Family Misunderstanding After a Death

Ahhhh family.

Family, family, family.

Family can be great, but that’s not what this post is about.  This post is about death and grief and all those times you’ve looked at a family member and said – “who are you?” “what are you doing? ” “where were you?” “when did you turn into someone I don’t know?” “why aren’t you there for me?” and “how can I count on you?”

After a death, many people feel isolated and misunderstood.  Dejected by friends, co-workers, and community they may say – well at least I have my family.  And why shouldn’t they?  Family is supposed to be there for each other.  For many, family has always been the weight that keeps them grounded and their beacon in the storm.

Here’s the problem, death and grief can make people act kind of crazy and it can seriously rock a family’s center of balance.  If the death happened within the family, then there is fertile ground for family misunderstanding as family members try and deal with changing roles and dynamics, different  grieving styles, and complicated emotions.

Now, some people are lucky to find their family is exactly as supportive and caring as expected, but it is very common for people to turn to their family and find themselves terribly disappointed and confused. We receive a lot of questions about why this might happen, and due to complicated family dynamics it’s a question we can rarely answer. Still, we have a few general hypotheses about why family misunderstanding might occur after a death, which we’re going to discuss today.  In reality, your situation is likely a combination of factors; our hope for this post is to simply get you thinking.

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Changing Family Dynamics:

We just love talking about theories around here, so lets start with one. Family systems theory was introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen in the 1960s.  Very basically, the family systems theory says that families are systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals. Within the family system, each member has a role to play and members of the system are expected to respond to each other according to their role and relationship. Maintaining the same pattern of behaviors within a system may lead to balance in the family system (but also to dysfunction).

When someone dies, the whole family system is thrown off.  Grieving family members find themselves disinterested and/or incapable of behaving in the ways they used to. Not only do people have to cope with grief, but they also must deal with the fact that a vital piece of of the family is gone. Some of the roles your loved one used to inhabit will have to be filled by family members and, as everyone adjusts, a seismic shift in the way things ‘have always been’ can occur.

Different emotions:

Grief can make you feel like you are going crazy.  Your response to grief will be entirely different than anyone else’s and so will the range of feelings you experience in response to the loss.  Here is a partial list of emotions typically associated with grief:

shock, numbness, sadness, despair, loneliness, isolation, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, irritability, anger, increased or decreased appetite, fatigue or sleeplessness, guilt, regret, depression, anxiety, crying, headaches, weakness, aches, pains, yearning, worry, frustration, detachment, isolation, questioning faith.

Quite often, family members will respond differently to the same death.  When each person is going through their own individual emotional experience, it can be difficult to figure how to connect with and support one another. When someone you love is all of a sudden angry, depressed or anxious, or numb, your immediate reaction might be to wish they would snap out of it.  Conversely, if you are the one feeling these emotions, you might feel more distant and isolated from your family.  In a perfect world, people would have patience and understanding for one another, but sometimes this is easier said than done.

Birth order:

Although research on birth order is often contested, I think we can all agree that position in the family has some impact on who we are as people, how we behave in the family unit, and the expectations we have for other family members.  If you have a smaller family, it’s far more likely that you will have a prototypical ‘oldest’, ‘middle’ or ‘youngest’.

It may be that after a death the oldest child feels they have to step in and take care of grieving parents and younger siblings.  If it is a parent who died, perhaps the oldest child feels compelled to fill some of their roles.  Maybe the youngest child has been babied and so they feel they need a little extra emotional support.  Regardless, some family members may end up feeling unsupported or forced to step into shoes they feel they cannot or do not want to fill.

This whole dynamic becomes a little more complicated in larger families.  But, when there is a large gap in age between the oldest and youngest, I think it’s interesting to consider the idea that the family the oldest child grew up with is often quite different than the family the youngest child grew up with.  This might explain some differences in relationships and in outlook after a death.

Gender (Grieving Style):

To be perfectly honest, this heading is a bit misleading.  It is not a fact that men and women have entirely different and distinct grieving styles.  Rather, prominent grief researchers Kenneth Doka, and Terry Martin believe that there are different grieving styles that are associated with being characteristically “masculine” or “feminine”.  These grieving styles exist on a continuum and gender is merely contributes to the way you grieve. For an in depth discussion on the way gender might affect grieving style, head here.  

Briefly, this theory asserts that there are two types of grievers – instrumental and intuitive.

