In thinking about loss we tend to focus on the impact it has on an individual but loss can present as a significant crisis in a family system. As with any crises; the event can act as a catalyst for positive or negative change. Many times a loss can create the emotional push and motivation that is needed in helping folks become more open to working old grievances and issues out; allowing bygones to be bygones because the loss can act as a reminder of the importance that family has in our lives.
However, if a family system tends to be near an extreme on the spectrum it can act as a catalyst for entrenchment in maladaptive patterns or soft abandonment (withdrawing from the family without formal declaration).
Enmeshed families tend to foster extremely close relationships among members and place a priority on the family system over the individual. While they appear to be supportive, they can be stifling and harmful to the individual members that exist within them. One feature of enmeshed families is the presence of rigid roles. These roles aren’t necessarily assigned titles (although sometimes they are-patriarch, matriarch etc) and they can come from different arenas (cultural, clinical, societal). Roles are the product of a person’s function within the system and are tied to certain spoken or unspoken expectations. Many times rituals and other processes within enmeshed families center or place a high value on certain roles.
Disengaged families value the individual over the system and tend to have an open door to outside influence. Relationships within these families appear disconnected and members may have stronger relationships with friends than those whom they live with. Roles are typically diffuse and seem to only exist in times of crisis. Roles aren’t necessarily assigned, rather they are taken and are usually short term- ending when the crisis is over or someone else takes ownership of the “problem”. Naturally, rituals tend not to be an important part of the disengaged family’s experience.
Loss presents as a challenge to both types of family systems; the more extreme the family is in relation to the spectrum the more difficult it can be to overcome these challenges.
For enmeshed families a loss presents as problematic because it creates a vacuum in the structure of the family. As a result of the system’s rigidity, ideas surrounding the value of a role may cause the family to give up on rituals. Many times this is because the role that lent value to the ritual(s) no longer exists. The challenge for enmeshed families resides in accepting that rituals and relationships have a value and importance that is independent of the person the system lost-that relationships within the family do not have to depend on the presence of one member. Enmeshed families can successfully negotiate a loss by challenging the emphasis they place on roles and acting beyond them to maintain relationships between the individuals that still remain.
Another challenge within enmeshed families is allowing individual members to grieve at their own pace and in their own way. Loss can generate very strong feelings and individual members may either resent or begin to feel disconnected from the family as a result of how the loss is handled and their perception of what is “permissible” for them to say, do or feel during the grieving process.
Enmeshed families who have difficulty in negotiating a loss may engage in “turf wars”; there is a greater risk for perceived insult or injury if other members stray away from what the system holds as “right” or proper”. This can even come about as a result of a member not demonstrating the appropriate level of emotion during a ceremony. “Why aren’t you crying?” may be a question that is asked of a family member who does not appear to fall in line with how others are reacting. That difference can also be material for backroom discussions around the inappropriateness of a member’s behavior and can call their love of the family member who passed into question.
Enmeshed family members run the risk of breaking away from the larger system while maintaining most aspects that define the system as enmeshed within their own family or the part of the family they choose to maintain a relationship with. The loss turns what was once whole and cohesive into something fractured or siloed.
Disengaged families typically find gaining support or empathy from their loved ones during the loss a difficult task due to the already existing feeling of disconnectedness members feel towards one another. Being able to process the loss with someone who can relate to their experience and completing many of the tasks associated with adaptive grieving may be difficult to come by. Part of the issue, as discussed, is the lack of ritual. Ritual plays an important role in helping people suffering a loss make sense of it, feel like they have permission to talk about it and giving folks the opportunity to honor the loss in a way that makes sense for them. Because of the lack of precedent, the rituals that disengaged families participate in to speak to the loss may feel inauthentic, empty or meaningless to individual members. The fact that disengaged families need proximity in dealing with a loss may seem odd but a disengaged family still has proximate relationships, they just lack consistency and overall form.
The challenge for disengaged families resides in individual members making a conscious and determined effort to maintain an awareness of each other’s needs while making efforts to meet those needs. They can draw purpose from the loss by using it as a catalyst for taking healthy relationship risks with one another.
Disengaged families run the risk of glossing over the loss and willfully distancing themselves further from the system in order to avoid the discomfort of what the loss means to their family system and the relationships that exist within it. Members may become frustrated at an individual’s inability “to get over it” because the need and emotion that person is willing to communicate to the family challenges the structure in a manner that may feel too uncomfortable for the rest of the system to tolerate.
The potential barriers for growth and improvement after a loss, or any crisis for that matter, may be best understood through the concept of Radical Acceptance. Radical Acceptance is acknowledging that we cannot always change the cause of the crisis but that we can address the crisis in ways that are good for us and the system(s) we operate in. It is a choice between willfulness and willingness.
Willfulness means sticking to the old ways even if it doesn’t make sense or is harmful. Willfulness is the result of an emotional desire to avoid the discomfort of confronting the fact that things have changed. Willingness means accepting that we don’t have full control over what happened but in order to adapt, things cannot remain the same. Willingness is the result of authentic analysis and the desire to engage in right action.
Acceptance does not have to be an emotional state; we don’t necessarily have to feel comfortable or authentic in making changes we know are for the best. Just making these changes, behaving from a place of acceptance may be what we need to do to feel as if we are closer to acceptance.