Experiencing the loss of a loved one can be a very challenging and emotional experience for anyone. The grieving process is often complicated, which can make it difficult to know how to support someone going through it. Adding to this complexity, family dynamics can also contribute to potential conflicts due to differing opinions, emotions, and coping mechanisms.
Bereavement can be defined as a shared experience of mourning and the reorganization of family processes following the loss of a loved one, which requires healthy adaptation skills for acceptance and transformation of identity. Still, it can also result in maladaptive patterns if dysfunctionally dealt with.
One of the most important things you can do to support a grieving family member is to be present and available. However, navigating family dynamics in bereavement can be challenging, especially when everyone is dealing with their own emotions and coping mechanisms.
This article will discuss how to find purpose after losing a loved one and how to handle family dynamics during bereavement. While it’s completely normal to feel at a loss for words or unsure of how to help, certain things can be unhelpful or even harmful during this time. By understanding what actions and attitudes to avoid and what to do instead, you can support your loved one through their grieving process and help them discover life’s meaning and purpose again.
Understanding the grieving process
When someone experiences loss, it’s common to feel sad and go through different emotions. It’s called grieving, and there are different stages to it. Knowing these stages can help you understand and deal with the feelings better. Kübler-Ross (2014) identified five stages of grief, including:
Stage 1: Denial
At this stage, you may not believe or you try to avoid accepting that you have lost someone. You may also feel a sense of shock and numbness during this time.
Stage 2: Anger
As the initial shock and disbelief of denial start to fade, it’s common to feel angry after experiencing a loss. This anger can be directed at many things, such as yourself, your family member, or even a higher power.
It’s understandable to feel overwhelmed and confused during this time as you try to come to terms with the loss and how it has affected your life. Just know that these emotions are a natural part of the grieving process and that it’s okay to feel them.
Stage 3: Bargaining
During the third stage of grief, you may try to make deals with yourself or a higher power to stop the loss from happening. You may promise to do something in return for the person or thing you are losing.
This is a way to control the situation and avoid the inevitable. However, this stage usually doesn’t work out in the end, and the loss still occurs.
Stage 4: Depression
It’s common to feel sad and hopeless after experiencing a loss, especially as you start to realize how it will affect your life from now on. This is called depression, and it’s a normal part of the grieving process.
It’s important to know that you’re not alone in feeling this way, and there are people who can support you through it. Seeking help from loved ones or a professional can be really helpful in managing these feelings.
Stage 5: Acceptance
When you reach the stage of acceptance, it means that you have learned to live with the loss and have found a way to move forward. You have come to the reality that things have changed and adapted your life to fit the new circumstances.
It’s important to note that acceptance doesn’t mean that the person has completely moved on and forgotten about the loss, but rather that they have found a way to integrate it into their lives and continue living.
Navigating family dynamics during bereavement
Losing a loved one can trigger various emotional and physical responses (Jaaniste et al., 2017). Psychological responses to parental bereavement can be particularly challenging. This type of loss can lead to heightened anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and reduced quality of life. Individuals may also struggle with feelings of guilt, anger, and loneliness.
Physical outcomes that have been reported in response to parental bereavement include a greater risk of cardiovascular problems, such as heart attacks and strokes, as well as an increased risk of cancer.
Additionally, those who experience parental bereavement may have higher mortality rates due to natural and unnatural causes. As a family, supporting each other during this time and navigating the loss together is vital.
Dealing with the loss of a loved one is already challenging, and navigating the dynamics of a family during this time can make it even more difficult. However, adapted from the University of Rochester (n.d.) and Utah State University (n.d.), below are practical steps that you can take to help each other cope and support one another through the grieving process:
Accept the changes that come with loss
When you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, there are a lot of changes that happen. Some of the traditions you’re used to might need to be adjusted, and people’s roles within the family may change too. It can also be tough to get through special occasions like holidays and birthdays, not to mention the death anniversary. That’s why it’s important to plan ahead and be prepared for these tough times as a family.
Respect each family member’s grieving process
Avoid trying to fit their emotions to other people’s expectations. Everyone has a different relationship with the deceased and will need to work through their loss in their own way. Acknowledge and appreciate differences in mourning, as grief can be expressed differently. Remember that different “languages” of grief are neither better nor worse, but just different.
Adjust to the current life
If the loved one plays a significant role in the family, finding ways for other members to fulfill these responsibilities or let them go is essential. This is not about replacing the loved one, who is irreplaceable, but about adjusting to life now in ways that promote long-term well-being.
Look after your loved ones
It’s essential to be there for your child and let them know they aren’t alone in their feelings. As a role model for grieving, sharing about your sorrow can help your child feel less isolated.
Supporting a grieving family member
It can be challenging to see someone you care about suffer the loss of a loved one. Knowing how to support them can be overwhelming, but it’s important to remember that you can take steps to help them through the grieving process. Adapted from the University of Washington (n.d.), here are some tips to keep in mind:
Allow them to grieve
Gently give them the time they need to process their loss rather than expecting them to adhere to a set timeline for their grief.
Acknowledge their emotions
Encourage them to express their emotions in healthy ways, such as journaling or talking with a therapist.
Give them space
Offering space for them to have alone time to remember their loved ones can also be helpful while encouraging them to maintain healthy routines such as regular meals and exercise.
Consider other ways to support
During times of grief, suggesting relaxing activities and encouraging hobbies can provide a sense of normalcy. Providing helpful resources and information about grieving can also help individuals understand and navigate their emotions. Additionally, creating opportunities for families to come together and cherish memories of their loved ones can be a powerful way to honor their memory and provide comfort during this difficult time.
What not to do when supporting a grieving family member
Losing a loved one is one of the most challenging things anyone can go through. It can be hard to know what to say or do to help someone who is grieving, especially when you haven’t experienced a similar loss yourself.
Unfortunately, even with the best intentions, sometimes our efforts to provide comfort and support can unintentionally do more harm than good. To avoid adding to the person’s pain, it’s crucial to be mindful of the following practices adapted from The Recovery Village (2022) that are not helpful when supporting a grieving family member:
Don’t try to force closure
Closure is not always possible or necessary for grieving people, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Avoid suggesting they should “move on” or “find closure,” as it can be insensitive and dismissive of their emotions.
Don’t rush the grieving process
Grief is a personal journey that takes time and is different for everyone. Trying to speed up the process can be counterproductive and may make them feel like they’re not allowed to process their emotions fully.
Don’t downplay their emotions
It’s essential to validate their feelings and acknowledge the pain they’re experiencing. Minimizing their grief or telling them how they should feel can be hurtful and make them feel unsupported.
Don’t make assumptions
Everyone’s experience with grief is unique, so avoid making assumptions about what they need or how they’re feeling. Ask them how you can support them, and listen to what they say.
Grief can be isolating, and showing up for your loved one is important. Even if you don’t know what to say or do, just being present and available can make a difference.
It is important to remember that grief is a complex and individual experience that can be challenging and transformative. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting a grieving family member, the information provided in this article may help you understand some of the key considerations and practices that can be helpful. It is of the utmost importance to be patient, kind, and non-judgmental when offering support and to avoid well-intentioned but ultimately harmful behaviors.
Lastly, the most important thing you can do for a grieving family member is to be there for them in whatever way they need. Remember, supporting a grieving family member is not about “fixing” their grief but rather being there and offering a listening ear and a helping hand. With patience, empathy, and understanding, you can help your loved one navigate their grief and find purpose after loss.
If you would like to see more resources on bereavement, visit the Family Science Labs. Using the research of the Institute for Life Management Science, the lab produces courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Check out the Family Science Labs today.
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