This article was originally published on goodtherapy.org on March 29, 2011
I facilitate a Family Issues and Loss group for adults. What I find interesting is how one topic almost always spills into the other. When a family loses a member they are not only faced with having to cope with the absence of that person, they must also struggle with fulfilling that person’s role(s). Failure of family members to appropriately compensate for these roles and/or support each other may lead to detachment and isolation between individuals and families within the family. Achieving acceptance and integration of the loss experience takes time and individuals may work through the process in different ways and at a different pace. These differences are expected and there are steps families can take to help each member feel supported and connected.
Avoid the “get over it” attitude
It’s not uncommon for folks to get stuck when dealing with a loss. It may be difficult to differentiate between someone being unable to work through their loss and a long but substantive grieving process. “Stuck” behaviors usually involve maladaptive coping skills such as self-medication (alcohol, drugs, etc), isolation or a new/worsening pattern of emotional dysregulation (anger, depression, anxiety). A family member who is not moving through the grieving process at the pace you or most members of your family are may not necessarily be stuck. A family member who appears well adjusted and ’happy go lucky’ soon after the loss may not have worked through it. It’s important for families to acknowledge these differences and attempt to support members in their individual struggles with the loss. If a member is using destructive coping skills in dealing with the loss, other members can help by normalizing the pain associated with the loss while recommending professional help.
Acknowledge the roles and work to challenge or fill them
The family member who died may have been the glue that held many parts of the family together. Crises usually present as the most fertile soil for dramatic change, positive or negative. Family members who hold on to old communication patterns or past injuries run the risk of detachment and isolation. They also run the risk of placing an unwilling family member in the role of the deceased. Conversely, family members who use the loss to question and challenge long established roles, feuds or maladaptive communication may find the work of bringing the family closer together that much easier during this time.
Memorialize the loss
If you and your family are members of a religion, a church or synagogue provides natural opportunities in this area. Family traditions that serve this purpose can also be established. I remember one client sharing her family began having large annual reunions after the loss of a matriarch. Family members would go to a religious service together then spend the rest of the day sharing memories through pictures, stories and videos. Ceremonies and other formal expressions of remembrance give family members permission to openly talk about the loss. Folks at different stages can participate in ways that are meaningful for them while contributing to larger grieving process.
Don’t allow stigma to get in the way
A death due to suicide or overdose adds a very heavy dimension to the grieving process. Many times this causes families to clamp down on communication surrounding the loss. This can be devastating as it is in these circumstances families need to process the loss most. Families can find creative ways to discuss and memorialize these types of losses in ways that accommodate all members. This is particularly true for children and teens of parents whose death carries stigma.
Familial reaction to loss is a complicated subject and there are countless ways families can help make the grieving process productive for individual members. These four areas are simply those I hear most about in my work with folks on this subject.