This paper evolved out of my interest in families and loss--
how grief is "done" in the interactive system of
the family. Looking at whole families (or even defining what
a "whole family" is) is a daunting challenge, so
I initially elected to look at a smaller family unit, the
marital dyad. My goal was to understand dyadic grief, and
from that to go on to understand family grief.
In looking at grief within families, I have taken a particular
view of grief. More than just a psychological, emotional
and somatic response to a loss, it is the result of the sense
of devastation that comes from the loss of meaning dependent
on a significant relationship (Fowlkes, 1991; Marris, 1982).
The more central the relationship to one's own life, the
greater the sense of loss (Bugan, 1983).
Following a loss, meaning must be attributed to the loss
in such a way as to allow one to regain a sense of order,
control and purpose in life. Accordingly, those aspects of
the assumptive world, the set of assumptions one holds about
how life "ought" to be (Parkes, 1972), that were
disrupted by the loss must be reconstructed. The loss must
then be integrated into the new, revised assumptive world.
The process of questioning assumptions that serve as the
basis for other beliefs results in some degree of psychological
and emotional upheaval (Janoff-Bulman, 1992) which also can
lead to disruption of interpersonal and relational processes.
The approach I take here is grounded in two conceptual
frameworks, construct psychology and symbolic interactionism.
According to construct psychology, one does not simply experience
life. Instead, people construct models that help them to
understand their past and present experiences and to predict
what might happen in the future (Kelly, 1955). In symbolic
interactionism, these models are seen as socially constructed;
through interaction with others, one's subjective views are
given objective reality (Berger & Luckman, 1966). In
a sense, the social surround is used as a tool for confirming
one's internally constructed model of reality. The family
is an integral part of this social construction of reality.
Attempting to understand the process of grief as it affects
and is affected by family dynamics is difficult. In research,
intervention, and common thought, grief is conceptualized
most often as an individual response to loss with little
attention paid to family processes (Gelcer, 1986; Raphael,
1983; Walsh & McGoldrick, 1991). When attention is paid
to the family context, a shift usually is made to looking
at the family as a system, with little attention given to
individual, intrapsychic processes (e.g., Detmer & Lamberti,
1991; Gelcer, 1986). Here, I contend that, in order to truly
understand the nature of grief in families, it is necessary
to recognize that both individual and relational factors
are operating and that these must be considered simultaneously.
Grief within the family, then, consists of the interplay
of individual family members grieving in the social and relational
context of the family, with each family members affecting
and being affected by the others.
Families and Social Confirmation of Reality
In his discussion of the family's role in construction of
reality, Reiss (1981) referred to fundamental beliefs, assumptions
and orientations shared by family members as their family
paradigm. He conceptualized this as a system-level phenomenon
in which "assumptions are shared by all family members,
despite the disagreements, conflicts, and differences that
exist in the family." (p. 1) Similarly, family definition
of stressor events (Hill, 1949), family perceptions (McCubbin & Patterson,
1983), and the family's world view (Patterson & Garwick,
1992) have been proposed as belief systems held by whole
In speaking with and, more importantly, listening to marital
partners describe their loss experiences, I have become increasingly
uncomfortable with this conception of beliefs as a whole
family phenomenon. I now take a view that the is consistent
with that of Broderick (1993), that "only an individual
can have a belief or value or world view or an understanding
of something." (p. 186)
At least in part because of my altered view, I have come
to the following realization: Families do not grieve. Only
individuals grieve and they do so in several contexts, one
of which is the family. In the process of grieving in the
family context, each family member makes certain assumptions
about others in the family, one of which may be that because
they have lost the same individual, their grief should be
the same. Alternatively, some may also assume a shared view
that their loss is more significant than that of others,
that they have suffered more because of the nature of the
relationship they shared with the deceased. They may also
believe that the loss was less significant for themselves
and may be uncomfortable with the expectation that they should "put
on a show of feelings" to accommodate other family members.
Finally, due to their need to socially confirm the reality
of the loss and its impact on their assumptive world, family
members may attribute greater similarity in beliefs within
the family than might actually exist.
In a sense, we as researchers and interventionists may
inadvertently support the idea that family members, in losing
the same person, will experience the same grief. Our use
of language may contribute to the reification of this conception.
For example, when we speak of family grief or say that we
work with grieving families we contribute to an image of
something taking place at a system level that does not exist.
Systems do not grieve. Family members make assumptions about
each other that help them to deal with their own grief and
certain behavioral patterns that facilitate or impede grieving
among family members may be negotiated in the family.
Family members co-exists in an interactive system of confirmation
and disconfirmation of beliefs expressed by each member.
Families are made up of individuals who, because of their
continuing relationship, attribute meaning to each other's
behavior and will act "as if" that attribution
is accurate unless persuaded otherwise. Because of this "as
if" quality to their observations and interactions with
others in the family (i.e., behaving as if their basic beliefs
are the same), they can function as if they both agree (or
agree to disagree) on the meaning of the loss. Behaviors
are interpreted, comments are assessed, all within the context
of each member's assumptions about how their family relationships
should progress. In fact, even though family members may
not share a reality in the sense that their thoughts match,
their need to believe that they hold a shared view appears
to be strong. An example of this can be found in the tremendous
difficulty parents have with accepting that their spouse
is grieving in a way that is different from their own (Gilbert & Smart,
1992; Peppers & Knapp, 1980).
It is important to note that the family's involvement in
construction of reality is not restricted to a loss situation;
it is an ongoing process. In their daily interactions, family
members may consider and validate each other's view of what
has happened, is happening, and will happen (Reiss, 1981).
As they encounter new information in their environment, they
compare and attempt to confirm their beliefs, opinions, hunches,
and theories with each other. If family members see their
subjective views confirmed by others in the family, these
views are given objective reality, i.e., what they perceive
comes to be seen as reality because significant others also
see it that way (Berger & Luckman, 1966; Fowlkes, 1991;
Patterson & Garwick, 1992); if not, they question their
own or the other's perceptions and formation of an objective
reality is made more difficult. It is this historical pattern
of confirmation of reality in families that is brought to
play at the time of loss. It may explain why families at
an early stage in their evolution may experience problems
after a loss as they have had only limited opportunity to
develop a shared view.
In the case of loss, the perception that the family holds
a shared view serves the purpose of reducing uncertainty
about what has been lost, how they are to cope with that
loss and to go on with their lives. In this way, the meaning
of a particular death and the individual responses to it
are shaped by the system of beliefs in the family. In addition,
mutually validated views of the loss (i.e., shared meaning)
facilitate communication, provide structure and meaning to
their interactions, and serve as the basis for familial coping
behavior (McCubbin & Patterson, 1983; Patterson & Garwick,
1992; Reiss, 1981).
Differential Grief in Families
In discussing family response to loss, Bowlby (1980) has
suggested that successful completion of the grief process
among family members requires above all else that marital
partners grieve in tandem. That is, both partners must grieve
together and provide support and comfort to one another.
The logical extension of this view is that all family members
should grieve together and provide support and comfort to
each other. Yet, the reality of grief often is in conflict
with this desired picture. Dissimilar, or incongruent (Peppers & Knapp,
1980) grief appears to be the norm. Rosenblatt and his colleagues
(Rosenblatt, Spoentgen, Karis, Dahl, Kaiser & Elde, 1991)
indicated that if two people experience a mutual loss, they
are the least likely to be able to help each other. Rather
than helping them to grieve together, the "baggage" of
their relationship with each other and the deceased impedes
common grief resolution.
Ultimately, it appears that conflict over expectations
of appropriate behavior surrounds grief within the family
system. As Gilbert and Smart (1992) found, the expectation
that they would grieve in the same way actually added to
the stress felt by bereaved couples. At the same time, acceptance
of the differences inherent in their grief styles and the
ability to take a positive view of these differences served
to strengthen the marriages of couples they studied.
Thus, within the family, the form of grief taken by each
family member will have its own unique character. Many factors
contribute to differences among family members: The definition
of the severity of the loss may vary. Some family members
may see the loss as devastating, others may see it as distressing
and others may find it a relief. At different times, individual
family members may see changes in their own interpretation
of the loss. The meaning of the relationship that each family
member had with the deceased will have been unique and it
is this meaning that will need to be processed and worked
through (Rando, 1984). The relationship grievers have with
each other and any emotional legacies they share from the
past may contribute to differences among family members (Bowen,
1991). The degree to which family members are able to anticipate
and prepare for the loss is a factor. Ambiguity about who
or what has been lost, whether or not there was a loss, or
if this should be seen as a loss can lead to conflict (Boss,
1991; Rosenblatt & Burns, 1986). Such ambiguous losses
often lead to disenfranchised grief (Doka, 1989) and may
result in grieving individuals feeling stigmatized in their
own family (Fowlkes, 1991). The gender, age and/or developmental
stage of the grieving individuals will affect the ways in
which they grieve. Because families are made up of males
and females who cover a wide range of ages and developmental
stages, these alone contribute to a great deal of strain.
Behaviorally, they may differ, with different family members
finding different coping styles more helpful in resolving
their grief. For couples, in particular, differences in cultural
background will affect each partner's grief style. Finally,
some family members may find that issues surrounding the
loss may never be resolved completely (Wortman & Silver,
1989) and episodes of grief may recur many years after the
loss (Rosenblatt & Burns, 1986).
The end result of all of this will be that a great deal
is occurring simultaneously, as each family member attempts
to come to grips with his/her loss. Intense emotions may
be experienced as the reality of a future without the deceased
is faced, accepted, and integrated into each family member's
assumptive world. The interaction of these differences and
related conflicts may come together to place tremendous strain
on the family (Miles, 1984). Given that family members have
only each other's behavior and imperfectly communicated information
on which to base their interpretation of each other's grief
states, it is not surprising that such conflicts occur.
Resolving Grief in a Family Context
Given the fact that an identical experience of loss is highly
unlikely, if not impossible, how then can grief be resolved
in a family context? How can families survive intact after
a loss? Jordan (1990) has suggested that there are three
essential tasks of grief resolution in families: There must
be a recognition of the loss and acknowledgement of the grief
felt by members. In order for families to continue to function,
certain roles must be carried out by its members. Therefore,
the family must be reorganized after the loss. Finally, there
must be a reinvestment of family members in this new family.
In order to carry out these tasks, family members must work
to understand what the family and its members need as they
redefine what "family" means and how they will
assess this new meaning.
The most essential element in grief resolution in a family
is the ability to engage in open and honest communication
(Gilbert & Smart, 1992; Figley, 1983; Raphael, 1983;
Rando, 1984; Silver & Wortman, 1980). If the loss is
to be acknowledged as real and the grief made a collective
experience, members must be able to communicate clearly with
each other (Broderick, 1993; Jordan, 1990). Supportive communication
facilitates discussion of thoughts and emotions and makes
it easier for members to share their beliefs about the loss
and its meanings for them. One important element of the communication
process and one that cannot be overlooked is that family
members must engage in the simple but difficult act of listening
to each other (Gilbert & Smart, 1992).
Sharing certain aspects of the loss is helpful, and this
may consist of such things as family members spending time
together or working to achieve certain goals together. Paradoxically,
differences among family members must also be allowed and
accepted. Rather than striving for a single view of the loss,
or promoting a single style of grieving, family members need
to come to recognize the similarities in their grieving,
but also to reframe the differences as strengths. As stated
before, sensitivity to the unique needs of each family member
is important. It may by necessary for family members who
have particularly troubling issues to work them out separately
from other family members (e.g., is a support group or individual
therapy) (Gilbert & Smart, 1992).
One of the most distinctive characteristics Gilbert and
Smart found of couples who reported very little relational
conflict was the positive view these partners held of each
other and their relationship. The less positive their view,
the greater the depth of their continued grieving and its
negative impact on their relationship. Interestingly, many
partners found it difficult to maintain a negative view of
their spouse and shifted toward a more positive stance. It
may be that family members, having experienced a largely
positive relationship before the loss, are predisposed to
seeing positive aspects of their relationship and of each
other's behavior, thus allowing them to build positive on
Clearly, the family's experience following loss is far more
complex than one might think at first, with each family member
attempting to come to terms with the loss and its resulting
effects on the family as a whole. At the same time, they
may be attempting to act as supporter to other family members
as they grieve the loss. To simply view one person as the
aggrieved party and others in the family as potential supporters
is not enough. Awareness of the variation in intensity of
grief and in meaning for individual family members, along
with acceptance of differences in grief style will reduce
the extent to which each griever feels disenfranchised or
stigmatized in the family. From this, positive family interactions
and individual grief resolution can be promoted.
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The paper was presented at the 1994
Annual Meeting of the Association for Death Education and
Counseling, held in Portland, OR, in April, 1994.
Kathleen R. Gilbert, Ph.D. [email protected] Department of Applied Health
Science, 812-855-5209 (voice) Poplars 619 812-855-7092 (fax) Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405 USA
27 March 1995