Intuitive

Intuitive grief is experienced mainly in terms of feelings and emotions – “I felt sad” or “I felt angry” – and the grief response is usually focused on exploring and expressing these emotions – “I cried all night” or “I got so mad I couldn’t think.”

instrumental

Instrumental grief is experienced in more physical and cognitive ways – “I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened” or “I felt like I couldn’t breathe.” The instrumental grief response is expressed in physical, cognitive or behavioral ways and looks more like ‘doing’ or ‘taking action’.

Now, you can imagine how misunderstanding would arise when intuitive and instrumental grievers exist in the same family.  The instrumental griever, who appears less emotional and more active, might seem cold and uncaring to an intuitive griever who believes that emotions are the expression of grief.

Coping Style:

I’m not going to get too in depth on this topic because we’ve written about it quite a lot. Basically, you should never assume that someone will grieve in the same way as you because we all have different coping styles.  The WYG philosophy on coping is that each of us has predispositions toward the rational, the creative, or the emotional sides of our minds.  Though we all certainly have a bit of each of these within us, we often lean toward one style over another. To hear more about this, listen to our below podcast on the topic.

Age:

Age and stage of life obviously has a large impact on behavior and how ones makes sense of their world and experiences.  We’ve written about the influence of age on child and adolescent understanding; special considerations for grieving teens; and grieving as a 20-something.  The most important take away is the idea that a person’s life context has an influence on how they perceive their experiences.  Things like access to support, past experiences, resources, physical health, existential angst all have an impact on grief and also change with age.  So in attempting to understand another person, it is generally helpful to take their stage of life into context.

Secondary Stressors:

Society’s notion that grief is something that can be ‘dealt with’ within months to a year after a loss seems ridiculous to many.  I think this notion assumes that people have all the time, space, and support in the world to deal with their hardship.  When in reality people have to deal with all sorts of extra stressors like work, school, childcare, etc on top of their grief.  Sometimes people have to prioritize and make choices about the things they will give their time and attention to which might mean…

  • Giving less time and attention to the things they used to care about
  • Having less energy to support other people
  • Choosing not to focus on themselves and their grief
  • Opting out of time with family and friends
  • Becoming overwhelmed

It can be easy to lose patience with someone when you think they are letting you down or handling things poorly, but before passing judgment you should consider all the many things they have on their plate.

They’re in a different place:

Although people would have you believe there is a timeline associated with grief, there really isn’t.  So it should almost be expected that people grieving the same loss will be at different places in their grief at different times.  You may be ready to talk openly about your loved ones death, while the rest of your family still prefers to avoid the topic.  Your sibling might feel capable of sorting through your loved one’s belongings, while you still can’t imagine the thought of it. These differences can easily result in misunderstanding and confusion, so communication and patience are key. Although some family members may never want to grieve in the same way you do, many times people just need time to find their own peace and perspective.

Avoidance and negative coping:

Avoidance is one of my favorite topics because I think it explains so much of what we do.  We wrote a very comprehensive post on this topic which I encourage you to read.  When we talk about avoidance in grief we are usually referring to experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance is an attempt to block out, reduce or change unpleasant thoughts, emotions or bodily sensations.  These are internal experiences that are perceived to be painful or threatening and might include fears of losing control, being embarrassed, or physical harm and thoughts and feelings including shame, guilt, hopelessness, meaninglessness, separation, isolation, etc.  Now please note I say “perceive to be painful or threatening,” these judgements are often subjective and what is perceived as threatening to one may seem totally irrational to another.

One might avoid in grief because they don’t like to experience painful feelings. The onset of a grief wave is sometimes predictable but often not and each new wave brings with it an ocean of unpleasant thoughts, reminders, sensations, and memories.  Many are experiencing emotions of this type and intensity for the first time and in response they may exhibit physical, behavioral and emotional reactions they aren’t comfortable with.  This may be particularly true for those who have yet to develop a reliable set of coping skills.  Although grief is always unpleasant and uncomfortable, for some there are aspects that actually seem threatening and these perceptions can lead to attempts to control or avoid frightening feelings and reactions.

So, when your husband is putting away your deceased son’s belongings way before you’re ready, it might be in an effort to avoid reminders.  When your siblings refuse to talk with you about your deceased father, it might be in an effort to avoid the memories. In grief, avoidance is often perceived as a lack of caring when in actuality it comes from intense caring.

Avoidance is at the heart of most negative coping.  Negative coping consists of things like substance use, staying busy, and isolation; basically anything you can do to numb, forget, and minimize your exposure to grief triggers.  To learn more about negative coping you can listen to our podcast on the continuum of negative coping:

Now that you understand the ‘why’s’, if your family is fighting in the wake of a death go here for some helpful tips on handling the situation.

