Dear Dr. Michelle:
My dad unexpectedly died. He left behind myself and my brother as well as his wife and an ex-wife, who is my stepmother. Everybody, including myself, is having such a hard time and nobody is taking charge of arrangements of his death. My brother is leaning on me for support, and my stepmother has strong opinions about just leaving everything up to my dad’s wife. The problem is that his wife is not used to taking charge and there are some key decisions that really need to get made. She has spent her whole marriage doing everything that my dad told her to do. Right or wrong, it’s what worked for them and now she does not have his support to rely on. I have been trying to stay back to be sensitive to what she is going through, and I don’t want to pressure her to deal with things that she cannot handle. Any advice on how to navigate this situation?
Much appreciated, Jenni.
I am so sorry about your loss and for the pain that you and your family are going through. It is fortunate for your family that you are aware of the situation, the immediate needs, and the feelings of others.
I appreciate you wanting to be sensitive about your role, but keep in mind that your involvement need only be short-lived to get through the immediate situation. Because of this, your stepping in and taking charge is more likely to be forgiven by others. I recommend you follow your instinct and figure out the best way to help.
Who Should Take the Lead
Somebody does need to lead and coordinate. Unless there is a legal protocol to follow, there is a customary order to who should make and lead the decisions regarding the loss of a loved one. The order is as follows:
- The deceased person’s spouse
- The deceased person’s parents
- The deceased person’s children
- The deceased person’s siblings
If none of these individuals are available, the responsibility moves to grandchildren or other distant relatives, and finally friends or community members. Usually an ex-spouse does not make the list for being a decision-maker, so I recommend that while respecting your stepmother’s opinions, avoid letting her be a decision-maker in this situation.
How To Be Supportive
If your father’s wife is not able to make decisions, and your father’s parents are not available or able to lead, you are well within your familial bonds to direct and coordinate activities. There are supportive ways to take charge, and then there are ways that are overbearing and potentially harmful. Doing everything yourself without trying to gain agreement or consensus from your dad’s wife could be considered harmful. Taking the lead in coordinating decisions and ensuring tasks are completed is the more appropriate approach.
You mentioned that your dad’s wife is used to your dad making all the decisions and telling her what to do. If this is the dynamic, it is highly possible that your dad’s wife may need the support of somebody guiding her. It is also possible that given their dynamic, she does not know how or when to ask for help. She may find your help a relief and it could end up being the best gift that anybody could give.
Start by having a conversation with your dad’s wife and seek some sort of permission for you to be the lead coordinator. Reassure her that you will involve her in all decisions. Here is an idea for how you can start the conversation with your dad’s wife:
“This is so overwhelming, and I don’t want you to feel alone in this process. I am hurting and I can only imagine how much you are hurting. I really want to help you because I don’t want you dealing with this alone. Can I get your permission to play a lead role and coordinate tasks and then I can give you assignments and other family members assignments to keep it all on track? This way, you don’t have to worry about so many things at this difficult time or worry about something getting missed.”
A conversation like the one above can establish your role as coordinating the decisions and tasks that need to be done versus making decisions without her input.
Ask Questions that Lead to Decisions
There may also be a need for you to be more direct in your questions and asking questions in a way that leads to decisions. For example, let’s say you were to ask her:
“Which tie do you want dad to wear?”
The statement above may be too open-ended for someone who has a hard time taking charge or is overwhelmed by stress and grief. An alternative would be to offer options and narrow down the decision-making. For example:
“Would you like dad to wear this yellow tie or this red tie, or was there a specific tie that you already picked out that we should use?”
The purpose of this approach is to narrow the choices and simplify the decision-making process.
Again, I am so sorry for your loss. I hope you find the best way to jump in and help lead your family through this very difficult time.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
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