Unit 2 -- The Family Context
Grief in a Family Context --HPER F460/F560
This unit underwent a major revision in 2001.
Goals for this Unit
As we saw with the grief of individuals, grief in the family context is approached from a variety of
perspectives. The intent of this unit is to address several of these, providing you with the
opportunity to consider and apply these perspectives. We also continue to explore cultural diversity, here in relation to the way in which grief is played out in the family context.
Some things to think about as you work on this unit:
- What do you mean when you think about "family?" Is it a group of people, a "haven in a
heartless world," a state of being? How about family as your history and future?
- What are your expectations of family? This is important, because it affects what you will
identify with as you work on this unit and on the remainder of the course. This is your insider's
perspective on the family, and it colors your view of family and what you feel comfortable in
"allowing" others to have in their own families.
Gilbert, K. R. (1995). Family loss and grief. In R. D. Day, K. R. Gilbert, B. H. Settles, & W. R. Burr, (Eds.), Research and theory in family science (pp. 304-318), Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Pub. Co.
Gilbert, K. R. (1996). 'We've had the same loss, why don't we have the same grief?' Loss and differential grief in families. Death Studies, 20, 269-283.
Lipton, S. T. (June 30, 1995). The mourning gradient. Ethnic News Watch, 60-.
For the most part, our understanding of grief concentrates on the grieving individual. In general,
the family is seen as a supportive resources for bereaved family members. This has provided a
limited sense of how family members deal with multiple roles and varied pressures in the grieving
Grief in families is a complicated thing, because each person must deal with his or her own grief
while also coping with that of others in the family. When the loss affects all family members, the
expectation may be that others in our family will be supportive and understanding. After all, they
have experienced the same loss, haven't they? In the case of the loss directly affecting only one (or
few) family member, do others grieve too, and what exactly is it that they are grieving over? How far does this "secondary" grief extend beyond the primary griever(s)?
Loss in families can be tremendously painful and can contribute to the breakdown of the family
system. It can also serve as a catalyst for positive change. These positive effects can be facilitated
in a number of ways and these will be addressed throughout the course.
The Effects of Loss on the Family System
With the loss of a family member, the family system will change. Family structure is modified as a
result of the loss and the family system must be reorganized to adapt to that change. If the person
who is now gone had played a central role in the functioning of the family and the family is
relatively rigid in identifying that specific individual in that role, adaptation to the loss will be made
more difficult. If they are more flexible, adaptation will be made easier.
Much work in this area focuses on the mutual loss of a family member, but families also are indirectly
affected by the loss experience of individual or few family members. Impacts of the loss may
spread through multiple generations in the family and may not be restricted to the generations that directly experience the
loss. Grief has an effect across multiple generations and within the extended family culture.
Although these familial effects are often thought of as negative, they need not be. For example,
previous successful experience with a loss can provide families with shared coping resources as
well as perceptions of family competence.
Before I go on to describe a variety of aspects of family systems, I'd like to
define what a system is: A system is an ordered composition of elements in a unified whole and the
whole is more than the sum of its parts (Simon, Stierlin & Wynne, 1985). A
systems perspective, in looking at grief, considers the way relationships within
the family and among family members as well as the relationship between the
family and other elements of the social environment influence individual and
Considering The Family as a System
I would like to address some important concepts from family systems theory before I go on to
other aspects of the family context of loss. These concepts have particular relevance to grief and family systems. I would like to point out that there are many other conceptions of families as systems, and variation in how these concepts, listed below, are defined.
Feel free to contact me for suggestions on other approaches to systems. But, for a starting point in our discussion, we will use these concepts, defined as follow:
As a system, the family exists in paradox. It needs stability so that family members know their
roles and can carry them out with the security that they are "doing it right." Stability provides
continuity over time. At the same time, the system needs to be able to adapt to the changes in and
among family members. The result is a balancing act. If there is too much change, the system
breaks down; if too much stability the system atrophies and dies away.
