Family and Loss – In It Together

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.

© Copyright 2011 by John Migueis. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • PAM

    March 29th, 2011 at 11:57 PM

    The loss of a family member is not a small thing but how we cope after is a vey important thing too. First of all,the family members need to realize that they need each other’s support to overcome this tragic incident and to help each other recover from the shock. I don’t see this happening in a lot of families though. Maybe they need family counseling?

  • alice

    March 30th, 2011 at 2:56 AM

    although a death is incomparable to anything else, even other losses can be a testing time for a family. it can be economic,it can be that a member of the family has become an addict or it can even be a divorce. all these things can put the basic fibre of a family under test and it will need love,care and understanding from each of the family members to overcome such a thing. and of that is to happen, we need to learn to be good and to stand by our family and be together as one unit at all times.

  • brenda c

    March 30th, 2011 at 4:33 AM

    What kind of caring person would ever take the stance that it is time to get over it especially if a child has lost someone close to them like a parent? I think that we all know just how important it is to allow one to go fully through the grief process otherwise there are going to be issues later in life that will feel like they have been left unresolved. And there is no reason for a family to feel like they have to go this alone either. There are numerous family and grief counselors who can help them deal with the loss and find new ways to enjoy life again after the pain subsides.

  • Colly

    March 30th, 2011 at 1:01 PM

    when someone so close to you passes away there seems like there’s no strength left within you.and this is exactly the time where a team is stronger than the strength of each of it’s members combined. hence a person in such a tragic situation should try and find support in the family and also help provide the same support for others,all while working on the ‘team’!

  • Amy

    March 31st, 2011 at 4:51 AM

    The closer a family is then the easier it will be to weather these types of storms. It is critical to keep the family unit strong. That includes naking time with each other and spending quality time together. You have to give in order to receive.

  • Adnil

    June 3rd, 2013 at 7:17 PM

    Because of my mother’s addiction to rx. narcotics, she removed me from all Dr.’s lists. I didn’t know until about 2 wks. before that my father was dying.
    And I didn’t know til more than 2 years later that my two (2) sisters had arranged for his will to be changed at the last minute—leaving me out completely! Now they “take care of Mother”, share her pills and her money and I’m out in the cold in a state of shock. Nothing could have prepared me for this.

  • Adnil

    June 28th, 2013 at 9:18 AM

    Wow. Its been almost a month since this post and apparently this experience is unique. I was hoping for insight, advice and shared feelings to help me catch a deep breath and rationalize what planet of thought these actions came from. So far, John Bradshaw’s profiles place me as “scapegoat.” Fifty-eight years of family life just wiped out!

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