What Helps a Family to Adapt to Loss?

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

A family that shares mourning heals more completely.  When grieving, share and communicate your emotions with people you love.  Confronted with loss, a family needs the closeness and solidarity to cope with the loss. Unfortunately, in some families, the experience of loss fragments rather than unites their members.  If members of a family have not been close to one another in the past, the idea of getting emotionally intimate to deal with the loss makes them uncomfortable.  They try to deal with their grief alone.  When and if a family reunion takes place, they meet perfunctorily and keep their interaction with one another at a superficial level.  

 If members of a family had been estranged or were habitually in conflict with one another in the past, they may clash on minor matters.  The thought that they may have to deal with one another at a feeling level scares them.   A stronger family is that in which laughter, tears, and genuine feelings are shared habitually.  A cohesive and emotionally connected family grows stronger from a crisis.  

 As cohesiveness and emotional connectedness are the prized strengths of a family, so is the flexibility.  A flexible family bounces back faster from grief or any other crisis.  Let's take an example of an inflexible and rigid family where no one except the father knows anything about paying bills and taking major decisions.  One day the father dies.  It takes a long time before one member or members take up the responsibility to fit in those shoes.      

 Similarly, a family that has clear lines of authority is better equipped to deal with loss.  In a chaotic and disorganized family, where there is no clear leader and head of the family, loss is more likely to drive members apart from one another.  When such a family faces a crisis, members are likely to end up fighting and getting cut off from each other.  Such an outcome induces shame and guilt in the family members about their own role and provokes anger towards the actions of others.  Healing becomes even more difficult.  This does not mean that a family needs a monarch or a ruler, instead a democratic and benign authority is the best resource for a family in grief.       

 A family that communicates openly adjusts to loss faster.  Where there is  secrecy and expression of emotion disallowed, thoughts and feelings pertaining to loss are regarded as unspeakable.  Since family members don't share their pain, it is not surprising that unresolved and underground emotions erupt into self-destructive behaviors or in aggressive behaviors directed towards others.  Similarly, attempts to keep a secret, or overprotect other members from the pain of loss obstruct and slow down the process of healing.    

 The more central a person was to the day to day functioning of the family routine or to the fulfillment of the emotional needs of the family, the more difficult the adjustment after the loss.  The role and functions performed by the lost person have to be reorganized.  Family members should sit down and decide how they are going to distribute the responsibilities among themselves.  What was done by the lost person alone may now have to be done by several of the survivors.  How are you going to share the day to day responsibilities and functions that were earlier performed by your loved one?  Do not overlook the emotional needs of one another.  Those in fact should be the highest priority.  Make a plan to emotionally support a family member or members who are more vulnerable than yourself and all those who are likely to hurt most.     

 Family members who have the closest knowledge of the circumstances of the loss, and of the feelings and thoughts of the loved one in the last moments, should share that knowledge with those who couldn't be present at those moments.  Provide the essential details of loss to all family members.  Don't leave children out.  Family members who don't have a personal knowledge of the circumstances or were not present at the time of the loss, needn't be afraid of asking for such details.  Have open communication regarding the facts and circumstances of the loss.  In families, where members do not share the loss-related facts, do not express feelings and thoughts related to loss, their emotions tend to go underground, and then resurface in the form of symptomatic behaviors such as, decline in performance, alcoholism, drug abuse, acting out behaviors, or physical illnesses.  

Return to Self Help 

Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



Click for Dr. Sharma's credentials
Dr. Vijai Sharma
Your Life Coach
By Telephone

Feedback- Let us know how we are doing

Terms and Conditions

Web site designed and maintained by Chanda Taylor