- Wholeness (holism): A system is defined as a
whole made up of interacting parts (Cook & Oltjenbruns, 1989). Members
of a family system interact in reciprocal relationships, responding to one
another in the context of roles. The central thesis of holism is that, in
order to understand the family system, the whole system must be considered,
rather than breaking the system down into its parts.
- Transgenerational Effects: According to
Bowen (1991), unresolved loss disrupts normal family process and this can
extend into future generations if it is not resolved. The experiences of
Holocaust survivors and their descendants are well-documented examples of
- Family Communication:
behavior is viewed as interpersonal messages that contain both factual and
relationship information (Krauss & Jacobs, 1990). Thus, it is not
possible to not communicate. The exchange of information among family members and the quality
of their communication often are identified as an important, if not the most important, factor in
reconciliation of grief in the family system. Most frequently, families are urged to be open in
their communication. This is because a loss of access to others in the family, which is
characteristic of closed communication, often results in a deep sense of isolation in family
members. In her book Grief as a Family Process, Shapiro presents a more balanced view. She suggests that a
balance between open expression, especially of emotions, and their containment is the best
approach. Essentially, a system can only handle so much openness.
Beliefs: These are beliefs that are shared (or believed to be shared)
among family members.
- Family Myths: beliefs
that serve the same function as individual defense mechanisms (Cook &
Oltjenbruns, 1989; Simon, Stierlin & Wynne, 1985). They are accepted and
adhered to by family members that defend against disturbances or changes in
existing family relationships (Cook & Oltjenbruns, 1989). These can be
myths of harmony, myths of forgiveness and atonement or rescue myths (Stierlin,
- Family Secrets: this refers to topics
that carry negative emotional weight . They are not discussed, and
treated as if they do not exist, even though the entire family, or
members of the family know about them. Family secrets may be maintained
in the service of family myths (Simon, Stierlin & Wynne,
1985). A suicide that is not discussed, or the refusal to allow anyone
to discuss a death are examples.
- Roles: Social expectations and norms held
regarding an individual’s position and behavior within a group (Simon,
Stierlin & Wynne, 1985). Following the death of a family member, roles
may need to be reassigned or roles shared, with role behavior apportioned to
various family members (Walsh & McGoldrick, 1991).
- Rules are prescriptions for and proscriptions
against certain behaviors of all or some family members and are related to
appropriate role performance (Krauss & Jacobs, 1990). They may be
implicit (i.e., hidden) or explicit (i.e., known). Implicit rules are
believed to be more powerful in affecting family behavior; the fact that
they are hidden makes them powerful. With the loss, many implicit rules
become explicit, causing stress to the family. New rules must be created or
existing rules must be modified to adapt to the altered family system (Satir,
1988). A death results in disequilibrium in family rule systems and rules
may need to be changed to meet the needs of individual family members (Cook
& Oltjenbruns, 1989).
- Family Rituals: Rituals are composed by
metaphors, symbols and actions that are "packaged" in a highly
condensed, time-bounded and space-bounced, dramatic form to establish and
maintain family identity (Burr, Day & Bahr, 1993). Family rituals are
built around common symbols and symbolic actions that are familiar to family
members, providing an emotional anchor. They provide a sense of safety and
acceptance to members. Rituals serve five functions within families:
relating, changing, healing, believing and celebrating (Imber-Black &
Roberts, 1992). Imber-Black and Roberts (pp. 28-56) indicate that the relating
function addresses issues of expressing and maintaining relationships; changing
addresses transitions for self and others; healing is concerned with
recovery from relationship betrayal, trauma or loss; believing
functions are focused on voicing beliefs and making meaning; and celebrating
is concerned with affirming deep joy and honoring life with festivity.
