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Families and Grief:
"We've Had the Same Loss, Why Don't We Have the Same Grief?
Family Meanings and Family Grief
by Kathleen R. Gilbert, Ph.D.

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 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." (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 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.

References Berger, P. & Luckman, T. (1966). The social construction of reality. New York: Doubleday.

Boss, P. (1991). Ambiguous loss. In F. Walsh & M. McGoldrick (Eds.), Living beyond loss: Death in the family. (pp. 164-175). New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Bowen, M. (1991). Family reactions to death. In F. Wa.sh & M. McGoldrick (Eds.), Living beyond loss: Death in the family. (pp. 79-92). New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and Loss, Vol. III. New York: Basic.

Broderick, C. G. (1993). Understanding family process: Basics of family systems theory. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Bugan, L. A. (1983). Childhood bereavement: Preventability and the coping process. In J. E. Schowalter, P. R. Patterson. M. Tallmer, A. H. Kutscher, S. V. Gallo, & D. Peretz (Eds). The child and death. (pp. 357-366). New York: Columbia University Press.

Detmer, C. M., Lamberti, J. W. (1991). Family grief. Death Studies, 15, 363-374.

Doka, K. (1989). Disenfranchised grief: Recognizing hidden sorrow, Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Figley, C. R. (1983). Catastrophes: An overview of family reactions. In C. R. Figley & H. I. McCubbin (Eds.). Stress and the family. Volume II: Coping with catastrophe. (pp. 3-20). New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Fowlkes, M. R. (1991). The morality of loss: The social construction of mourning and melancholia. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 27, 529-551.

Gelcer, E. (1986). Dealing with loss in the family context. Journal of Family Issues, 7, 315-335.

Gilbert, K. & Smart, L. (1992). Coping with fetal or infant loss: The couple's healing process, New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Hill, R. (1949). Families under stress. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Janoff-Bulman, R. (1992). Shattered assumptions: Towards a new psychology of trauma. New York: Free Press.

Jordan, J. (1990). Loss and family development: Clinical implications. Paper presented at the 98th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, (August, 1990), Boston, MA. Kelly, G. A. (1955). A theory of personality: The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Norton.

Marris, P. (1982). Attachment and society. In C. M. Parkes & J. Stevenson-Hinde (Eds.), The place of attachment in human behavior. (pp. 185-204). New York: Basic Books. McCubbin, H. I. & Patterson, J. M. (1983). The family stress process: The double ABCX model of adjustment and adaptation. Marriage and Family Review, 6(1/2), 2-38.

Miles, M. S. (1984). Helping adults mourn the death of a child. In H. Wass, & C. A. Corr (Eds.), Childhood and death. (pp. 219-239). Washington, D. C.: Hemisphere Pub. Corp.

Parkes, C. M. (1972). Bereavement: Studies of grief in adult life. New York: International University Press.

Patterson, J. M., & Garwick, A. W. (1992, November). Family meanings in family stress theory: The "c" factor. Paper presented at Theory Construction and Research Methodology Workshop, Annual Meeting of National Council on Family Relations, Orlando. FL.

Peppers, L. G. & Knapp, R. J. (1980). Motherhood and mourning: Perinatal death. New York: Praeger.

Raphael, B. (1983). The anatomy of bereavement. New York: Basic Books.

Reiss, D. (1981). The family's construction of reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

Rosenblatt, P. G. & Burns, L. H. (1986). Long-term effects of perinatal loss. Journal of Family Issues, (7), 237-253.

Rosenblatt, P. C., Spoentgen, P., Karis, T. A., Dahl, C., Kaiser, T., & Elde, C. (1991). Difficulties in supporting the bereaved, Omega, 23, 119-128.

Silver, R. L. & Wortman, C. B. (1980). Coping with undesirable life events. In J. Garber & M. E. P. Seligman (Eds). Human helplessness: Theory and applications. (pp. 279-340). New York: Academic.

Walsh, F., & McGoldrick, M. (1991). Loss and the family: A systemic perspective. In F. Walsh & M. McGoldrick (Eds.), Living beyond loss: Death in the family. (pp. 1-29). New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Wortman, C. B. & Silver, R. C. (1989). The myths of coping with loss, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57(3), 349-357.

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

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