everything done according to the letter of the law, while another family faction wants things done in a less traditional or more progressive way.
2. Call on a mediator for help.
Rather than getting embroiled in a debate or a power struggle, it's extremely important to bring in a mediator or family adviser who can help the two sides brainstorm on a unique solution (or sequence of traditional and less-traditional events) that will honor the diversity and clashing views that exist in your family. It might be a priest, minister, rabbi, pastoral counselor, unbiased friend, psychologist, lawyer, hospice professional, or conflict-resolution specialist. This mediator or family adviser should be someone who has the skills and perspective to help you design solutions that take each faction in the family seriously (someone who can step outside his or her own biases and say "Let me hear what each of you feels is important so we can build upon what each of you believe is the right way to honor your loved one who has died").
3. Realize that you don't have to control the entire proceedings.
Quite often at a funeral service or a post-funeral ritual where one faction or individual in the family is doing things their way, you may need to just let go of control and focus on your own personal relationship to your loved one who has died and to your personal view of what the funeral means in your own belief system or in the spiritual or religious path that you practice and that might be different but no less valid than the one practiced by your relatives.
You can have a beautiful moment of honoring your beloved relative and helping his or her soul make this mysterious transition even if there are words or rituals during the funeral or afterward that make you uncomfortable. For example, if a family member, perhaps out of religious conviction, says of the deceased, "We are so happy that she is in a better place now" and if that sentiment is not what you're feeling at the moment, there's no need to debate various afterlife views right now. Simply let them have their own way of dealing with the loss, and make sure you get some support and allies for your own particular way of viewing death and what happens after the heart has stopped beating.
Or if you believe in a caring and compassionate sense of God or Spirit, but your relatives want to describe the caregiving or the funeral as a battle against evil or Satan, you don't need to convert anyone to your point of view. Just pray, meditate, or draw in loving support from a compassionate Presence in your own way (even if it's in silence or off to the side).
4. Be open to moments of holiness and connection.
Even if one or more relatives turn the funeral or the family gatherings into an airing of old grudges, a chance to berate certain individuals, or a debate about irreconcilable issues, you need not consider these outbursts to be "a disaster" or "ruining a holy occasion." Focus instead on the important one-on-one moments you are having with a beloved grandparent or a niece you cherish (and don't get to see often enough). If the family gathering and the funeral have some moments of tender love and deep connection to a compassionate Source, that will be more important than engaging in a debate about theology, rituals, or "the right way to do things." And let go of the need to censor family members who are acting up or making a scene. As they say in Twelve Step programs, don't take someone else's inventory. But do the best you can to control whether you act with dignity and grace.
5. Give yourself as much time, support, and nourishment as you need to slowly recover from the mourning period. Quiteoften the family tensions that arise when someone is dying or has recently died can stir up painful memories and unfinished business that take you back emotionally to your most vulnerable childhood days. Even if you are a successful adult with your own family, you might feel ten years old again and powerless around certain relatives. That's why you will need to set aside extra time for taking long walks in nature, writing in a journal, praying or meditating, talking to the supportive friends and loved ones who care about you deeply, and getting back to healthy eating and exercise as soon as possible.
Many people become ill themselves during a long caregiving ordeal or during a funeral or a post-funeral financial dispute that stirs up old feelings. Make sure you recognize that this is one of the best times to treat yourself lovingly and to ask for help and support from the people who care about you.