Rituals serve a powerful function when families deal with loss and can
facilitate the necessary reorganization of families when a family member has
Family development addresses the process of change in the family system and
takes place interactively with development and change of family members
(Shapiro, 1994, 1996). Normative events can be anticipated and
planned for (e.g., marriage, births, retirement) while non-normative
events can not be anticipated are unusual and result in unexpected
change, are more likely to be experienced as crises, and are more likely to
result in the family life course being changed (e.g., divorce, death of a
child) (McCubbin & Figley, 1983).
- The family life cycle is one
view of normative change that is commonly used. The death of family member
and the related grief reconciliation is a long-term process and normal
development may act as complicate grief; indeed, what may appear as
pathological grief behavior may be developmentally appropriate behavior
(e.g., the perception of children’s approach and avoidance grief as
evidence of a lack of emotional involvement) (Shapiro, 1994). Families at
different points in their evolution will have different strengths and
weaknesses, as will family members in terms of their individual development.
Finally, transitions or other stressors encountered later in life may
function as triggers and bring family members back to the pain and memories
of earlier, unresolved losses.
- Family Structure: The family has a structure which includes hierarchies, boundaries and
subsystems. Loss of a family member or the loss of some aspect of a family member results in
structural change in the family.
- Hierarchy has three meanings in family
systems. It describe power aspects of relationship (i.e., who makes
decisions in family or carries more weight in decision-making); roles of
parents and children and boundaries between generations (i.e., structural
character between generations); and logical types and order of family
systems (i.e., systems and subsystems) (Simon, Stierlin & Wynne,
- Subsystems are made up of members of the
larger family system and may be made up of a single individual (Cook &
Oltjenbruns, 1989). Alliances or coalitions are particularly
close bonds between and among family members (Cook & Oltjenbruns). As
a result of unique subsystem relationships, each family member will
experience a different loss with the death of a family member.
- Boundaries are "lines" of demarcation determined by members of the system that
encloses the system and establishes those who are members of the system (Minuchin,
permeability of a boundary (i.e., the ability of others to enter the system and for
members to leave it) determines the degree of openness in that system.
- Because a death
within the family alters the system, boundary ambiguity (i.e., uncertainty as to who is
in and who is out of the system) may result (Boss, 1999). We will address this concept in greater
detail later in this course.
- Openness: System
openness and closedness refer to the extent to which a family is open or
closed to new information and to change. Open systems are dynamic and
open to events and feeling while closed systems are more rigid and
insensitive (Cook & Oltjenbruns, 1989).
- Homeostasis (related to equilibrium) refers
to the continuity of a system, a relatively steady internal state of a
system that is maintained through regulation the use of family norms and a
mutually reinforcing feedback loop (Krauss & Jacobs, 1990; Simon,
Stierlin & Wynne, 1985). Homeostasis in families will be disrupted by
the loss of a family member or a family member’s inability to maintain
role performance. Systems that are more open will be able to deal with this
better than more closed systems. The death of a family member creates a
structural instability that requires readjustment (Bowlby-West, 1983). The
first task of the family after the death of a member is to achieve a stable
equilibrium needed for ongoing family development (Shapiro, 1994).
- Morphogenesis/Morphostasis: Morphogenesis
is the ability of a system to change its form and morphostasis is the
ability of a system to hold its shape. These maintain a constant dynamic
tension in families (Simon, Stierlin & Wynne, 1985; Chubb, 1990). As a
system, the family exists in paradox. It needs stability so that family
members know their roles and can carry them out with the security that they
are "doing it right." Stability provides continuity over time. At
the same time, the system needs to be able to adapt to the changes in and
among family members. The result is a balancing act (Shapiro, 1994). If
there is too much change, the system breaks down; if too much stability the
system atrophies and dies away. Most typically, the family adapts to the
changes resulting from a loss to reclaim new structures and functions
related to the new memberships and the perceived strengths of the members.
- Equifinity/ Equipotentiality. With equifinality,
the same result occurs, even though individual family members begin at
different starting points. With equipotentiality, different endings
can result from the same starting point. The same event leads to different
outcomes and a given outcome may result from different events (Simon,
Stierlin & Wynne, 1985). Thus, family members may achieve the same
resolution of a loss, even though they started at different points or they
may reach very different grieving conclusions, even though they were quite
- Family Resilience: "The property of a
family system that enables it to maintain its established patterns of
functioning after being challenged and confronted by risk factors...The
family’s ability to recover quickly from a misfortune, trauma, or
transitional event causing or calling for change in the family’s patterns
of functioning" (italics in original) (McCubbin, McCubbin,
Thompson, Han & Allen, 1997) These two factors are identified by
McCubbin and his colleagues as elasticity and buoyancy. General resilience
factors include: family problem-solving communication, equality,
spirituality, flexibility, truthfulness, hope, family hardiness, family time
and routine, social support, and health.
- Resources: People are most likely to turn to
their families for support when in crisis. If social support is available
and accepted, it can reduce stress on the bereaved while simultaneously
allowing the helper to feel useful and more capable (Gilbert, 1995, 1996).
When family members turned to, and support given, family relationships were
generally strengthened (DeFrain & Ernst, 1978). Providing such support
is difficult, at best. Support frequently does not come easily, it may be
positive or negative in its impact, or it may not come at all. This is
because family members, in broad context, are coping with their own loss
issues as well as the loss issues of others in the family (Rosenblatt et al,
Family systems theory has been useful as a tool for creating explanations for patterns of behavior seen in families. It has come under increasing criticism, primarily because of its neglect of the individual in the family. In addition to the possible loss of the individual in family systems, suggested by others, Rosenblatt
(1994) has critiqued metaphors used in family systems theory while suggesting creative ways of reconceptualizing these metaphors. I strongly recommend his book.
Family as a Context for Creating and Maintaining Meaning
Grief takes place within a social context and in order to reconstruct the assumptive world and
create a view of a stable reality which can be trusted, one must compare his/her perception of
reality against the views of others. This social construction of their changing view of reality
appears to be an essential element of the grief process.
The family is an important resource in this social construction after loss. In fact, people are
embedded in an ongoing process of definition within the context of the family. On a daily basis,
family members validate each others' view of reality, often without awareness that this is going on.
As they encounter new information, they compare and attempt to confirm beliefs, opinions,
hunches, and theories. If family members confirm one another's subjective views of each other and
the situation, these subjective views are then given objective reality. By that I mean that what they
perceive comes to be seen as real because significant others also see it that way; if not, they
question their own or the other's perceptions and formation of an objective reality is made more
As you will recall from Unit 1, the need to create a new, trustworthy view of the world is a driving
force after a loss. Ambiguity is uncomfortable, even frightening, and the urge to find certainty and
to have it confirmed by others we trust is quite strong. Where a loss has occurred, if the family is
able to develop a shared view, ambiguity about who and/or what has been lost is reduced. Family members who can do this
have a better sense of how they are to cope with that loss and how they are to move forward with
their lives. Shared meaning also facilitates positive communication, provides structure and
meaning to their interactions, and serves as the basis for family coping.
An important point to remember here, as we address "shared" views, is that families do not
actually hold beliefs; families are a collection of individuals held together by, among other things, a
sense among its members of commitment, history and the promise of a future. So when we talk
about "shared views" in families, we are demonstrating the need for a socially confirmed reality.
As members of a family, we assume that others see things as we do based on our observation of
and interaction with other family members. We may, in fact, be inaccurate, but as long as our
belief in a shared view is not confronted by contrary information, that belief continues to be held. I
found in separate interviews with marital partners that they frequently made assumptions about
shared beliefs that were not held by the other partner. You may have already noted this, but this is
the central idea I present in the article "We've had the same loss, why don't we have the same
At the same time they feel a need for a shared view, family members may all find themselves
overwhelmed by the loss. Each has unique issues to address as they grieve and this diminishes
their ability to verify each others' view of the loss. Thus, paradoxically, family members actually
may be more likely, at first, to recognize differences, rather than the similarity they desire. One
possible explanation for this awareness of differences actually may be the drive to find a shared
view. The difference between what they expect and what they encounter may exaggerate the
As I have indicated above, one consistency in clinical and scholarly literature is that the drive for a
shared family view is powerful and a lack of one is painful for family members. Logically, the push
should be for consistency. Yet, trying to establish a single view may be counterproductive.
Consistent with Shapiro's view on family communication, it may be best to recognize that there
are aspects of the loss that are open to discussion and confirmation within the family and others
that are not. Figley (1989), in proposing the "family healing theory" as a single, unifying healing
theory, also recognizes that family members may agree to disagree about certain aspects of the
Family Development and Grief
Shapiro (1994, 1996) Takes a social developmental approach that is also sensitive
to cultural variation to how families develop. Family development addresses the
process of change in the family system. It takes place interactively with development
and change of family members. As individuals develop, they find themselves torn
between the connections of their family and a need to focus on their own, individual
needs. In a sense, they need to be a part of the family while also being apart
from it. This fits with the forces in the family system that simultaneously pull
between stability and change, mentioned above in the section on family systems.
Some changes in families are considered normative events because can be anticipated and
planned for (e.g., marriage, births, retirement). Others, non-normative events, can not be
anticipated, are unusual and result in unexpected change. These are more likely to be experienced
as crises and are more likely to result in the family life course being changed (e.g., divorce, death
of a child). Some events that could be considered as normative at one age (e.g., the natural death
of a parent when s/he is 85 years old and in ill health) might be experienced as untimely or out of
sequence at another time (e.g., the accidental death of a parent when s/he is 30 years old and in
A variety of models of normative change have been suggested, the most commonly mentioned of
which is the "family life-cycle" which moves from dating, through the rearing of children, to the
death of one spouse. Unfortunately, the number of families that meet this "normal" model is
extremely small, reducing the utility of this model. The complexity of family life within the context
of a wide variety of family forms suggests that it would be best to think of development as a
process of change and adaptation rather than a set of "normal" elements.
Because grief reconciliation is a long-term (some say never-ending) process, normal development
in the family may act as a complicating factor. This is due to the fact that, even as the family
members must cope with the loss, they also are going through developmental changes as
individuals and as a family. Various developmental tasks are tied to one's individual stage of
development as well as the stage of family development. Individuals will have different
developmental tasks to complete, as well (This will be addressed in greater detail when we discuss
developmental issues in the next few units.).
Families at different points in their evolution will have different strengths and weaknesses. A
newly married couple, for example, will have very different resources to draw on than a couple
who have been married for over 25 years.
Development of the family may be affected by a loss far into the future. Later life transitions or
other stressors may bring family members back to the pain and memories of earlier losses. Often I
have spoken with family members who talked about "supposed to" times or "should have been's"--
These are characterized by statements like "When the next Christmas came, it killed me. We were
supposed to be together at Christmas," or "I woke up in the morning, ready to go to Luci's
graduation with such mixed feelings. John wasn't there and he'd never be there. He was such a
good dad. He should have been there."
