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Dividing Things, Not Families

Remember To Allow for Grief

There are many agendas when families gather. This is true whether the occasion be a holiday celebration or a death. The more emotional the occasion, the more likely it is that needs will clash. The more fatigued or stressed people are, the more difficult will be their interactions.

Before thinking about how to divide things, think about grief. Even when death is expected and timely, there is a great sense of loss which hits each family member differently. If it is possible to postpone dealing with material things, this may lower the level of emotion. When one is first facing the loss of home and parents, each small item can seem indispensable.

Be clear about your priorities. If your first priority is to get specific items or your “fair share” of the estate, you will need different kinds of advice and possibly legal assistance. If, however, your strongest desire is to maintain or improve family relationships, we have gleaned a few ideas from our own experience and from hours of talking with others.

If, ahead of time, parents designate where things are to go, this can help greatly but only if it is done with everyone’s knowledge. Some of the worst scenarios we heard about came from parents telling more than one child or grandchild that they would be the one to get a particular item. In another case — although the mother had thought she had done a careful and equal division — when her notes were found after her death, each child felt her choices for the siblings showed she loved the others more.

Recommendations for a Peaceful Division of the Family Estate

Why does any of this matter? Why are we so involved with material things? First, some things are just what we might like to buy for ourselves, but either can’t or won’t purchase. This category is less troublesome than a second one: things that have an emotional history. Some are pieces of our childhood or that tie us into past family history: Father’s high chair, the tools Grandfather used. Others perhaps tie us to our children or grandchildren: the cradle Mother slept in may later hold a grandchild. Some seem to embody a moment of closeness with a parent, a special memory, or a family event. Try to give yourselves time to think and talk about the underlying meanings and memories. Although the mixing bowl may go into only one home, the image of Mother whipping egg whites for angel food cake can be held by everyone.

One family we talked with agreed ahead of time that if there were any items everyone really wanted, those could be shared. In the end, since they all really loved a pair of silver candlesticks that had been in their parents’ dining room, they decided that these should spend a year in each child’s home. Passing the candlesticks around has become a ritual, and each family gets special pleasure having them for a year and then taking or sending them to the next home.

In going through any household, there will not only be items everyone would want, but also many things that no one wants to keep. We quickly learned, however, that one person’s throwaway is another person’s treasure. My sisters and I devised a quick and painless way of doing an initial sorting. Each of the family members was given a batch of stick-on dots in a different color. As each of us went through a cupboard, closet, or drawer, we put a dot on anything we would like to have (and a dot marked with an H for anything we would give a home if no one else really wanted it). When we had finished going through a space, we put a dot on the outside.

Donating and Respecting Others

When everyone had finished going through a space, one of us could then put the unchosen items in the “donations pile.” Items with two or more dots went to the “decisions place,” and those that had merely one dot were ready to be packed. This device not only took care of a great deal of stuff with a minimum of discussion, but gave us individual tasks that could be done while one person felt like moving on and others needed a break. This would be a particularly useful technique in situations where family members are unable to schedule much time to work together.

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It is most important to realize and accept that people have different rhythms for working. One needs more sleep, time alone, or a chance to grieve openly. Another is eager to work as quickly as possible. One does best by talking through everything; another prizes quiet. Some work best at dawn, others at midnight.

Tasks can be divided so that anyone can find something to do whenever they have energy and a free moment. Tasks that must be done together should be scheduled when everyone can manage adequately. One important task is to decide what needs to be done. If a family is dealing with all the things that must be done after a death and, in addition, is settling an estate, the number and variety of tasks is mind-boggling.

My sisters and I found salvation in a large yellow legal pad. We made tabs to mark a page for each of us, a page for each type of job, and a page for each person to whom we had to pass on various pieces of information. Then, whenever one of us was looking for something to do, we could just go to the pad. When a job had been completed, it could be checked off. At the end of our time together, we not only could see what still needed to be done, but to appreciate how much we had already accomplished.

Dividing Things, Not Families

Ann Levinger, Ed.D

APA Reference
Levinger, A. (2020). Dividing Things, Not Families. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.