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Grieving and Family Dynamics

Let's talk a little bit about family as it relates to your bereavement. "Most families," writes James Worden, in Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, "exist in some type of homeostatic balance, and the loss of a significant person in the family group can unbalance this homeostasis and cause the family to feel pain."

In short, grief counselors and therapists know that family dynamics can hinder or actually promote adequate grieving. Families vary in their ability to express and tolerate the individual family member's expression of feelings. Yet, there are those families that are open and accepting of all points-of-view in the discussions about the deceased and are better able to navigate through their bereavement.

Jenny Brown, founder and director of the Family Systems Institute in Sydney, Australia wrote, "A family systems" understanding of grief and loss broadens the lens to consider the variations in how families respond to an acute event. Each individual’s experience of loss is seen in a context of intergenerational relationship patterns. As a family is faced with a death they must adjust to more than the loss of a loved one. The fundamental reorganization resonates with the history of previous generations and will resound into generations yet to come.”  

The poet and writer Maya Angelou said, “I sustain myself with the love of family.” But, not all of us are lucky enough to feel the way Ms. Angelou feels about family. Stop for a moment and think about your family. How are they involved in your loss and bereavement?

In assessing your family dynamics, there are three things to consider:

  1. The functional position or role played by the deceased within the family. "To the extent that the deceased had a significant functional position," writes Worden, "his or her death is going to create a corresponding disturbance of functional equilibrium."
  2. The emotional integration of the family is another important consideration. "A well-integrated family will be better able to help each other cope with the death...with little outside help," affirms Worden. "A less-integrated family may show minimal grief reactions at the time of a death, but members may respond later with various physical or emotional symptoms, or some type of social misbehavior."
  3. Since the expression of emotions is such a big part of mourning, the third area of concern is to what degree your family facilitates or hinders emotional expression. Does your family encourage your open expression of emotions or do they shut you down with comments like, "We've seen enough tears"?

Just like an individual, a grieving family must focus its attention on the four tasks of mourning as proposed by J. William Worden in his landmark book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy. For Worden, anyone who mourns must work to:

  • Accept the reality of the loss
  • Process the pain of grief
  • Adjust to a world without the deceased
  • Find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life

When seen through the lens of the family system, ultimately all family members involved must engage in these tasks and come to reinvest in the new family while maintaining a sense of connection with the deceased. If your family is struggling in any of these tasks, we suggest you consult a certified grief counselor.

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