A loss can affect family development into future generations. Transgenerational effects of loss
have been explored by Bowen (1991), who found through his practice of therapy that unresolved
loss can have long-term implications for the family. His contention is that loss disrupts normal
family process and this can extend into future generations if it is not resolved. The experiences of
Holocaust survivors and their descendants are well-documented examples of transgenerational
The Family as a Resource after Loss
In addition to viewing the impacts of loss on families and family functioning, we can also look at
the family as it acts as a resource for individual family members. The family often is seen as the
first source of social support, and, in fact, people are most likely to turn to their families for
support when in crisis. Not all families are equally capable of providing this support. If social
support is available and accepted, it can reduce stress on the bereaved while simultaneously
allowing the helper to feel useful and more capable. Thus, if each family member is able to
communicate his/her need for support while, also indicating his/her availability to provide it,
family members can give each other that support as well as share in the collective coping
Although the family often serves as the primary source of support during times of great stress, the
reality is that providing such support is difficult, at best. More often than not, the ideal picture of
the family is tempered by pressures on the family and its members. Support frequently does not
come easily, it may be positive or negative in its impact, or it may not come at all. This is because
family members, in broad context, are coping with their own loss issues as well as the loss issues
of others in the family. Later in this course, when we cover roles and relationships, we will address
the nature of support in families and why family members actually may be the least capable of
Family Tasks of Grieving
Walsh and McGoldrick (1991) have proposed that, in order to successfully adapt to a loss, the
family must to achieve these tasks:
According to Walsh and McGoldrick, open communication is essential to completion of these tasks. This process may be slow, as each family member has strong needs and limited resources after a loss. Family members, who are already more emotional, may not recognize each other's different grief styles as legitimate. Rituals (e.g., funerals, religious rites, family holiday rituals) can be used to facilitate the process of recognition, reorganization, and reinvestment in the family. At the end of this course, we will address the use of ritual and ceremony in greater detail.
- Recognize the loss as real. Family members must acknowledge the loss as real while each
family member shares her/his grief. In order to do this, family members must share emotions
and thoughts with each other. Grief is an isolating experience; a sense of acceptance among
members would be promoted by displays of tolerance of differences in grief response by family
- Reorganize and reinvest in the family system. The family system is destabilized by the loss;
yet to continue to function, order and control must be reclaimed. Family members must
reconstruct what family means to them and the roles and related tasks of the person who has
died must be reassigned or given up. Family life may seem chaotic at this time and there may be
battles over how the family will be reorganized. Differences in grieving may contribute to a
feeling of being out-of-synch among family members. To get in-synch, families must reframe
their differences as strengths rather than weaknesses. The family must reinvest itself in normal
developmental evolution. Tasks that are carried out as a matter of course in families must again
be carried out in the family. This reclaiming of a normal life may be seen to some as
abandonment of the deceased loved one. Trying to avoid mention of the deceased may inhibit
communication, contributing to a sense of secretiveness in the family. Family members should
let each other hold onto the memory until releasing them feels voluntary.
We have several ways of looking at families as they grieve, all of which have strengths and
weaknesses. The systems view allows us to look at broader patterns in the family than we could see if we considered only the perspective of each family as an individual, without taking into account the broader family context within which they live. At the same time, we must retain our awareness of the individual, particularly when we consider the attribution of meaning as an element of the grief process.
Development, both of individuals and family systems, is one of the more important and
overlooked aspects of family grief. This may be related to the tendency among most family
systems theories to concentrate on the "here and now," rather than to think in historical terms.
Yet, grief extends far beyond the weeks, months, or even years, that it was traditionally seen to last and people do not enter a developmental vacuums as they work through their grief. Both interact to influence each other.
In looking at the tasks of grief described by Walsh and McGoldrick, one thing that strikes me is how important it is to have a stable, supportive family system in order to resolve the grief of the family members. Yet I know that pressures on the family system are tremendous after a loss. Family members must contend with outside as well as inside pressures and may feel that, somehow, there is a sense that they "deserve" their loss. They may even feel this way themselves, adding to their stress.
Finally, the readings for this unit listed a number of factors that contribute to the complexity of
grief in families. We will be using the remainder of this course to address several of these
Questions for Discussion
Post your response to the following questions on the Class Discussion
- Walsh and McGoldrick recommend open communication for successful completion
of the family tasks of grieving (listed above). The communication style in
some cultures, though, is one of veiled communication and limited direct sharing
of emotions (e.g., Asian cultures). Do you see this "task" focused model of
grieving to be appropriate in families from these cultures? How so?
- After reading and considering the readings and the lecture, respond to this
statements: "Families don't feel. Families don't think. Families don't grieve.
Only individuals do these things."
- Starting in this unit, I'd like you to go back at the end of the week and identify at least one "take away" message you took from the readings, lecture and class discussion.
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