By Carol Luebering
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own
way." The words that open Leo Tolstoiís Anna Karenina are doubly true of
grieving families. Although you share a common loss, each of you experiences it
differently, for each one has a unique relationship with the person who has
died. And a storm of strong feelings constantly rages around all of you.
You clung together at the funeral, but now you may be drifting apart. You may
feel abandoned, unsupported in your grief. You might find yourself nursing
resentment, perhaps even lashing out at the people closest to you. Will you ever
recover the closeness you once had?
Working your way through
A family can indeed move from grief to healing, but not without some effort.
Let the steps outlined in this CareNote help you draw closer together at this
time of loss.
Understand the deep connections.
Caught up in your own grief, it may be
difficult for you to see the impact this loss has had on your family as a whole.
Try this: Imagine the bonds between a newlywed couple as a pair of ropes tied
between their wrists- one representing his feelings for her; the other, her
feelings for him. The arrival of their first baby adds not one but two pairs of
ropes, for the relationship between each parent and the child is different from
the otherís. A second child is attached in the same way, not only to each
parent, but also to the sibling.
The larger the family group, the more complex the network of ropes. To get
the picture clearly, draw a diagram of your family: a circle for each member and
a pair of lines connecting each one to all the others. Include closely involved
grandparents, aunts and uncles, other relatives.
Itís easy to see how a tug on any one rope- a quarrel between the couple,
say- is felt throughout the group. The death of one severs a lot of connections,
leaving everyone off balance. (In your diagram, erase the lines between the
person who has died and all the other family members.) And one personís anger,
anotherís depression, a thirdís regrets still pull against the rest.
Notice, too, the shift in roles. Families divide chores according to each
individualís talents and interest. Someone new has to master the kitchen, the
garden, or the maintenance of house and car when the person who reigned in that
domain dies. Families divide less tangible chores, too. If a parent who was the
binding force that brought the family together on significant occasions has
died, you probably wonít have family gatherings without a conscious and
The same holds true for replacing the family-communications manager, the good
listener, the clown whose wit always eased tensions. And someone (or several
someone's) is going to have to learn those roles. No one is going to fall into
Adjust your expectations.
You are not all going to feel the same way at
the same time. And youíre not going to express your feelings in the same way.
Mood swings and personality variations have always made family life a challenge.
Grief brings itís own mix of emotions that individuals deal with in their own
ways. One may take on a round of furious activity while another can barely
manage to get out of bed; tears may flow constantly or not at all. Whatever the
visible signs, know that each member of your family is grieving, and that each
oneís pain runs as deep as yours.
"Although everyone is grieving for the same person, each one is mourning a
But each oneís pain is different. Losing a spouse is not the same as losing a
parent or a sibling. Even if the kinship was the same, the ended relationship
was unique because it involved two unique individuals. Although everyone is
grieving for the same person, each one is mourning a separate loss. (Remember
all those pairs of ropes.)
Donít expect others to be perfectly sensitive to your moods, for they are
caught up in their own. Try instead to be sensitive to what is going on inside
the othersí hearts- even though itís difficult when your own feelings are so
Hone your communications skills.
Some folks find it difficult to express
their feelings, either because theyíre leery of being misunderstood or seeming
"unmanly," or because theyíre too young to have the needed vocabulary. Invite
dialogue by describing your own feelings- not the great sorrow you always carry
with you, but the particulars that keep catching you up: "I really missed Dad
this morning whenÖ" Your lead may draw out their reactions to the loss.
Active listening is another way to help emotions find words. Active
listening means hearing the emotions behind the words and checking the
accuracy of your perceptions with feedback. ("What I hear you saying isÖ Is that
Or try offering words. Pay tribute to the relationship someone else mourns by
recalling a particular aspect of it- a shared interest, a nickname lovingly
conferred, a tradition the two established between themselves- and suggesting
that those elements must be sorely missed.
Above all, accept whatever feelings your loved ones express as valid. Some
feelings that may not seem "nice" or appropriate- anger or guilt, for
example-are common in grief. Observing that someone "shouldnít feel that way"
gives little comfort, and only short-circuits communication.
Find ways to pray together.
"The family that prays together stays
together," according to an adage that, like most sayings, holds a hefty grain of
truth. But family prayer is a skill acquired by long practice, one that requires
a careful balancing of different levels of maturity in faith. That balance has
also shifted; death has a nasty habit of throwing religious certainties into
question. Some people plunge deeper into religious practices for consolation;
others find their prayer blocked by resentment that God did not intervene or by
doubts of Godís very existence. Explore each otherís concepts of God: friend and
comforter or bully, close and loving or distant and silent. Talking about God is
a search for meaning- one form of prayer.
Recall together what elements in the funeral service comforted you: a
Scripture reading, a thought from the homily, a song. Offer thanks for these
gifts and others: that he didnít suffer, that she had time to carry out her
heartís wishes, for the support of friends. Allow family members to express
anger at God in their prayer, if thatís what theyíre feeling. God doesnít demand
politeness of us, but he does delight in honesty.
Pray for the dead, if thatís part of your religious tradition. Pray with the
dead, who stands bedside you before God. Remember in your prayers the concerns
that were close to his or her heart- especially your loved oneís care for you.
And pray to the dead. Loveís conversation doesnít, in faith, stop at the grave.
Ask and offer forgiveness for any flaws in your relationship. Speak of your
loneliness, your fears, and your memories. Count the signs of your loved oneís
continuing presence in who you are.
Rethink your holiday customs. The festivities will
be shadowed by your loss no matter what you do. How close to your family
traditions do you wish to stay? Keep the elements that seem indispensable, but
consider some alternatives as well. Go out for Thanksgiving dinner; open
presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning, or vice versa.
Create celebrations that allow people to grieve openly. Throw a family pity
party where all are allowed to feel sorry for themselves out loud. Then
brainstorm ways you can support one another. And exchange a lot of hugs.
Plan family memorial pilgrimages to places that are important in your family
history. Revisit the places that hold happy memories. Take an outing to a
favorite museum or a ride past a childhood home. Spend an afternoon in the
garden your loved one once tended. Share your happy memories of things that
happened in those places, and hold tight to them. In time, they will eclipse
todayís sad thoughts.
Each of you still holds something of the person you have lost. Each family
memberís memory preserves a different facet of your loved one. As you learn to
reach out to each other in your grief, you will draw closer together. For the
bonds that were just pencil lines between circles in your family diagram are
bonds of a force stronger than death, a sharing in the very essence of God: