Coping with Grief as a Family: Inactivity or Activity?
A family structure and its tensions, both past and present, can form or come to rise during a death in the family. While this is unfortunate, it is also true. The particular family dynamic and how the collective whole recovers can determine the emotional health of individual members. Families that cope with grief as a communicative unit recover collectively over the loss better than families who divide and fall apart in a dark despair of silence.
A Death in the Family Shakes Up the Physiology of the Family
Just as an organism has various individual functioning elements, so does a family as a social organism. When a patriarch or matriarch dies, there is a shuffle of responsibilities and a reorganization of inter-relationships. Some of these changes and alterations are beneficial while others cause distress within the family unit.
The most important thing to remember is for a family to keep an open line of communication after death. This is first accomplished through viewing hours, the funeral, eulogies and the wake. However, the family cannot stop there but must continue to support one another and “pick up the slack”. However in doing this, the individual family members need to be aware of the various secondary losses that may be occurring within their own family.
What Are Secondary Losses?
While it is easy to dismiss secondary losses or scorn those having them, especially since someone just passed away, it is psyhologically important to identify them. It is important for family members not to just mourn the loss of a loved one, but also to mourn the loss of what that person represented to them. For example, a grieving widow has not only loss her husband but also a breadwinner. How will the family help the new widow of the family? Another example regards a younger member of the family. While losing a father, he may now have to support his mother hence costing him time to go to college. While these may seem selfish and people may nevertheless heroically sacrifice for the good of the whole, these losses nonetheless remain losses that need to be acknowledged without fear of a guilt.
The family unit should meet together and re-address the situation of the family and understand the new construction of roles and sacrifices others must make. In addition to this, these sacrifices must be applauded and respected and in some cases, help should be supplied to help those minimize their secondary losses.
A Family That Prays Together, Stays Together
The above phrase is not only true because of its spiritual overtones but also because it emphasizes communion and expression. A family that is united in prayer or whatever other formal communication is open to the needs of the individuals within the family unit. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings can all be there for each other and understand the stresses and pains each are feeling.
This open line of communication aids the family in healing and also prevents others from potentially lapsing into complicated grief reactions. Within this communication, the family retells the events of the death or remembers good times of the loss loved one. These stories unite the family together in remembrance and allow for healthy expressions of grief through love and support. It is also crucial to allow children of the family to become involved in these sessions. Adults need to take the time to answer questions and include the concern of the children. All too many times, the children are shielded from the funeral or group discussion and their grief becomes disenfranchised.
It is important for healthy intra-family dynamics to exist for all members to fully recover from grief. Silence, hiding emotions or division will only cause further emotional stress and dysfunction within the new family structure. As a grief counselor or care giver, one should not confront this resistance openly but quietly pursue and offer families opportunities to meet together and express grief.
Ultimately a family is only as strong as its weakest member and to throw in yet another cliche, divided one is weak but together all are strong.
If you are interested in and wish to learn more about the grief counseling certification, please review the program.
(Information for this article was found in “Helping Grieving People-When Tears Are Not Enough” by J. Shep Jeffreys)
Mark Moran, MA, GC-C, SCC-C