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March 28, 2017

8 responses on "Family Misunderstanding After a Death"

  1. My Mom just died unexpectedly after a surgery. She had heart problems, but we weren’t told she had so little of a chance to survive… This happened 5 days ago. She was only 60. Now I’m left to plan a memorial while autopsy is performed… The hospital doesn’t even know why she died.. I only have my brother and obscur Aunts and Uncles offering to take my Moms place.. But now they’re the ones wanting family heirlooms, China sets, diamonds… Green eyed monsters every time someone dies. To make matters worse, my mother in law has been trying to convince my husband I’m no good for him for years, and he’s my only support. She says we’ll support you, then I ask for what I need, and she always has an appointment, or treats me like her dr appt is more important than my mothers funeral. I told my family if you want a funeral, go for it. I’d want to scream at my MIL for kicking me when I’m so hurt. My son was just in the hospital a week before my Mom died. My MIL said this wouldn’t happen if she cared for my son. I told her she must be a mind reader to make such know it all statements. She’s just so pompously rude.. I’m sorry, but I’ve prayed for her for years, and she keeps trying to drag everyone down into a pit. She hates her life, hated her parents, hates me.. My husband gets his butt kissed by this faker, so he’s oblivious to her abuse of me. I wish she died instead of my Mom. But then I realized, the good die young, no wonder my MIL is 74 and keeps getting healthier. I believe you choose your heaven. 100 years of heaven on earth, or an eternity of heaven with Jesus. My Mom chose eternity, my MIL is vain and worldly, she’s chosen the 100 years on earth for her heaven.. Bad choice, but it’s one we all have to make. Live for God, or self.. My Mom Chose God. My MIL doesn’t understand faith, and she’s the Pastors wife. It’s flabbergasting… I hope my MIL lives a long time since she thinks it’s ok to hurt others, Because such won’t inherit the kingdom of heaven, the bible says. I told her she treats everyone different based on looks and riches. She tried to profess sainthood, and never says sorry without being sarcastic, or blaming you for being sensitive. She calls me pathetic.. She has no repentance, and my Mom always repented. God bless her soul, and please help my MIL to wake up out of the darkness and treat others as she would be treated.. My dad died 13 years ago in a hospital. I heard him screaming. They amputated his leg, and he was having blood transfusions that removed his pain medicine.. It was like seeing a civil war scene.. Seeing my Mom peaceful at her death was comforting, but I miss her, even though I know Jesus said she’s mine now. He told me the morning she died that He ( God) would be in front of her, and behind her. I thought he meant to keep her safe in the surgery, but now I think it was to escort her to heaven. To live is Christ, and to die is gain. Believe, and we’ll be where Jesus is. In Paradise. Our only hope. Don’t forget what the devil did to Job, and his miserable comforters he had, but the end of the story is Job was restored. And he even said, If a tree is cut down, the stump still seeks water and will once again shoot forth a branch. Jesus is the water we seek in death to make us grow again. He’s going to wake the death and say, death where is your sting? No more death, sickness, or crying when the Son of God returns. Have this hope, because there is no hope in this futile world. God said he’s going to make a new heaven and earth, and the former things will pass away. If this makes you sad, then your hope is in the world. Look up for hope. And faith is not real unless we work it out like a muscle. God bless those who mourn.

  2. My story is too long to post but i will say i was abandoned too with many deaths and now i am alone and grieving everyday

  3. It’s also a lot more jumbled and messy when the death was a stillborn child. My family were there, flew across the country, called etc… But within months it dwindled to nothing. They all never called and supported after the first anniversary of our son’s death. Like people move on and grow tired of you still hurting and being different and ‘stuck’

