GriefNet Library: Families and Grief
"We've Had the Same Loss, Why Don't We Have the Same Grief?
Family Meanings and Family Grief
Kathleen R. Gilbert, PhD
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
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 families.
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."
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
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 positive.
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.
Department of Applied Health Science 812-855-5209 (voice)
Poplars 619 812-855-7092 (fax)
Bloomington, IN 47405
27 March 1995
Rivendell Resources and Kathleen R. Gilbert grant anyone the right to
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Last update: 21st January 2001
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