Grieving a Family Member

Posted on February 22, 2024 by Rev. Pam Reidy under educating for grief and loss
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Families are complicated to be sure and grief is hard work no matter what your relationship to the deceased. Nevertheless, familial grief exhibits some unique facets and concerns. This blog entry considers the impact of death on the family unit. Families may include spouses/partners, children, aunts, uncles, cousins. Non-traditional families could even consist of all adults with little or no biological connection. When speaking of relationships, the use of the word family is generally understood as parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, but this is changing, so the use of the word family now includes relationships that are familial without a biological link.

Not all members in a family unit experience a loss in the same way, nor are the grief issues the same. For example, spousal/partner loss involves deep emotions, a shared partnership and often a lifelong history. All members of the family unit experience these facets of loss. However, spousal/partner loss carries additional facets such as the loss of a sexual partner, the culmination of a vowed, committed life and the end of sharing a home.

The death of a family member brings change not only to individuals, but to interrelationships within the family unit involving multiple dynamics. Here are some general things to consider when a family member dies.

  • Family identity and the dynamics of relationships have a strong impact on how a death is ritualized and how the family grieves. Each family is unique with its own subtleties shaped by things like cultural identity, previous losses, even the average age of the family members. A family may be newly arrived immigrants, or they might be a blended family.
  • The closer we are to the deceased, the more intense the loss. Family bonds run deep and are not always based merely on biology. The loss of someone who has played the role of a mother, may be far more impactful than the death of a biological mother. The death of a cousin could be more painful than that of a brother or sister. Losing a twin is often more devastating than losing another sibling. There are no parameters for measuring loss, the intensity of grief is most affected by the depth of individual relationship.
  • Because each person in a family has a unique relationship with the deceased, the grief of each family member is also unique. No single person in a family possesses the “best or correct” manner of grieving. It is best for families to make lots of room for each other to grieve in whatever manner and measure they most need.
  • When one thing changes in a family, other things also shift. Roles get reassigned, people adapt or maybe do not, members of the family may see themselves in a new way, causing others in the family to feel confused, afraid or even angry. Giving each other time to adapt, room to grow, and the ability to grieve at their own pace is the best gift you can give each other.
  • Grieving the loss of a spouse, parent, child, twin or other sibling can cause an identity change in a griever. These relationships hold so many links to how we identify ourselves and our daily routine, so it’s natural to feel lost when an immediate family member dies. For example, a parent who loses their only child, especially if they are the primary caregiver, will face a dramatic change in their life, creating a deeper quest involving their changing identity.
  • Grief can draw families closer together. Sometimes, it can pull them apart. It is common for families who experience traumatic or unexpected loss to “behave badly.” See my blog “Family Conflicts After Death”
  • Families who experience traumatic loss often seek out a counselor who can work with the family unit. I have witnessed successful healing when families who have suffered the loss of a young parent, death by suicide or drug overdose, or loss through unexpected accident or trauma, work as a group with counselor. In our area, Wellness Hub in Hubbardston offers excellent family bereavement support.

Helpful strategies for a grieving family:

  • When a family member dies, each member feels the loss and the disruption in the family system. Talking about the deceased person keeps them alive in the family, brings members of the family together, and promotes healing.
  • Allow each person in the family to share their memories, their stories, even if more than one family member tells the same story. We see things not as they are, but as we are, so each person’s memory is to be valued.
  • Relationships with extended family members and friends, especially if significant in the life of the deceased, helps family members to heal. Remembering that our loved one was cherished in the world beyond the family unit lifts our spirit.
  • Accept that things are not the same in a family when a member dies, especially if it is someone from the family of origin. Families can easily revert back to the dynamics of their early days when the children were growing and the adults directed the family. Long held traditions may be altered or dropped. Being attentive to changes in roles and activities and how these affect individuals in the family is important.
  • Be aware and plan for the challenging times such as holidays, anniversaries and birthdays, include the special days each family member faces, such as first day of school, or their own birthday.
  • Most importantly, families are meant to support and care for children in a special way. Be loving, be wise, and stay close to grieving children. Attend to their special needs. The Dougy Center has wonderful resources for supporting children through loss:

“Grief is like the ocean. The waves ebb and flow. Sometimes the water is calm. Other times it’s turbulent. In order to survive, I had to learn to swim. In moments when I struggled with massive waves of grief, I rode it out.”
― Dana Arcuri

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