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Grieving as a Family: Holding Space for Loss and Each Other

Open Sky Family Services Team

November is Children’s Grief Awareness Month. As a member of the National Alliance on Children’s Grief (NACG), Open Sky is committed to building awareness around the needs of grieving children, teens, and families. As we highlight this important issue this month, we encourage you to visit the NACG website for helpful resources and activities focused on supporting grieving children. 

What is Grief?

The American Psychological Association defines grief as the anguish experienced after a significant loss, usually the death of a beloved person. Grief often includes physiological distress, separation anxiety, confusion, yearning, obsessive dwelling on the past, and apprehension about the future. Intense grief can become life-threatening through disruption of the immune system, self-neglect, and suicidal thoughts.  

Types of grief can include: 

  • the loss of a family member or friend, 
  • the death of a beloved pet, 
  • a cancer diagnosis, 
  • the end of a serious relationship/divorce, 
  • trauma/sadness associated with adoption, and 
  • the loss of a perceived future. 

A broader definition of grief can be whenever something is lost, and there is pain in its absence. Another common way to describe grief is as love with no place to go. 

Experiencing Grief as a Family

Family grieving can be a complicated emotional dynamic, and a range of factors will affect how a family experiences grief. Grief shows up in families in many ways, with each family member responding in their own way to the same event. Each family and family member will experience a variety of emotions, reactions, behaviors, and coping mechanisms.  

There is often an assumption that experiencing grief as a family is a supportive experience, however, because someone you love may be angry, depressed, anxious, or isolating, it can be difficult to know how to connect with and support one another in grief. Additionally, a loss will affect a family’s functioning and dynamics because, as an integrated system of relationships, the family is changed forever, and its members must reorganize. 

How Does a Traumatic Loss Affect Families?

A family system typically provides resources to meet the basic needs of its members—safety, love, food, shelter, health, and so on. Traumatic events and loss can impact how a family performs these functions and how relationships between family members unfold due to grief following a loss.   

Some possible impacts on family dynamics and functioning due to grief may include: 

  • Family members don’t know how to talk to each other; each person struggles to understand what has happened and how they feel about it.  
  • Increased impatience, misunderstandings, and arguments between family members. 
  • Parents feel unsure about how to help their children. 
  • Children experience confusion and sadness if they see their parents struggling or less available. 
  • Communication breaks down as each family member struggles to come to terms with what has happened.  
  • Individual family members feel less attached or involved with one another but still need connection. 
  • Children do not want or are unable to go to school.  
  • Parents do not want or are unable to go to work.  
  • Teenagers become argumentative, demanding, or rebellious. 
  • Household schedules lapse—chores are missed, regular mealtimes are disrupted, or recreation is neglected.  
  • Household responsibilities are disrupted; children may cook meals for a time, parents may feel unable to do tasks, or children may not want to be alone. 
  • Family members work so hard to help loved ones that they neglect to look after themselves.  

 Some of these impacts can profoundly affect the family’s immediate functioning, such as the loss of a job for a parent struggling to cope or the inability of a child to go to school due to grief. While many families move through their grief and establish a degree of continuity over time as they heal, some families may experience impacts that last for years, especially related to the anniversary of the loss.  

Factors Affecting a Grief Response

Just as individuals experience grief differently, families also respond to a shared loss in unique ways, depending on several factors leading up to the loss event. Dr. Murray Bowen, the founder of family systems theory, identifies factors that may determine the severity of impacts of grief on a family: 

The details of the loss.  

Was the loss sudden, or was it expected? Was it peaceful or violent?  

Supportive familial and social connections outside the nuclear family. 

The availability of extended family and other social relationships can be a protective factor for a family that has experienced a loss. More isolated families without these connections are more vulnerable to becoming overwhelmed as they carry a heavier load of grief, unable to disperse it among others. 

The role of the deceased person.  

While any death will result in deep grief for a family, the loss of a family member who holds more essential responsibilities, such as a parent, will result in more significant challenge for recovery. 

The level of cohesion and support within a family.  

When a family functions well and is cohesive and supports one another, they will be better equipped to deal with a traumatic loss. A less cohesive and less emotionally mature family may struggle more with intense emotions and responses to loss. 

Other factors that may affect a family’s ability to respond to a traumatic loss are the level of communication within the family and the accessibility of outside supportive resources.  

Tips for Family Members Supporting Each Other During Grief

  • Acknowledge that what you are experiencing is grief. Those who are focused on caregiving for others, especially parents focusing on children, may not identify what they’re feeling as grief. 
  • Acknowledge that grief is not something to be solved or to get over; it is a necessary process that we go through. 
  •  Give yourself and your family members the space and safe container to grieve in your/their own ways. 
  • Respect the range of grief timelines. Family members will grieve at their own pace. 
  • Hold space for the range of feelings, responses, behaviors, and coping mechanisms you and your family members may express. 
  • Set and respect boundaries. Understand your own limitations on your capacity to be supportive and respect those set by other family members. 
  • No one is required to look on the bright side when in grief. While some take comfort in what they might consider a silver lining in a loss, statements like, “She is in a better place,” or “You still have a lot to be grateful for,” may not make someone in grief feel better.  
  • Know when to seek outside professional help. At times, one’s grief can be so overwhelming that support from a trained professional is needed. Awareness of indicators pointing to the need for outside help is important. These may include:
    • self-harm, suicidal thoughts, or suicidal ideation; 
    • extreme anger or irritability; 
    • difficulty sleeping; 
    • feelings of hopelessness; 
    • social isolation; 
    • increased difficulties in relationships; and 
    • increased health issues. 

Supporting Families in Grief at Open Sky

At Open Sky, we see students and families experiencing a range of grief responses. The safe container provided through the combination of wilderness and a supportive therapeutic environment is a powerful catalyst for processing grief. At Open Sky, we: 

  • acknowledge that individuals don’t move on from grief—they are supported in moving forward with grief.  
  • provide a natural, healing, distraction-free environment that allows students to better understand their experiences and emotions related to grief. 
  • facilitate many therapeutic opportunities for students to work through their grief while in the field, such as mindfulness activities, yoga, hiking, expressive arts, individual therapy, and group work. 
  • encourage students to receive support from their peers and accept the comfort living in a community provides. 
  • hold space for family members experiencing grief through weekly parent coaching calls, allowing for the range of emotions people may experience as they process what they are going through. 
  • support family members as they engage in a parallel process through the Family Pathway, providing an opportunity to work through their own sadness alongside their child in the field. 
  • ensure that students and their family members feel heard and validated as they express the range of feelings associated with their grief. Family Quest is great opportunity to engage in this work. 

November 28th, 2022

Open Sky Family Services Team