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, their 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.
Changing Family Dynamics:
We just love talking about theories around here, so let’s 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 within 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 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.
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 out 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.
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.
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 their theory, head here.
Briefly, this theory asserts that there are two types of grievers – instrumental and 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 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.
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 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.
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 perceptions 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’, 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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We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss goes on sale September 27, 2022, but you can preorder at the following retailers: