Unit 6 -- Roles and Relationships

Grief in a Family Context --HPER F460/F560

Goals for this Unit

Family roles and relationships affect the grief of its members. At the same time, the process of grieving influence the ways in which roles and relationships are played out in families. This unit provides opportunities to explore the ways in which these interactions take place. We will also address the nature of continued relationships that extend beyond the loss, whether it is to death or not.


This week, we will be working as a group to develop a fuller appreciation of the interaction among family roles, relationship and grief. As you work on this unit, keep in mind your own images of roles in families and how you feel these roles should be played. These images influence the ways in which we perceive and respond to others' role performance and can get in the way of our ability to understand their behavior.



Klass, D. (1993). Solace and immortality: Bereaved parents' continuing bond with their children, Death Studies, 17, 343-368.

Rosenblatt, P. C. (1993) Grief that does not end. In In D. Klass, P. R. Silverman, & S. L. Nickman, Continuing bonds: New understandings of grief. (pp. 45-58), Wash. D. C.: Taylor & Francis.

Rosenblatt, P. C. (1993) Grief: The social context of private feelings. In M. S. Stoebe, W. Stroebe, R. O. Hansson (Eds.) Handbook of bereavement: Theory, research and intervention (pp. 102-111), Cambridge University Press.

Web Resources


This week, we'll consider the idea that the roles we play and relationship we have in families impact on our grief and, conversely, our grief impacts on how roles are carried out and we relate to others.

Roles in Families

"The world is a stage and we are but players..."

The idea of roles comes to us from the theater and there are times when we are very aware we are playing roles, and may even feel we are "playing at" roles, acting parts that do not feel altogether natural to us. Family roles serve as guidelines for behavior and involve position, status and tasks that contribute to the maintenance of the family. While the roles we play restrict what we can do in different situations, they also make it easier to know what is expected of us.

If I was to ask you to draw up a list of family roles, you likely would start with clearly identifiable kinship roles like: mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, etc. Loss affects assumptions we hold about role performance, as we see with parents parents who find that they are unable to protect their child from harm or watch as their child engages in self-destructive behavior.

Another way of looking at roles is in terms of the functions they serve: nurturer, disciplinarian, scapegoat, gatekeeper, victim, etc. For the family to operate after a loss, roles have to be reallocated, that is, they must either be reassigned to another family member or the functions of those roles must be taken over by others in the family. As we saw in Unit 2, the tasks necessary for families to adapt to a loss included reorganization and reinvestment in a revised family system and an important aspect of that is role performance reorganization.

After a loss, the patterns of role performance that the family maintained before the loss will be the initial starting point after a loss. If these patterns are ineffective for maintenance of the family, pressures will arise on family members to revise their role performance and to "fill gaps" left by the absent family member. Roles will be redefined for the family members, based on the distribution of power in the family and the perceived needs and strengths of individuals.

Roles, such as the griever role, along with related expectations are triggered by the loss, and these can cause tremendous conflict in families. Members of the families will experience their grief at different times, in different ways. At the same time, one or more of them may feel they should grieve in the same way, may compete with each other, may feel a need to protect others, or may feel the best way to cope with loss is to withdraw. One couple I interviewed provide a good example of the conflict in role expectations. Each of them had expectations of how the other should grieve--based on their observations of their own parents. The wife expected her husband to act like her father would in a loss while the husband expected his wife to act like his mother. Both of them felt as though they were being reasonable and could not see why the other was being so unreasonable.

In the reading by Rosenblatt on the social context of private feelings, he discussed interactive role performance in families. He indicated that, in a crisis, as when an identifiable loss occurs, the family often comes together to provide mutual support, solidarity, and practical assistance to each other. Family members may feel contradictory pressures a they try to meet the expectations of roles, while their resources become more and more limited. For example, as they grieve their own loss, family members may feel a need to act as comforter to others in the family. They may also find themselves competing for the role of the most deserving of support, as when the bereaved mother of a deceased man and his widow compete for the role of "having suffered the most."

Roles and role performance are part of the essential nature of the family. They are interactive with relationships in the family. We relate to each other in the context of roles; role expectations are based, at least in part, on relationships in which we are involved.

Relationships and Grief

As researchers and as service providers, we have a tendency to "atomize" families. By that I mean we look at the impact of loss on nuclear, and to a lesser extent, on the "stem,"i.e., direct lineage, families. We tend not to look at other family groupings, like adult siblings as grieving pairs, or the impact of a loss of one's aunt, uncle, or cousin. Yet, contrary to a modern American image, most people in the US live in modified extended families, that is within 50 miles of at least one member of their extended family. Many cultural groups in the U.S. maintain strong and ongoing relationships with members of their extended families, distributing family roles and relationships more broadly than would be done in the nuclear family. We discussed this in greater detail in Unit 3, which is on Culture. Keeping these ideas in mind, however, you might want to maintain this broader picture of "family" as you continue think about the nature of family relationships and the family system.

Relationships after a loss are multiple and complex. They evolve as new information is gathered and novel emotions are dealt with. Because grief is a long-term process, relationships will continue to change long after an initial loss has taken place.

Relationships also are imperfect. We can never have a complete understanding of another person, nor can that person have a complete understanding of us. However, by interacting with each other, we develop a sense of shared knowledge and feelings. With the loss of someone significant to us, we may feel that the relationship with that person has ended, yet we have an internal relationship with that person and that relationship can evolve and change.

With a loss of a single individual, more than a single relationship is affected. At minimum, the bereaved must contend with changes in:

A common belief about grief is that, the stronger the relationship, the greater the sense of loss and the more intense the grief. Bugan (1979) found that the closer the relationship and the greater the sense of preventability of the loss (regardless of how realistic that perception is), the greater the intensity of one's grief. An example of a nonrational perception can be seen in the statement made to me by a mother whose daughter died of a genetic disorder, "It was my genes that killed her. I should have known. I should have checked. Mothers should know these things." Curiously, it may be that these irrational beliefs are the most tenacious and the least amenable to change, simply because they are  irrational.

An important point about the nature of these close relationships is that they do not need to be warm and close. The "baggage" of a close, conflicted relationship predicts a more difficult grief resolution. The relationship can not be repaired by mutual effort, leaving the bereaved with issues that are not easily resolved.

Just as bonds continue beyond death, they also begin before birth, and in some cases, before conception. There is now substantial information to support the idea that the death of a child in pregnancy affects family interaction. The replacement child phenomenon is another way in which bonds can transcend time. In this case, a child born after the death of another child is expected to behave as the other child would have.

Bonds formed in loss also can become a family theme. Much work has been done to document the intergenerational transmission of unresolved grief that resulted from losses that resulted from the Holocaust.

Supportive Relationships

A common finding in research is that the quality of social support is central to successful movement through one's initial acute grief. There is a need for an empathic, supportive community that will contribute to the bereaved person's understanding of the loss and to a sense of a secure, trustworthy social network. He or she does not need dramatic displays of support; they can be comparatively small--the mention of a deceased child's name, a hug, the provision of a meal for the bereaved family.

Rosenblatt (in your reading on the social context of private feelings), described the natural tendency of family systems to attempt to return to the previous relationship system after a loss, with a concurrent reduction in the ability for the family to maintain the system. Thus, although the natural tendency of family members is to turn to others in the family for support after the loss, support may be difficult to maintain. This is because other family members are already experiencing their own grief--and may also expect to receive support. The end result may be that they grieve the original loss and the loss of the family system they knew and believed they could depend on.

One common result of a loss is the isolation of the bereaved. In some cases, this is a self-induced. In other cases, they will be isolated by others in their social network. This isolation may, in fact, be unintentional, a byproduct of people, unsure of how to respond, attempting to respect the privacy of the bereaved. They may also blame the bereaved for their loss state. An irrational fear of contagion may also contribute to the isolation. Remember from Unit 5, the superstitious image of adults fearing discussion of death.

Bereaved individuals can be hyper-sensitive to comments of others, seeing them as unhelpful, possibly even accusatory. This may also be intentional or unintentional. It may be that whatever the intent of the potential helper was, the bereaved will hear a negative message. Curiously, unhelpful social support may ultimately be helpful, if the bereaved individual is able to use it in a positive way. One example of this is seen in a woman I interviewed who had lost her fourth child, also her fourth son, six weeks after birth. She described how a neighbor approached her at her son's grave side and said, "Well, at least it wasn't the little girl you always wanted." The bereaved mom said that, at first, she was horrified and furious that this woman would say such an insensitive thing. But then, she said, "But, you know, it was good. I was told I needed something to hate to get over this and I couldn't hate the doctors, I couldn't hate my husband, I couldn't hate God. I hadn't found anything to hate. But I could hate her. So I did." The mom laughed and said, "So, she helped me."

Grief in families is naturally complex, involving disagreements, alliances, and negotiation, reconfiguration of family roles and contradictions in expectations about behaviors. It may be, as Rosenblatt et al. (1991) found, that others in the family are the worst people to turn to at the time of loss, simply because the loss is equally fresh for all of them. The situation is never easy, and the grief of one can set off the grief of others. At the same time, they may also give each other a sense of perspective on the loss that they may not be able to get anywhere else. If they are able to move beyond their relationship "baggage" and do not depend solely on each other, they may find that their relationship is enriched by their mutual loss.

Advice for Supporters

Acting as a supporter for the bereaved is difficult and confusing. In the reading, Helping a Friend in Grief, a list of guidelines is provided to you. The following list dovetails nicely with that list. It was offered by people I have interviewed in my research, who were asked what advice they would give to potential supporters of bereaved parents:

A Continuing Relationship with the Deceased

You may have noticed when you read Unit 1 that models of grief often ignore cultural and spiritual beliefs. Rosenblatt, in his reading titled "Grief that Does not End," addresses the ongoing nature of grief. One way in which this is seen that I would like to mention here is the concept of ancestor worship. You've had opportunities to read about the way this is done in some of the Multicultural Links you read for Unit 3 (and available through the sitemap). The way we will describe it here is as a continuing relationship with a deceased relative, one in which the memory of the deceased is treated with reverence--whether it is as a loving connection or one that is dealt with in fear. This may also be through a sense of the deceased's presence--which may be identified by others as hallucinations, wishful thinking, or some other sort of evidence that the individual is unsuccessful in resolving grief and "abandoning the lost love object." The deceased may appear in a dream; the bereaved may sense the dead person's presence in particular rooms or under particular situations. The web readings by Walters and Morse present two very good discussions of this phenomenon.

Others tend to be uncomfortable with this phenomenon if it continues any longer than they feel is "healthy." And this may translate to months, weeks, or even days. As a society, we seem more comfortable with an elderly bereaved person maintaining this sort of connection, possibly because "they have so little to look forward to." We are far less tolerant of someone perceived as having a future or the potential of another relationship maintaining such a connection. They are derided as "holding on to the past," "not letting go," or simply, "losing it." And yet, anthropologists such as Steadman, Pulman and Tilly (1996) see religious rituals as a means of communiction between the living and the dead. In several of our readings for this week (both anthology and web readings), the nature of this continuing relationship and things that are beyond scientific explanation, are discussed. The assigned reading by Klass addresses the phenomenon of a "continued relationship with the deceased" very well and in great detail. 

Questions for Discussion

Post your response to the following questions on the Class Discussion. This week, I are looking at a complex variety of views of roles and relationships that occur in response to grief and/or are affected by  grief. I want to encourage you to begin to post earlier than usual, so we can build on each others' ideas and develop a fuller picture of the contextual nature of grief.

  1. People who are in a position to provide support and maintain a relationship often find this to be extremely difficult. What are your thoughts about Rosenblatt et al.'s contention that families often are the least able to provide support? What can be done to help them?
  2. What do you think are the cultural implications of the phenomenon of the continuing relationship with the deceased (Klass's reading is extremely helpful here. Rosenblatt's readings may also be helpful here)? What are your thoughts on the concept of "ancestor worship"? Are you aware of how other cultures view the idea of maintaining a connection with the deceased? Do you know of someone from a different culture who you can ask about it? What are the implications of cultural variations in the view of this phenomenon?
  3. The maintenance of a continuing bond is a very common (and often hidden, because it is censured) phenomenon. Yet, if it is common, why does it make people so uncomfortable? What are the implications for the "pathologization of normal"? When (if ever) would you say it becomes pathological? How would you respond (or have you responded) to others you know who tell you they have experienced this phenomenon?

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