Families are more varied than almost anything in the world. Snowflake variations and bird species may win out, but families certainly provide more drama. Families, after all, are the reason we have things like daytime talk shows and sitcoms. Families are also the reason why many of us can continue to go on when it seems like life could not get any harder. The people who know us best and who have been through the worst and best with us are often the people we fall back on when we experience grief.
However, when there’s a death in the family, it may seem like the glue that binds becomes a sticky mess that does more harm than good. Families and grief often don’t go well together. We expect someone to be there, and they can’t be, or we find ourselves in the middle of a feud when our only intention was to talk through dividing up our loved one’s belongings. This is more common than not, and it can feel really confusing to experience this, particularly when a family has provided the support you’ve needed in the past through difficult times.
How Supportive is Your Family?
It’s important to assess where you’re at with your family as you navigate this period of time, knowing that the stress caused by a death can last for a relatively long time. Most people find that they feel they’re grieving for at least 1 year, and sometimes for 2 or more years. Of course, grief never goes away, but we can differentiate between the time when we’re “actively grieving” vs. the time when life is more normal and grief is in the background. In order to take stock of your family situation, ask yourself some questions:
- Have I ever been able to rely on family members?
- Have we fought when things have been stressful, or have my family relationships been a source of peace and support?
- Which relationship(s) embody the most trust?
- Do I feel that my family accepts me just as I am?
- Do I like being around my family?
Some people may laugh at these questions, knowing that the answers will all point to strife or difficulty most of the time. Others may feel that the answers bring up more confusion than clarity, and that there is ambivalence in how they view their relationships. Finally, others may find that their family is largely supportive and has been a source of joy and connection for a long time. Whatever it is that you experience as you think about these things, just know that your family and your place in your family are both unique, and everyone experiences something different while at the same time there are probably a lot of people who can relate to the feelings you have about these things.
How Grief Changes Us
If your family is typically supportive, but you’re experiencing something different right now, there may be some really good reasons for this. Every single person processes their grief in their own way, with some tending towards being more internal and not talking through it, while others find a lot of relief in talking through things. Still others are more pragmatic in how they process, and find themselves putting a lot of energy into doing things to either help with their grief or to simply occupy their time. There is nothing wrong with any of these styles of processing, although it may be hard to understand another style from your own. This is the biggest crux for most people in their families, at a time when they are struggling to feel connected and needing a lot of support. Grief has a way of making us feel isolated, and if family has typically been a place where we feel connected, we expect our siblings or parents to be there for us. However, these people are struggling as well, in their own ways, and they may be wondering the same thing that you’re wondering: Why do I feel so alone in this? Where is everyone? The truth is, when we’re grieving, we all have such a strong need to be heard and understood. We all need to know that we’re not alone. And, we all need to know that our way of grieving is completely fine and normal. Sometimes providing the ear to listen or the reassurance to other family members can feel challenging. It’s important to get clear about when you’re able to give, and when you need to seek out support for yourself, on your terms. It’s also important to get clear about what it really means when a family member can’t be there for you; and the answer is that in certain moments they simply can’t give anything and it has nothing to do with you.
If you find yourself feeling frustrated, alone, or angry during this time, that may be a good sign that you need to get some support outside of your family, from a group or a professional who can devote all of their attention to you. When we give ourselves what we need, we can then be there for others in a way that is truly genuine.
This article was originally printed in Agape Healthcare’s Winter 2014 Issue of Grief Lines.