How Grief affects the Family Group
Updated: Apr 8, 2018
For those of us who have had to suffer grief related to the death of a loved one (animal, as well as human companions in life), the emotions that can be suffered are our own; whether we feel angry, confused, guilty, lonely or the myriad of other feelings that can accompany the departure of a vital part of our lives, we can acknowledge that it is we that experience those feelings. But generally we are not alone in our grief, and when the death is of someone who is an integral member of a group such as a family, the effect on the other members can be something which is more than just related to single individuals: the whole group has to adapt.
The group can be large or small, depending on the reach that the lost person had on others, but each person is likely to affect the emotions of at least one other in the way they behave in response to that loss. In a nuclear family, there is likely to be great turmoil, as an integral member of the group is gone and cannot be effectively replaced.
The closeness of the members of that family is likely to be tested, as emotions are likely to create the need for honesty to be forced upon them, where maybe there hadn't been enough previously: Each member may have had a role within the group which was easy to fulfil, as long as the rest of the family got on with their roles and the "family system" continued, as it possibly had done for a long time, without being questioned, but when a dramatic change such as a death takes place, those roles are up for questioning and may necessarily have to alter:
For example, a female child who has lost her mother, may now need to take on part of that "mothering" role, both for the rest of the family and herself. Whether she is able to do that will depend on her natural ability to do so (which may be impaired if she is very young, for instance) and the support that other members of the group are able to provide her. Her father may not be able to function as a mother in emotional terms, but may also be flawed in his practical abilities to provide what the mother provided for her children. The combination of pressures, both emotional and practical could lead to the child becoming more independent and viewing herself as powerful if she is able to replace her mother in the duties of her role, but could just as well become too much for her, leaving her feeling disempowered and having possible future effects on her self-confidence and self-esteem. All outcomes are possible in a generic sense, so it is up to the individual groups and the individuals within those groups to be honest, to allow others to be honest about their capabilities and how to best work together to keep the group together, if that is so desired.
So how do families cope when they are not honest with each other; when they are unable to live in the group without the lost person?
The strong emotions that are brought up in situations similar to this scenario are likely to be a driver for a lot of behaviour where a person's needs aren't met by the rest of the group they have, up until now, inhabited. If people are unable to express how they feel and work out how best to deal with their emotions to keep the group together, acting on those emotions will more than likely cause further problems for the group.
Anger is likely to be directed against the group, for various reasons. Subconscious feelings that the group did such things as "let the lost person go", "isn't able to survive without the lost person" or "has left them to deal with the death without support" can lead to resentment and, in extreme cases, a view of being no longer able to be a part of that group.
Another common feeling in these circumstances is, of course, sadness. This can lead to a sense of meaninglessness, again if the group is unable to take care of the needs of its' members. If there is no support for the grief of someone who, for example, may already be suffering from depression, there may be a sense that the group can't help them and therefore a possibly misconstrued conclusion could end up being "this group does not help me; I need help, therefore I cannot be part of this group".
Anger and sadness are just two examples of emotions that can be heightened at times like these, which if not discussed and dealt with within the group can lead to its' literal dismemberment. Being unable to resolve these feelings inside a family, can lead to a persecutory sense against the family by one or more of its' members and, if this becomes too great, it can leave people feeling as if the family has pushed them away, potentially then seen by the affected member as a motivation to leave.
If a member does decide to leave the group, or that it cannot be within the group as a functioning part of it, this further loss can lead to a sense of abandonment by the remaining members of the group, creating further emotions to be dealt with or acted out. Here again, there is a 'choice' for the family, to either further a vicious circle of loss and heightened emotion, or more positively to create newer and/or stronger bonds by working through those feelings which are threatening to tear individuals and the family apart.
The direction in which this turmoil resolves itself is a necessarily hard one on all the individuals of the group membership, as it has to be for the group to decide as a whole on the outcome, based on the combination of the inputs from its' members. If there are enough parts of the family who can come together to support those relatives who are struggling to cope, then the more likely outcome is that of a family which stays together, stronger in the knowledge that they have been able to overcome this type of trauma. However, when there is not enough capability, volition or possibly time for family members to support each other, there are more chances for negative outcomes to occur.
Counselling is one way for struggling individuals to acquire greater capability to express themselves honestly and be more likely to be able to support and be part of the rest of their family:
Anger which may have been mis-directed at family members who are obviously easier and more visible targets than the dead person, can be explored and repositioned more positively; Meaninglessness that could be felt can be challenged to re-instate feelings of agency that may have been too intertwined with the identity of the lost person, so that the work of re-creating the absented feelings of nurture and support that are necessary in a functioning family, can be re-ignited and solidified.
I have talked about experiences within the nuclear family, but everybody will need a sense of being part of a group, however they define their own close social circle. That group is part of what defines our identity and any changes to it will have effects that need to be dealt with as a whole, in order to keep its' individuals successful parts of it: In that sense, unity is required to keep everyone unique.