After a loss, each member of a family has his or her own unique grief process. But just as important and unique is the grief experience of the entire family unit. Here are some of the reasons that it is important to acknowledge the needs of the family as a whole:
- Each person in a family has functions and roles not filled by anyone else. The death of any member results in the reorganization of all relationships in the system. Roles must be shifted and the family must reorganize. This shifting takes time and strongly influences the family’s growth and character.
- A family has its own identity. For example, the family may identify themselves as “community leaders”, “a group of practical jokers”, or “centered around the children”. When a member dies, family members often struggle to retain or redefine that identity in a way that is meaningful to them.
- Due to different developmental levels, life circumstances, lifestyles and relationships with the deceased, grief needs differ among family members. How family members communicate about their needs can contribute either to family harmony or family conflict. An open family system acknowledges feelings openly and involves each member in decisions and events. A closed family system denies feelings and excludes some members from decisions and events. Time and effort may be needed to apply a healthy style of interacting after the impact of loss.
- Grief and ways of expressing grief can be handed down from generation to generation. If parents have unresolved grief issues from their own childhoods, it will ripple into the lives of their own children. The family rules that a parent learned while growing up are likely to be the rules he/she models to the next generation. Family members may now practice these rules unconsciously, even if the rules are unhealthy. For example, a family who has dealt with emotions by keeping them secret and unexpressed will likely have negative results if they suppress all discussion of grief.
- New phases of family development often result in a resurgence of family grief. Suppose, for example, that a mother of two children dies. As those children grow up and reach life milestones, such as the first piano recital or a high school graduation, the family will grieve their loss anew from their current perspective. New grief needs arise whenever we face life changes without the deceased loved one, including moves, marriages, job/career changes, births, and even later deaths.
Here are some suggestions to help families grieve together:
- Hold a family meeting for all interested members. Allow for open discussion of thoughts, feelings, and needs that have emerged for each person since the death. Set a ground rule that each person will listen to others without interrupting or passing judgment. Brainstorm ideas for how to memorialize, express feelings, and meet needs as a family unit.
- Memorialize together. Collaborate on a photo album, video montage, or collection of stories in honor of the deceased. Make a copy for each family member or each branch of the family tree.
- Create something that symbolizes the family unit’s identity, such as a “Coat of Arms”, Family Mission Statement, or Family Motto. Have plaques or some form of reproductions made so each member or subsection of the family can have one to display in their home.
- Hold a family ritual where all family members can unite in memory of the deceased and in honor of the family’s values and history. Some examples include: a candle-lighting ceremony; an ash-scattering gathering; participating together in a walkathon to find a cure for the disease the loved one died from; making an annual donation to or volunteering as a group for a cause important to the entire family; planting a tree together in honor of the deceased and the family’s ongoing growth, even after loss.
- Consider engaging the services of a family counselor to facilitate communication and problem-solving among family members. Remember that all families need an objective perspective sometimes. Invite members of all ages to share their perspectives and ideas.
The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunca Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” on Amazon.com.
Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX http://grief-works.org.
FOR INFORMATION ON SCHEDULING COUNSELING SERVICES WITH LARRY BARBER Click here.