  4. My parents abandoned me long before my husband passed. Last February, he was admitted to ICU in a cancer center. They came down to “help me” because I had 3 dogs at the time, and it was 45 minutes to the hospital. They got in late Thursday evening and went with me to the hospital Friday a.m. John was having a bone marrow biopsy. My parents stayed long enough to hear “it was complete and John was resting”. My father had to eat lunch, so we went to the cafeteria. As soon as he finished eating, he and my mother left. I stayed with John all day and didn’t leave until nurse shift change around 7:30 p.m. I got home after 8:30, took care of the dogs, checked phone messages. Around 9:30 p.m., my father told my mother “I’m tired of her sh**, let’s go.” It took them about 15 minutes to pack up their stuff. I, of course, was crying and asking “what did you mean by that?” My mother told me to “get hold of yourself. what is wrong with you?” I told her “my husband is fighting for his life, and you’re asking what is wrong with me?” They walked out the door, and I was left alone for the next six months to take care of John, three dogs and our house.
    Unfortunately, John took a turn for the worse last July. I renewed our wedding vows with him on his last night. My parents drove down again, but it was much the same. My father had the nerve to tell my sister “don’t bother coming down because she isn’t having a funeral”. My sister, thankfully, didn’t listen to him and flew in the next day. It was around lunch time, and my father told my mother to fix lunch. My mother said “she can fix her own lunch”. So, I tolerated them one more day, and thank God they left the next day.
    Three weeks later, I planned John’s memorial service. I really thought my parents wouldn’t show, but unfortunately they did. My sister and her son were at my house along with my parents. I snapped at my parent’s dog who peed and pooped on my rug which I had to clean up. They packed up their stuff. The next morning was John’s memorial. My parents showed up late, managed to suffer through the service, ate lunch and had my brother-in-law take them back to my house. They drove back home and never said a word to me. My father wouldn’t even look at me at the service. My sister, her husband and nephew were appalled, but I told them “this happens every time”. Needless to say, I don’t have a relationship with my parents at this time. They refuse to acknowledge what they did, won’t talk about John . . . I’m supposed to forgive and forget anything happened. I ask God to help me forgive them every day, but the trust has been broken once again, like I’ve let happen for over 40 years.
    I’m now totally alone. All three of our dogs passed within one month of each other after John passed. I just try to get by one minute, hour, day at a time. Thank you for letting me vent.

    • I’m so sorry for your losses. I can certainly relate. My father died unexpectedly in 2008. Since then, our family has completely fell apart. Personally, I have been at death’s door 3 times, not even a phone call to see if I made it. Months and months of recovery. No offer to even bring a pizza by, or anything. I have come to realize that just because people share the same DNA does not mean they are obligated to associate with each other. My family has a toxic relationship. There is no love loss…love doesn’t treat others that way. I refuse to walk back into that atmosphere ever again…just like I wouldn’t expose myself to some horrid incurable disease. God knows my heart. I have given it ALL to Him. He knows them better than I ever did. I understand the “guilt” feelings of “but that’s my parents”….After the way you were treated, and apparently your Mom stood by and allowed your Dad to be so cruel, she’s as guilty as he is. I would not welcome them in my home ever again. They don’t even deserve an explanation. It’s obvious he didn’t want to come in the first place, he made that clear. Again, your Mom said nothing. Respect yourself enough to refuse to allow people to be in your life and treat you worse than an animal….because there is NO respect coming from them. Ask God to help you with your feelings of hurt, abandonment, resentment, anger, and all others…ask Him to remove those painful memories to where they bother you no more than some kid who you were in the first grade with…they’re just a memory without emotions connected. My Mom said in a conversation she started and had asked my opinion on something, and I gently told her what I thought. She didn’t like it and responded, “Hahahha…Do you think I need “somebody like YOU” to advise me on anything?…Hahaha……..That did it, that was the last straw. No, somebody like her does NOT need somebody like me for anything anymore. I don’t even answer the phone if she’s on my caller ID. It’ll just be more drama.I’m in control of my life and who is welcomed or not. Respect and love are ALWAYS together in a relationship of any meaning. If one or both aren’t there, then you are just a pawn they use to their advantage and then tossed aside until the next time they want to use you.

      • P.S.
        Even Jesus Christ knew when to knock the dust off his shoes, and leave people to their own devices. It’s time to clean your shoes off……….

  5. Wow, so much loss, I am so sorry and my heart hurts along with yours. Please know that you are cared for and loved by people you have never met, such as myself. I know it’s hard to do daily things and stuff you believed in once upon a time are not comforting anymore.

    Day by day just do the best you can and I hope new situations and people will appear in your life to give you comfort. After my sweetheart passed, it took me two years till I laughed, what a weird feeling that was, didn’t know what to do at that.

    Hang in there, you have come to the right place to express yourself and we all love and help each other as best we can.

    Best wishes to you.

