This morning we held a workshop on coping with loss. I know, it’s a very broad topic, but we planned to let the session take us wherever the participants wanted to go. We began the group by writing a simple question on the board:
“What are you coping with?”
Immediately, a women sitting in the first row got up, took the marker from my co-facilitator, Litsa, and wrote under the first column: “The loss of my entire family”. A few minutes later, the woman sitting next to her got up and wrote “The loss of my father and the loss of my relationships with my mother and my children.” Both of these women experienced the loss of their family and both expressed feeling utterly alone in the world.
This topic had already been on my mind going into today’s session. In fact, I started writing this post last night, after reflecting on my own relationships in the past and in the present. Obviously, many people gain friends and family throughout their lifetime, but it’s also very common to lose people who you may have, at one point, assumed would always be there. People who you were close with. People who felt like family. People who were family.
The way I see it, there are three main reasons why a person might lose a significant family member or friend: distance, differences, and death. Actually, let’s also include things that cause ambiguous loss like injury, addiction, and illness. Although all these things deserve articles unto themselves, death, in particular, can make a person feel like their support circles are shrinking right before their very eyes. The reasons abound, but to name a few…
- People are irreplaceable and when they die those who love them often feel a unique kind of loneliness
- The grieving person may lose additional relationships due to fractures in the family tree
- Poor social support
- Feeling alienated, judged, or misunderstood
- Social and/or emotional isolation;
- Differences among friends and family who are also grieving.
While many people need to look no further than blood relatives and closest friends for unconditional love and support, many others look at their support system and think “Them?????” Which is why I want to take a few minutes to discuss the idea of “found family”.
It felt like a family reunion for the family I’d never really known, a homecoming at the place where I was always meant to be but hadn’t known how to find.” ~ David Levithan, Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story
In looking around the Internet, I found several different descriptions of ‘found family’ so we’re just going to go ahead and create our own operational definition. When we talk about found family, we mean people who are not blood family, but who a person forges deep and meaningful bonds with based on things like shared values, mutual care and support, understanding, unconditional love, and positive regard. Oftentimes these relationships are created because a person feels a lack of these qualities in their existing relationships.
Now, I know it’s not always easy to find these kinds of relationships. Even when two women with very similar experiences find themselves sitting next to each other in some random grief session, attempting to forge family-like connections with new people may seem too difficult or, let’s face it, frightening when you consider the trust and vulnerability it requires. This is not something you can force, but you can open yourself up to it a little. We’ll offer a few thoughts on this, but I’m also hoping some of you reading this will be able to share your experience connecting with ‘found family’.
As promised, a few thoughts…
- Recognize the strengths and limitations of the people in your life. There are times when you may have to accept that certain people will never change and/or will never be able to provide you the type of love and support you need. Although these people may continue to be a part of your life, you may need to look beyond them to get the support you want and/or need.
- Seek out people who ‘get it’. Many grieving people will tell you that it is only in the solace of ‘found family’ that they were able to feel that their grief was accepted or understood. If you’re looking for people who ‘get’ grief, try support groups or other gatherings where you can connect with people who have gone through similar experiences.
- Be open to finding support in unexpected places. Grieving people often tell us they were surprised to find support and understanding in the most unlikely of people and places.
- Identify your personal “family values”. Many people find their ideas about how a family should be are in direct conflict with their actual experience of family. Furthermore, a person’s values may deviate from those they were raised with after experiencing something that changes their beliefs, worldview, and/or identity. In these instances, a person may find greater comfort and support in the love of friends outside of their nuclear family, than within.
- Get out of the house. We discussed social isolation in our last article. Check it out.
- Believe in the possibilities. After experiencing something like the death of a loved one, especially if you’ve felt let down by your support system, it’s tempting to put say “What’s the use?”, “People will just let me down.” ,“I can’t trust anyone.”, “I’m alone in the world.” Though I probably can’t talk you out of these beliefs, I will say that if you genuinely wish to create new and meaningful connections, then it’s worth giving people the benefit of the doubt.
If you have loved ones who you consider ‘found family’, share your experience in the comments below.