What is ‘Found Family’?

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 woman 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…

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”.

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. 


January 8, 2019

11 responses on "What is 'Found Family'?"

  1. A very good article which I also can relate to after losing my son Ewan, last June.
    While my wife and I’s family have been supportive we have received more comfort and support from friends who have been through similar situations. They have become very important to us as they help as move through our Grief Journey and I think the description of them being a found family is very apt.
    We also joined a group we have here in Australia called The Compassionate Friends (I know many other countries have them too) and they have also been wonderful as all members have lost a child too and they have been a wonderful comfort and support for u.

  2. I feel so relieved that that this concept of a found family is “ok”. Since the death of my daughter and later my husband I have found more comfort and support from close friends than my own family. I always felt guilty about this – as if something was wrong with me or them,, even though I could try to rationalize it. I understand that my family do their best but without my found family I would be in a terrible place. I still feel a unique loneliness but no longer a guilty imposter!

  3. I was lucky to find a group who are my found family accidentally, after my husband died but before the sister, son,boss, etc. Then I stumbled into a job where I have another universe of friend family. When I was diagnosed with a serious problem earlier this year, I had to tell my work family immediately, and we formulated a plan for how the news would get out. I didn’t manage this as well with my friend family as we are scattered all over the country, and when the cat just recently got out, people were so upset that they weren’t there for me…but one of them stepped up, asked for the story, and shared it for me, which I couldn’t do. I would be a basket case or worse without them .mind, I have a lovely sister a few hours away, and cousins, all good people…but we each have our issues. I am so blessed and sad for those who don’t have this.

  4. This is a very real thing. My mother died 15 years ago and my father died last year. I don’t have a close extended family, and what closeness we had seemed to have left after my mother and grandparents( her mum and dad) died all within 3 years ..almost one a year) ..it just broke us all up and we didn’t share grief.
    I now have my own found family .. I have a couple in my life .bit older than me who are dear friends and who I refer to as my other mum and dad. They can’t replace my parents and they know this but they offer the love support and guidance that I haven’t had in a long time (dad was an alcoholic and our relationship wasn’t an easy one, especially after the loss of my mother ..he couldn’t cope) I love my found family and even their wider family accept me as if I was their own. I love them dearly and feel blessed that they stepped into the void. They help and support without prejudice or judgement and help me feel not so alone and unloved.

  5. Yes, extended family is wonderful. When we lost our 24 year old son three and a half years ago, an entire kayaking club surrounded us in love and still do to this day. I got deep into online support groups, taking their condolences and discussions, then becoming one who discusses and consoles.

  6. I have what I call “my parents of choice”. I tell people if I had a choice, they would have been my parents. My parents were not bad parents – just really young when they had me so they were more like siblings to me. My “parents of choice” have values very similar to my grandparents who mostly raised me and my brother. My “father of choice” died last October and I miss him. My “mom of choice” and I are still close. Finding people who support and encourage you in life may not come from your family of origin. I found it is ok to seek out and embrace those who will.

  7. I like your ‘found family’ phrase… I consider myself very lucky now as I found family in a grief buddy I met online. I was never one for social media however shortly after signing up for Facebook, i discovered a sibling grief support group. It was there that I tuned into a woman who had wise positive things to share and seemed to have the same values as myself. We both had been a caregiver as our sister was dying from a terminal illness. Fast forward a few months after we connected and I can say we truly are the best of buds. We live relatively close so have been able to visit each other in person. I remember learning early in my grief that your ‘family of origin’ has the same wound so they won’t be able to help you in your grief – so true. I have found family by reaching out and having someone also recognize that I could be a grief buddy. I advocate putting it ‘out there to the universe’, be patient, work on your own grief and then when you feel you have have found someone with whom you have commonalities, take an ‘educated risk’ and reach out.

  8. I lIked this column and just wanted to add that there is often a strong presence of ‘ found family ‘ in the LGBTQ community even before grief situations. I have a supportive family but found the LGBTQ grief group in Los Angeles seven years ago to be extremely supportive in going through an acute new experience of grief with others who understood the depth of other past griefs. LGBTQ people may have been rejected by their family early in life and this sense of a ‘found family’ is crucial. Gay author Armisted Maupin even titled his memoir “Logical Family” a play on ‘biological family’ which chronicles the family he found during his colorful lifetime.
    Thanks for your here. It is appreciated.

  9. Perfect timing. After the recent suicide of my nephew and earth of both my parents in the last two years, I feel the shrinkage of my “family”. And, the people who have been the greatest support are friends, my found family.

  10. After the death of my son-our best friends became our found family. They lost their son 5 years prior-and our sons grew up together. My immediate family have been great-as my Dad lost his sister . But my spouses family-textbook examples of what not to do each step of the way. I think they have repeated exactly what not to say in every article ever written. I try to see their intent, but can only put up with so much. They quit inviting us to gatherings and family vacations, quit including us in events. It hurt us deeply-but they can’t be changed.
    Their Mother recently died and they are experienced grief and speak about it but didn’t want to hear about ours ever. I know they can’t fathom losing a son of theirs, and nobody knows what to do. But just be there, just check in and just be kind. Our best friends have saved us. We now vacation together and cry together about our wonderful sons. We were in vacation together when our friend (the mother) had her first dream about her son since his death. It was so helpful that we were there for her as she sobbed. I am so grateful for them.

  11. After the death of my parents, I found that my immediate family just could not comprehend the depth and raw pain of my grief. It felt very isolating. But I was able to find support and understanding from outside my family through a few close friends, some new friends, and even random strangers who shared stories and sometimes just a hug when I went out to run errands but still in a fog.

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