  6. MONTHS? They expect it to take months?
    Right after someone in my family was murdered in a terrorist act and I was having trouble handling it compared to how “easy” it was to process other losses in my life, so I asked for help, someone told me that if I “wasn’t better in two weeks” they’d think something’s wrong with me.
    Two weeks later I still felt like I’d been hit in the side of the head with a shovel, was walking through my days feeling so dazed and confused I could barely work out simple directions much less process the whole thing and move on within weeks.
    They give you less than a month to work through a homicide, then start in with the conspiracy-theory crap not much longer after that. A month ago I ran afoul of a person who was going around telling everyone September 11 never happened and that all the people who died on the planes “went right on living their lives.”
    So I guess we’re all hiding our loved ones in the broom closet or something just to annoy the person who believes in these government conspiracies? Online such people come a dime a dozen. No matter how hard I try to avoid most of them I still end up running across some of them.
    I’ve never had to deal with certain things in death by sickness or accident that I’ve had shoved down my throat bc it was a homicide. With accidents people blame the dead person sometimes, but they almost always do with a death by intentional violence. Knowing they’re probably doing so to make themselves feel better on a subconscious level does little to console me some days.
    Then you have people who feel sorry for the suspects at Guantanamo, the ones who had evidence against them beFORE they were tortured by CIA “officials,” so even if the behavior was totally stupid on the government’s part the people incarcerated had enough evidence against them to keep them there. They’re not innocent lambs like some people want you to say of them. And we won’t even discuss why it’s still in Pre-trial hearings 14 years later. I have a friend whose daughter was killed at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado by a madman with a semi-automatic weapon. The trial’s been and done less than 3 years later.
    When the victim advocate in New York City told me that almost everyone who goes through a homicide feels RE-victimized by the court system I thought she was exaggerating, or I didn’t assume it would be much more traumatic than the actual death. I thought I’d seen the worst that could happen. Well what they’ve done since it occurred has been almost as terrible as the main event, no thanks to Cheney/Bush, who I voted for but not bc I thought they were going to torture prisoners. That’s NOT what I envisioned when President Bush said he’d “make the people who did it pay for their crimes.” I thought he meant the normal punishment of prison and/or death sentence.

    This loss changed things in me that I wasn’t willing to give but felt forced into it. I never thought I’d have trouble reading murder mysteries or fiction in general, I never considered that some writers glamorize homicide in fiction until it happened in my family or that I wouldn’t be able to read certain books if the information is handled insensitively.
    I remember reading a Stephen King book, Bag of Bones it was called, where he said writers need to be more sensitive to the way they handle fictional homicides. It was 1994 and I hadn’t had any personal experience to relate to what he meant; I wondered what he was talking about but disagreed with his statement.
    I agree now. Slasher movies for the sake of violence is an example of what he meant; there are novels equivalent to slasher movies that show violence for gratuitous reasons. I can’t watch or read about things I used to view or read with impunity. The Halloween movies for instance. I can still watch Friday the 13th though, at least halfway; Jason was bullied before he died. Not the greatest reason to become a murderer but at least there’s an impetus.
    Other things changed in me too. I wouldn’t mind so much but it happened against my will; I DO mind that and I also care that people assume I have 100% control of how I feel about it. That I can turn it on or off at will. If I could I’d already have done so.
    The only thing I can control is what I talk about and never discuss it – or hardly ever do. I’ve never talked about this part of it, but the question of ‘how has the loss changed your identity’ persuaded me to talk.

    My favorite sister-in-law lost a live baby and one to stillbirth. They were twins, one never had a name bc it was dead at birth and she hadn’t named it. She named the other Katelyn Patricia Barnes and the baby lived 5 1/2 months, then died a few days before Christmas. She got really upset at my stupid brother, whose first comment was that he was glad the baby died bc “she’s not suffering anymore.” She suffered the whole time bc she had no surfactant in her lungs and they didn’t know how to manufacture it then, but all Kim could see was that the baby was gone and had no chance to improve, which she thought would occur even though she was a nurse and her rational mind knew it wouldn’t happen. It was emotional and anyway it was her first baby. My mom didn’t help by taking my brother’s side, being glad the baby was no longer suffering in neonatal intensive care.
    Kim stopped believing in God’s love and stopped going to church. She may have started believing in his love again but still doesn’t attend church.
    I stopped believing in His love after September 11 but went to church anyway and hoped the mind would follow the body. That’s another thing that changed against my will. Love IMO is either there or it isn’t, you feel it or you don’t, and it wasn’t there afterward. I went to church until someone accused me of being “too tolerant.” I left and haven’t returned.
    It didn’t help that my mom forgot to mention the living baby was part of a twin set in which one was dead at delivery. I was an EMT-D then; I would have known how truly much of a miracle it would have taken for the other baby to live in that case and never would have gotten my hopes up in the first place. But my mom waits until 10 years later to casually mention Katelyn was part of a twin. I would have recalled if she’d said something earlier bc I would have known not to have high expectations for the other baby. Expectations mattered in this case.
    I don’t think I’ll ever understand that loss even though it was more Kim’s than mine. I’ve never prayed a rosary again. I’ve never believed in the magic of touching beads to make something happen. I also don’t believe in Holy Water anymore.

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