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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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: