When a family grieves a loss, a barrage of different emotions, reactions, and coping mechanisms will emerge, likely at different paces. The process of grief may include shutting down, crying, sleeping, struggling to sleep, overeating, struggling with appetite, angry outbursts, irritability, moments of levity, numbness, depression, and denial. Some family members will want to discuss the loss while others withdraw into silence. Some will want to surround themselves with loved ones while others need more time alone. Some may find themselves in a state of denial (the mind’s way of protecting itself against overwhelming pain) while others move more quickly toward acceptance.
Grief shows up in families in different ways—including conflict, discomfort, and frustration. The various iterations of grief experienced by a family can lead to feelings of frustration at different styles of grieving, fears that they are not “doing grief” correctly, and feeling overwhelmed at the sheer amount of emotional need. While grief will never be easy or tidy, these five principles can help a family orient itself:
1. Respect different forms of grief.
First things first. There is no perfect grief process. But in a home full of people processing a loss, family members might wonder if their individual mourning style or feeling is “correct.” Individuals may compare their grief response to their family members’, and feel either guilt for or judgment of others’ responses.
Give yourself space to grieve in your way and your family members space to grieve in theirs. Respect the family member that seems wrapped up in the practical details of the aftermath; that may be their form of self-care. Respect the stoic family member, the silent family member, and the laughing family member. We cannot know each other’s internal world, and there are many ways to heal. If somebody’s form of grieving brings up discomfort for you, notice it and perhaps leave the room. Avoid making a person feel bad about their chosen way of grieving, as long as it does not hurt others.
2. Respect different paces of grief.
For some, grief overtakes the mourner immediately following a loss. For others, the enormity of what occurred may not sink in for weeks or even months. In the event of a death after a protracted illness, as in the case of many Alzheimer’s patients, family members may begin grieving before the death occurs, while others only absorb the news when the individual dies. People’s brains process grief differently and at different paces. Keep that principle in mind when you notice your family members’ response to loss.
3. Make room for feelings.
Part of respecting different forms of grief is making room for each other’s feelings. If you’re a parent, remind your children that it’s OK to feel sad and it’s OK not to understand and it’s OK if they feel OK. Be the family member that makes room for different experiences. Grief is confusing, and nobody knows exactly how it should look. If you’re in a mental space to check in with others, do so. Permission to feel complicated, messy feelings is vital to the healing process.
4. Set boundaries.
Know what you can give, and be OK if you can’t give right now: It is vitally important to remember that family members may not be able to meet all of each other’s needs at all times. While family support can provide solace, some may feel incapable of helping others through their pain. That is OK.
We must care for ourselves before caring for others, and we do nobody any favors if we deplete ourselves. If approached by a family member seeking support, it is OK to tell that person, “I can see how deeply you’re hurting. I’m hurting too. I want to be here for you, but I don’t have the emotional capacity right now.” (In my next article, I’ll talk about how to determine whose job it is to comfort who in a house of grief.)
5. Seek outside help.
A therapist is equipped to help a person work through grief at that person’s pace. Seeking professional help is a normal and healthy way to work through a loss.
Grief is messy and uneven, cascading through families in unpredictable ways. But when families make room for grief in all of its forms, they create an environment that honors the process.
Read more about grief here.